SXSW 2013: Amanda Palmer is worried about PJ Harvey

The ukulele can save us, Amanda Palmer sang at SXSW in Austin, Texas.
(Todd Martens / Los Angeles Times)

AUSTIN, Texas -- After about three hours of early Wednesday panels at the South by Southwest music festival and conference that touched on various revenue streams open to artists -- be it Fitz & the Trantrum’s Michael Fitzpatrick touting the benefits of licensing to commercials or singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer waving the crowd-sourcing flag -- a question, finally, was put to a label executive. What’s in it for you?

“I was going to ask you the same question. I don’t know,” said Martin Goldschmidt, managing director of indie Cooking Vinyl.

His label released the most recent Palmer record, “Theater Is Evil,” of which more than 24,000 copies were sold via Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign. What’s more, Palmer is selling the album herself in the U.S. on her own site, allowing fans to pay what they want, including nothing. Palmer’s 2012 Kickstarter campaign raised what was then a record-breaking $1,192,793 on the crowd-funding site, of which zero trickled back to Cooking Vinyl.


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“We got the deal wrong because we didn’t participate in the income of it, but that’s by the by,” said Goldschmidt. “I justify our place in the food chain on this because we released the record in [30-plus] countries.”

Yet the bulk of Palmer’s sales haven’t come from a traditional label. “Theater Is Evil” has sold about 80,000 copies worldwide, said Vickie Starr, the owner of Girlie Action Media & Marketing, the management/publicity quarterbacks of Palmer’s team. Goldschmidt said Cooking Vinyl has tallied 8,000 of those sales.

“Labels are a lot of people who should optimistically be helping artists,” said Palmer. “What a label used to be is not what a label is now. Artists just need help. It used to be the only ones capable of helping them was a label. Now you’re seeing them get help in all sorts of creative ways.”

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But the new business opportunities are not without controversy. After Palmer raised the nearly $1.2 million on Kickstarter, she was put under a microscope as to how that money was being put to use. She came under fire after asking for “professional-ish” string and horn musicians to join her and her band onstage for free.

“After I publically made a lot of money, some musicians unions were very upset that I would ask my fans to do stuff for free because I was rich,” she said, with more than a hint of sarcasm. “I don’t think that was about the Kickstarter. I think that was about my image… Those are bigger ethical questions. When I appeared to have a lot of money, which is ironic because I didn’t, how is work valued? You need to let the artists make those decisions.”

The panel did attempt to explain how the Kickstarter money had been used, a topic Palmer has written about extensively prior to coming to Austin. For instance, she noted that the vinyl edition of the album, which was given to fans who pledged $50 on Kickstarter, cost $85 to ship to Australia.

“It’s important to point out that we made the shipping free for all over the world,” Palmer said. “That turned out to be not such a good idea.”

Palmer has also pledged to stage 35 house parties on five continents by the end of 2013, full costs of which weren’t factored into the Kickstarter campaign. For an artist who has sold fewer than 100,000 records, Palmer’s Kickstarter success was positioned as more of a successful promotional campaign than a way forward.

Palmer acknowledged that not all artists are willing to engage in her level of communication with fans. Palmer, for instance, has 873,995 followers on Twitter, and has logged more than 43,000 tweets, according to stats presented by Girlie Action at the panel. Justin Bieber has more than 35 million followers, but has tweeted much less -- 21,000 times.

Then there’s a whole category of artists who prefer a greater sense of mystery.

“I would, personally, be kind of disappointed if PJ Harvey started tweeting all the time,” Palmer said. “It’s just not PJ Harvey…I’ve built a personality of stripping off my clothes and running around all the time.”

Palmer worried that the emphasis today on social media, crowd-sourcing and the like may make it harder for artists to gain traction if they avoid it. “Is [Harvey] going to be OK?” Palmer asked. “Is it going to be a harder future for artists who don’t roll up their sleeves?”

Just what kind of compromises -- and sacrifices -- an artist is willing to make to be financially successful was starting to emerge as a mini SXSW theme. Earlier, Fitz & the Tantrums’ Fitzpatrick declared that “writing for advertisements is the best gig for a musician,” but it doesn’t always mean you can look yourself in the mirror.

Amos Newman, head of music and visual media for William Morris Endeavor, was tasked with finding an artist to score the HBO series “Newsroom.” His assignment was to find a theme that was similar to the work of “Wall-E” composer Thomas Newman.

“All the temp music was by Thomas Newman,” said the William Morris agent. “They wanted this guy to knock off Thomas Newman. It was a really frustrating experience. The guy ended up quitting.”

Stephan Altman, a partner in Venice Beach-located commercial agency Mophonics, cut to the chase: “You have to sell out to play the game, but you don’t sell out your authenticity.”

And as Palmer pointed out in a panel-closing song, it could be worse. Playing a ukulele, she espoused the benefits of learning the toy-like instrument, noting that learning the ukulele takes the same amount of time as it does to make a pipe bomb.

“The ukulele,” she sang, “saves the people.” Just don’t count on it to always pay the bills.


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