Amanda Palmer is a born performer. Even people who watched her recent and widely discussed TED talk/performance without having already heard of her or her bands should be able to notice this. The way she’s dressed, the way she struts confidently across the stage with her shoulders wide — she isn’t your average TED type; she’s used to being looked at and being onstage.
So it’s not surprising that she begins her talk with a short anecdote about the time she spent working as a street performer, accepting whatever donations people would give her — donations, she notes, that were pretty predictable in amount. Once her band signed to a label but had trouble making the companies’ suggested sales figures, she took to the streets (more figuratively this time) and launched a Kickstarter campaign that ended up making over a million dollars. The lesson? Don’t make people pay for music. You should “let them.”
She’s taken this logic to her shows and beyond, where she collects money, personally, from audience members (one of whom confessed he’d downloaded her band’s album illegally and wanted to set things right). She’s even taken this idea of letting people do things for her into other realms. Communicating on social media, she lets people give her places to stay, extra equipment, and so on. Palmer even tells us, proudly, that she let a poor family help her by allowing her and her band to sleep in their beds while the family slept together on the couch (since they didn’t have any extra room). This, she tells us, is “fair.” People have supported her so much when the standard industry practices failed her, and the lesson to be learned is that people “want to help,” if only we’re willing to ask for it. This might seem like a beautiful idea, but it’s probably not.
Artists have already criticized Palmer for calling for a different business model, one which they think devalues artists and artistic work by not requiring a set price and instead “lets” people pay what they want. Even artists without tons of fans might still deserve to make some kind of living, it seems. That critique is interesting and important, but it also misses the central character of what Palmer is advocating. Rather than just a new business model for artistic/cultural production, what Palmer is actually calling for, and living out, is a new form of exploitation.
What Palmer sees as people willing to help her are actually people who want to benefit, however tangentially, from her social capital. In a celebrity-obsessed culture, being famous has value, and it’s this value (not the supposed value of her music or art), that people are interested in acquiring when they let her come to their place or use their guitar or hand her money when she comes around with her hand out at a show. She’s right, people do want to help, but they don’t seem to want to help many other people as much as they want to help Amanda Palmer, the celebrity. This is why she made $60 as an unknown street performer and makes millions as a well-known band leader.
She, herself, is the product. She is the thing that people are paying to get access to, and in encouraging this model she is not only exploiting others but also exploiting herself. But what’s the problem with any of this? Isn’t it right to support an artist whose work you think is meaningful? Plus, how bad could it be when all parties involved are willing?
It’s the willingness that is so troubling, the willingness to waste their time and energy and money trying to acquire proximity to social capital. And while I do believe artists should be supported, this belief, ideally, would be because people value the art, not because they have some fetish about being near the person who creates the art.
What makes this form of exploitation particularly clever is that it doesn’t look like exploitation — it looks like happy people sharing a good time. On the surface it might even seem anti-capitalist, but when looked at more closely, capitalism’s power to infuse itself in all modes of social interaction, from sex to the grocery-store checkout line, is on full display here. And while there’s something refreshing and sincere about Palmer’s willingness to participate so vigorously on capitalism’s front lines, the sad part is that she doesn’t seem to realize what she’s doing. She mistakes her exploitation of others as a way for helping them, and the people she exploits, rather than feeling taken advantage of, might say they’re having a good time. But above all, we can see that Palmer is exploiting herself — that she’s all too happy to offer herself up as a product, which for a celebrity or a rock star, is not anything new or novel.