Strung Out In Heaven: Amanda Palmer on Patronage vs. Commerce, Art as Non-Ownable Nourishment, and the Story Behind Her Bowie String Quartet Tribute
“People don’t trust you without getting to know you and watching you work and seeing you make good on your word.”
By Maria Popova
On a gray January morning, I was taking a run through a London cemetery, the BBC in my ear, when news of David Bowie’s death broke. It was astonishing to observe the immediate and intense global outpour of grief for this artist who had inspired and emboldened generations of creative rebels. Among them was friend and kindred spirit Amanda Palmer, who was moved to channel her mourning into a spontaneous secret project now released as Strung Out In Heaven: A Bowie String Quartet Tribute — six sublime covers of beloved Bowie songs with string arrangements by Jherek Bischoff and vocals by Amanda, featuring appearances by Neil Gaiman, Anna Calvi, and John Cameron Mitchell, and original artwork for each of the tracks by six different visual artists.
Because Amanda’s art, like Brain Pickings, is supported via direct patronage from her audience, she had the agility to release this record on a remarkable timeline, translating an idea into art in less than two weeks — a pace that would have been impossible under a traditional record label.
The project is also a supremely heartening testament to what art can do and be in its highest, purest form — born out of an artist’s irrepressible creative impulse to pay homage to her departed hero, giving voice to her audience’s shared grief and gratitude, funded entirely by that audience, and released back into the world under a true art-for-everybody ethos at only $1 per download. More than half of the proceeds go back to the David Bowie estate and all remaining proceeds from the first month of sales go toward the cancer research wing of Tufts Medical Center in memory of Bowie.
On the day of the release, I sat down with Amanda for a conversation about the rewards and challenges of replacing the commercial model of art with a patronage model, the indivisible unity of the artist’s life and the artist’s art, and how the profound cultural shifts since Bowie’s heyday have changed the way artists and audiences connect around art.
MP: A few years ago, Bowie answered the Proust Questionnaire. When asked who his real-life heroes were, he responded: “The consumer.” Perhaps he was just being facetious, but in a way it’s a rather literal answer — while he made a career out of being a sort of space oddity, a creative weirdo not even marching to his own drum but inventing a whole new space-instrument to march to, he was also very much conscious of his reach and aware of his audience, incredibly savvy in engineering commercial appeal, and he even pioneered the commercial debt security model known as a “celebrity bond.”
And now here you come, paying tribute to Bowie, as an artist who has replaced the consumer model with the patron model. You too are doing your very own thing, making art out of being a space oddity, and yet you’re funding it in an entirely different way. Were you conscious of the contrasts and parallels between the two of you while recording this EP?
AP: I actually was, because the minute he died and everyone was doing their Bowie think-pieces and recirculating all of his old interviews, one of the things that came at me was people flagging me down and saying, “Oh, look, David Bowie presaged everything that you’re doing now.” David Bowie looked into the Magic 8 ball of the Internet and could see where everything was headed, 15 years ago — because David Bowie was really smart.
And so when David Bowie said that his hero is the consumer, I think a lot of it semantics — how is he defining “hero,” and how is he defining “consumer”? Because I think David Bowie and I, in the Venn diagram of music and performance world, have mostly overlap. But, like many of my other heroes — like Morrissey, like Robert Smith, like … name a titan of the dark nineties — he learned how to learn a system that is now defunct, and he became an expert in using the music industry, as they all did.
I was recently talking to Hasit Shah from Harvard’s Berkman Center, who is writing an article about Prince and the Internet for NPR. We had this long conversation about why everyone is constantly looking at Prince and saying, “Uhhh, he’s a grumpy old man.” I look at that entire era of musicians whom we all worshipped for decades, who are now they’re getting into their sixties. A lot of people look at them as grumpy old people, but I look at them as a kind of tragedy — because they spent their lives becoming fluent in a language that’s no longer spoken. And it’s no wonder that they’re upset — they spent their lives learning how to game a particular system that then collapsed as soon as they were ready to retire. If you were going to make music in 1985, you looked at the system and figured out what your options were. Very few people decided to change the system. 99.99999% said, “okay, I’m going to find a record label to sign with” — because that was the method of distribution in 1985.
MP: This makes me think of Simone Weil, who wrote in the early 1940s: “When someone exposes himself as a slave in the market place, what wonder if he finds a master?”
AP: Prince famously wrote “SLAVE” on his face when he was trying to get off his record label.
MP: How perfect! But now, the “consumer” who was Bowie’s hero is in many ways behaving like a slave in the marketplace and finding a master, in terms the kinds of things we consent to as audiences in an increasingly commercial culture.
AP: Well, yes, but if you look at tens of thousands of years of human history as three people — the audience, the artist, and the guy at the door — there have been countless iterations of how that can work. The interesting thing about our relationship with art after the emergence of music as recorded artifact is that we can “have” it — we can own it. We forget constantly that this relationship is really new. Music in the past was not haveable — it was playable, it was sharable, you could buy sheet music. Our whole relationship with music as something you can hold in your hand — you can put on your record player, you can play on your iPhone — is very new. And we’re all very confused right now, but I do think the pendulum is eventually going to swing back into the world of music being not something you have and own but something you share and you convene around, music as community glue. And that’s going to mean the simultaneous death of the superstar — it’s going to mean the death of the David Bowie types who can sell millions and millions and millions of records and be glorified by a system that no longer exists.
