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Friday, November 13, 2009
RIFFS: Amanda Palmer pays her own wages

Andrew Leahey

Having once made her living as a busker, Amanda Palmer knows a thing or two about connecting with her audience.

"I come from a street-performance background and actually find joy, not shame, in putting my hat down for people to toss money in," she blogged recently on her Web site. "I learned to feel safe and taken care of by the culture at large, by the passers-by, by the people who wanted to stop and connect with me and support me when I was a busker."

Since forming the Dresden Dolls in 2000 and launching a solo career seven years later, Miss Palmer has relied largely on music to pay the bills. That doesn't mean her relationship with her fans is any less immediate, though, or that she's become less imaginative as an artist.

Twitter updates, e-mail correspondence and blog entries are a daily part of the songwriter's life. She views them as indispensable tools, as central to the process of promoting her music as a full-time publicist. They effectively cut out the middleman, giving Miss Palmer direct access to her fans and — much to her audience's delight — ensuring something of a reciprocal relationship.

"It's a huge blessing that bands can do this," she says during a phone call last week, "but with it comes the irritating responsibility of always having to do it. I just took a week off in China, and for the first time in years, I didn't bring my computer on the trip. I'll pay for that, though. I will pay for those seven days in China by working 18-hour days at home, where my fingers will rarely come off my computer keys and my piano."

Her work ethic may sound extreme, but such digital savvy has a practical purpose. With her poppy spin on cabaret music, Miss Palmer has become one of the indie community's most celebrated songbirds, one whose latest album was produced by musical heavyweight Ben Folds and distributed by Atlantic Records. Such marquee names don't bring home the bacon, however, and Miss Palmer says she has earned no money on the sales of that record.

So where does the money come from? It comes from her inventive use of Twitter, which has earned the singer a good deal of praise (not to mention controversy, something from which she rarely runs) in the business realm. During the past year, Miss Palmer has used Twitter to promote an impromptu, donations-only gig in Boston, which ended up grossing $2,000. She also used it to announce a "Webcast auction," during which she and her two assistants hocked a number of personal possessions — everything from instruments to wine bottles to clothing items — to the tune of $6,000.

There's also a charitable side to Miss Palmer's Twitter use. When age restrictions prevented her younger fans from attending shows during her recent tour, she set up daytime shows in local parks. Within a day's notice, crowds as large as 200 would convene to watch Miss Palmer perform, sign autographs and connect with her audience.

"I didn't really get Twitter at first," she admits. "It's a thing that tells you what everyone is doing at all times, and that always sounded slightly Orwellian to me. But it's been really cool watching everybody experiment with this new tool, whether they're promoting albums or documenting tours or giving away tickets. The coolest thing about it is that it's as flexible as any given person's personality. If you can think it up, you can do it. No one's going to stop you."

• Amanda Palmer visits the State Theatre in Falls Church on Thursday. She will be joined onstage by her opening band, the Nervous Cabaret, and by her father, a Chevy Chase resident who makes cameo appearances at all of her local gigs. Doors open at 7 p.m., and tickets are $20.