Amanda 'Fucking' Palmer (Part 2)
Kyle Bylin, Associate Editor -- Read Part 1
(Part 2 of 3) With the advent of the Internet fan mail has continued to shift from a passive to active medium, in that they are no longer reaching out to ‘the artist in the clouds,’ but to the real person behind the music. As well as, replying and acknowledging the magnitude of responses is somewhat more manageable feat.
What made you choose to embrace fan-mail to the extent of publishing your home address on your website, how has it worked out, and has the nature of fan-mail has changed over the years?
Amanda Palmer: I'm so lucky in this regard as well because my band was built very slowly. Fan mail, in the old days of 2001, came almost exclusively via email, and I loved responding to every email personally for the first year or so of the band. But this was back when there were only 20-30 emails a week that came in through dresdendolls.com. At a certain point I wasn't able to answer everything, so I gave the job of filtering it to my manager's assistant...
with strict marching orders that EVERYTHING had to be read and that its receipt into our world HAD to be acknowledged. I would get the fan mails in digest form and read them over, knowing that if something was urgent, my management would send it. And I would scan things at random and answer people if I felt moved to.
Nowadays my assistant reads all the fan mail (there's a lot of it) and forwards anything she knows I'll want to read and makes sure everybody gets answers if they have questions. And I’ve started using the blog comments and the twitter feed as my randomizer instead. The thing that's so brilliant about twitter is that nobody demands a response, since they know the feed is too huge to merit my complete attention, but everyone is very happy to get one, and I do try to scan frequently and connect with people. The thing that makes it a few steps more awesome than simply posting Q&A responses on my blog is that it's happening RIGHT NOW, it's the immediacy. It's the fact that these fans know that I'm online, reading my feed, and can connect with me in the moment.
There's also something amazing happening right now with the power of twitter. The fact that it's still nascent means that it still has a very clubhouse feel to it. I've used twitter in the past two months to pull together last-minute outdoor gigs in parks and on beaches with hundreds of people, to find photographers and videographers for those events, to borrow practice keyboards from fans, to find rides to and from airports so I can connect with people locally, to find other artists and connect with them: chances are I wouldn't have hung out with Trent Reznor if we hadn't been twittering each other, and same goes with Weird Al Yankovic and finding me in LA a few weeks ago. It used to be more of a pain in the ass to directly find people...you'd have to ask your manager to call your agent to call their manager and play games of "find a contact in their camp". Now, if you're following each other on twitter, it's a simple direct message with a built-in safety filtration system, since your fans can't direct message you (and overwhelm your inbox) if you aren't following them.
I was talking to Neil Gaiman about this yesterday and I came up with the term "internet crowdsurfing". That's what it feels like, as if a sea of people are holding their arms up, ready to support your weight when you come their way. And there's a real implicit sense of trust and honor. I trust my fans so much it's almost absurd. I just know that they're good people. I meet them. I hang out with them. I know them. And when a creepy one shows up, it doesn't take long before the crowd calls them out and rejects them from the pit. It's self-policing.
At a time when so much of the structure that holds together music culture has disappeared, ranging from the local record store to independent radio stations, diverse print publications to music television, and physical media in general…
Do you think the kinds of activities you see fans doing online have the potential to create the culture in which we will all be operating in the future?
Amanda Palmer: Absolutely. I was just reading a great interview between John Currin and Glenn O'Brien, where they're discussing the nature of progress in the arts. O'Brien says "Art is evolutionary, in that it responds to the times but doesn't improve." It's really interesting food for thought as we look at the balance of power, even just in media, shifting away from larger corporations and into the hand of the little people, via YouTube, twitter, texting. Art is always going to be a reflection, an expression, a working-through, never an end in itself. That's against its very nature, I think. One of the things I love so much about music as a medium right now is that there's a predisposition to chaos and anarchy - its rock and roll. If I do a midnight twitter performance in which I magic-marker my body with responses to fans questions and post them up on twitpic, it counts. It somehow fits into the genre of "those crazy rock musicians." There would be a real scandal if, say, Yoyo Ma tried the same stunt. The classical world would not be psyched. But I think that's why I was drawn to this job in the first place. It's got built-in freedom.
On the other hand, I think we might be about to hit the wall. When I imagine that it's totally possible that free-access on-demand video media (like YouTube) will be seen soon to be a totally decadent and non-sustainable use of natural resources - if giant servers continue to be powered by oil - I think: how incredible is all this? We're living in such an extremely abundant and excessive environment now that it's hard to imagine that a crash isn't coming soon. How miniscule a mash-up can we dance to before the atom splits and we go up in a cloud of smoke, you know? Everything that's happening is happening so FAST - it's impossible to measure the impact. But I'm enjoying the ride beyond measure, as long as the hands are still up in the air to keep me surfing forward.
Are the demands an artist adheres to realistic in comparison to the compensation and has the compression of the creativity timeline gone too far?
Amanda Palmer: This is a totally impossible question to answer on anybody's behalf, but myself... it's so subjective. Trying to come up with any sort of gold standard for art's value - or the value of an artist's time - is just futile. As far as I'm concerned, the best way to cope with the changing demands of the outside world as an artist is to simply ignore them, as necessary. I've been thinking about this a lot lately because I've started wondering when I'll start work on my next record and how much time to give myself. And there's some sort of compromise between giving myself time to wander around and not going too long without putting out a record. This is easy for me to think: I already have a new collection of songs I'm anxious to unleash on the world. It's not like I'm strategically thinking: fall of 2010 would be the ideal time for my next release. It works organically, luckily.
And I truly believe this: if I didn't put out a new record for several years, my business wouldn't crash. People would still be coming to my shows in increasing numbers, because the word in the underground never stops spreading. Not only are my fans loyal, but I stay connected with them every day. And my albums aren't about ephemeral summer hits; they're about building up a body of work. I love seeing people JUST finding out about the dresden dolls, and the enthusiasm which they relate the finding, I subscribe to a Google Blog alert and am daily seeing "holy shit, how come nobody TOLD me about this awesome band....?" But obviously, someone did. It just wasn't Rolling Stone. And it just took eight years for the message to get across...but eventually, it did.
One thing I'm increasingly grateful for is the slow speed with which my band grew. I used to resent it. Back in 2003 and 2004 we were packing clubs all over the country but the mainstream media still wouldn't touch us. I remember being so frustrated, watching bands break out every year and getting all hyped up, battled over, splashed on the cover of SPIN and NME and all that. And I would think: "Why them and not us? Our fan base is bigger? It's not fair." But we continued touring, and we never returned to a city without seeing a huge increase in attendance. The word continued to spread without any of the hype. And even when we got our big breaks, like getting signed, or opening up for NIN...we STILL didn't break out in the mainstream. But we picked up thousands of fans who've stayed loyal. And it's only now as I look back that I realize we actually lucked out. I think if we'd ever been hyped it might have counter-acted the authenticity of what we were doing. People just perceive things that way when you're hyped and on magazine covers, no matter how genuine you are. But never had to contend with it.Tomorrow: Part 3