MP: What’s interesting is that there was another turning point that paralleled the phenomenon of haveness — the moment at which music became haveable — and that’s the emergence of the mass market and capitalism’s transactionalist culture as related to the arts. That’s also when patronage plummeted and the man at the door became advertising and its kindred forms of commercial middlemanning between artist and audience. And the backlash you’re describing, this return to non-haveable experiences, is paralleled by a backlash of the audience moving toward a patronage model — you being a trailblazing example — and telling the man at the door to go away, refusing to allow a middleman to meddle in the experience of art. I wonder how these two shifts fed into and off of each other.
AP: It’s a really good question — it’s so fascinating, now. Even five years ago, people had ideas about where the money was going to come from in the music industry and in music culture and to the artists, and even just post-Napster, people’s theories have been really wrong. I made the case early on that if you set the Internet up like the street, music could work a lot like busking — because your average appreciator wants to pay, which is what you’ve found with Brain Pickings. And a lot of it is context — personness and not corporateness.
MP: And the values that you’re supporting in addition to the art — which brings us to the curious question of people bringing the market mentality to the patronage model. You experienced this recently with a fan.
AP: Right. A woman tweeted that she had withdrawn her patronage from my Patreon because she was “livid” that I was donating “her” money — also known as my salary — to the Bernie Sanders campaign, vocally. It turned into a discussion of whether or not she would feel the same way if I was an iTunes artist and she was just throwing down a dollar for my latest single and I was then taking the profit and giving it to anything — any charitable cause, any politician — because that would be my prerogative.
What I found was what I expected to find — there wasn’t a single person on Twitter who took the position of this woman, in part because I’ve been trying to educate and expound on what patronage is going to mean now, in these Internet days.
MP: Perhaps the pivotal educational moment came when you did your magnificent BBC open letter to the fan who said she wanted to withdraw her patronage now that you were going to be a mother, because she had signed on to support your art and not your baby’s diapers, and you wrote beautifully about how your art is inseparable from your baby’s diapers — from your life as a human being in its entirety.
AP: Right. The blurred line between the artist and the art and the marketing of the art is all just living in one very messy place. People have, since the early days of my career and later through Kickstarter, been giving me money not just for the art but for the whole story — for my writing on the blogs, and my existence.
One very interesting way to think about it is this: If what my patrons wish for me in their $10 patronage is that I spend my time and energy making art, then if I don’t buy diapers, I have to spend my whole day just cleaning baby shit off the floor. I’d have no time to listen to string arrangements and go into a studio. So it is the same thing — it is all one thing.
And if you wanted to clock the hours that I have spent as communicator, helper, therapist, sharer of ideas with my fans over Twitter and Facebook, it would probably log in the thousands of hours. But I consider that part of the you-ness and the me-ness of what our patrons are paying for. It comes down to this: I want to make everything, I won’t want to work within a nickel-and-diming capitalist system, and I want you patrons to just generally pay my salary — which is where things get very complicated with the Patreon model, because a lot of it is somewhat random. For instance: I’m going to put out a record with my dad this year, and it costs too much time and energy to just put out as one thing, but do I put it out as five things and charge $150,000 for it? That seems a little extreme. Do I put it up as two things, do I split it up into three? And when I start thinking this way, I realize, I have complete control.
I could sit there and take Polaroids and draw on them and put one up a day, and just charge my fans. They would probably stop trusting me and go away. I talked about this so much when the Kickstarter happened — which happened because people trusted me. And then there was conversation number two, which was about why people trusted me, and that became The Art of Asking, because it’s not a two-sentence answer. But they trusted me because I toured the world for ten years and got to know them — and people don’t trust you without getting to know you and watching you work and seeing you make good on your word.
MP: Which is something much larger than art as sellable artifact.
AP: True. Which brings us back to the art-as-consumable-thing question. Years ago, someone told me about an art service that would repaint classical art in a color scheme that better suits the decor of your house.
MP: Starry Night with a little more green to match the drapes?
AP: Exactly. A bizarro-world example of art as product. And one of the questions that keeps coming up in my life, and kept coming up endlessly in the Kickstarter, was people asking whether I feel like I would be beholden to my fans — which is another way of asking whether I’m afraid of turning my audience into consumers. And that was so outside the realm of my imagination that it hadn’t even occurred to me to be worried about that until journalists started asking all the time. And my answer was always “no.” I’m not worried about that because I don’t have that kind of relationship with my audience — they’ve given me their support not because they have an expectation of a particular product that they want to arrive in their inbox, but because they have a curiosity about where my path is going to take me and they want to see what’s created.
MP: It seems like what you’re describing is a shift from an ethic of expectation, which is the market model, to an ethic of enthusiasm, which is the patronage model — people are just excited to support the artist and to offer up that enthusiasm in tangible form, as a relationship.
AP: Right. But the boundaries are also very fluid. When I pitched my audience Patreon, I pitched them a mystery into which we were all going to be going. But, as their art-maker and enthusiasm-provider, there’s a part of me that just wants to make them happy and delight them and surprise them and impress them and emotionally challenge them. And there’s a part of me that takes delight in finding new ways to do that rather than just sitting down and writing another delightful, emotionally challenging ukulele song every two weeks for which I get paid — that would be so fucking boring.
And this, actually, takes us full-circle to Bowie — because Bowie, like a certain lineage of shape-shifting art-world artists who didn’t just follow the script, fed off doing the unexpected while not departing so far off to the left that they lost their audience. And that’s a dance that you do with expectation — a dance between your audience’s expectation and the awareness that if you give them what they actually expect, you’d lose them.
It makes me think of Henry Ford’s famous remark that if he had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses — and instead he made a car. His job wasn’t to give them what they wanted — it was to give them what they needed.
MP: And yet the commercial music industry today is very much a “faster horses” model — song after song after song, algorithmically optimized to refine what people already know and want. The tricky thing happens when the audience begins expecting a product — the artist can thrive and grow only when people expect a process. The market model is predicated on product and the patronage model on process.
AP: Getting away from art-as-product reminds me of the Bread and Puppet manifesto: “Art is not business! It does not belong to banks & fancy investors. Art is food. You can’t eat it but it feeds you.”
MP: Or, as Susan Sontag put it in 1964: “Art is a form of nourishment (of consciousness, the spirit).”
AP: Yes. It’s the idea that we look at our art-providers as having a logical and valuable job — like the shoemaker and the doctor and the teacher — the idea that being a musician is just an ordinary job, as opposed to being an extraordinary job with terrible odds of success, that whole paradigm of how difficult it is to get a job in the arts. Instead, we’re going to the old way of looking at art and talent, which is that if you want to take that on as a job, you will train and you’ll get good at it and you’ll be appreciated, and maybe you won’t be fabulously wealthy, but nobody should be fabulously wealthy — not if we’re all living in a community where things are basically fair.
MP: In a way, the patronage model is allowing for precisely that — translating the appreciation of an artist into a tangible recognition of that very ordinary, very important job of feeding the soul of the people by feeding the artist. Which brings us back to the Bowie project.
AP: When David Bowie died, I wanted to immerse myself in David Bowie and give myself a work project, because I had been so immersed in motherhood and was struggling with reconciling that with my identity as an artist. I wanted desperately to work, but had cleared my plate of projects because I didn’t know what my life as a mother would be like and I needed to make room for that. So I had this semi-vacuum of time where I was coming to terms with mother-schedule, but I looked at the Bowie tribute and realized I could do most of the project from home, on my computer, in collaboration with Jherek, and I could spend two days at the studio and find a babysitter. I looked at the entire project and thought it was manageable, I could do it right now, which is the way I like to work — fast and furious and surprising and very chaotic and manic.
Jherek was on board to go with the pace, and I knew that if we waited seven months to put out our David Bowie tribute, it just wouldn’t feel the same. It is of the moment, and it was of the moment to sit on the couch and listen to Bowie songs with Neil [Gaiman] and read my patrons’ favorite Bowie songs and go on hunts for obscure tracks and sit there with the baby between me and Neil, immersing ourselves in this artist’s world — because all that felt like part of the project, it felt like part of the patronage.
That was our way of mourning, and that became our ritualistic David Bowie funeral.
MP: But that pace, that surrender to the moment, wouldn’t have been possible under a traditional label.
AP: Right. What I love about Patreon is that I can now work at the pace that I require. If I were doing this at the pace of my old record label, I would have called them in an excited fury and they would now be sitting down in a boardroom, in a meeting, saying, “If Amanda wants to do this David Bowie tribute, should we try to slot it in release week November 2016, in between Slipknot and Nickleback?” So there is a staggering liberation in being able to just take a pile of money and make the music happen. And this album won’t make a lot of money — it’s not going to be sold in stores, it’s only going to be available digitally for $1, more than half of which goes to David Bowie’s publishing estate. But I didn’t do it because I wanted to make a lot of money — I did it because I wanted to do it and I wanted to pay for it and I wanted it to be sustainable. And, hopefully, my Patreon will grow and grow and grow — and I’ll continually spend the entire budget back on the art, but that’s what I always wanted to do anyway.
MP: But that’s the point — that’s what patronage is.
AP: That is the point. It’s about making enough money to make art, and making enough money to live, and making enough money to give to Bernie Sanders if I wanted to. Actually, this is going to be a very interesting question for me in the next five or ten years — how transparent am I expected to be and how demanding are my patrons going to be, because none of us have ever done this before and there is no rulebook.
MP: Well, in the immortal words of the Talking Heads, we’ll “make it up as we go along.”
Published February 5, 2016