Amanda Palmer's TED talk

Hey, have you seen Amanda Palmer's TED talk? Here it is:

Cord Jefferson:

Wealthy musician Amanda Palmer, who last year raised $1.2 million on Kickstarter to produce and release a record, recently used a TED talk to expand on the idea that artists should be willing to work for free. After relaying a story about how she used to be a street performer, Palmer, who is married to a very successful author named Neil Gaiman, told an audience of people who'd paid $7,500 apiece to be there that musicians shouldn't "make" people pay for their work, but rather "let" people pay for their work. She also explained that she found it virtuous when a family of undocumented immigrants huddled together on their couch for a night so that she and her band could have their beds, because her music and presence was a fair exchange for the family's comfort. After about 13 minutes of explaining why she is content with people giving her things, Palmer received a standing ovation.

"Oh snap", as the kids say.

Please note: I'm not saying she doesn't have a reasonable point in there somewhere, I'm saying that her talk is the talk of a tone-deaf narcissistic putz.

Previously, previously.

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55 Responses:

  1. redondos says:

    Ditto. The part about rewarding her fans with her trust by letting them paint her naked body after a show made me want to throw up.

  2. I have a particularly adverse dislike for Palmer over the whole "work for free" kerfuffle and her complete inability to understand why someone might have a problem with her exploiting other musicians, and her getting all upset that people just don't understand her "genius".

    There's a similar issue in the poster-making world of bands and venues getting promo posters for free and having the artist recoup their costs on after sales - the two problems with that being that now there's an expectation from bands and venues of getting free shit, and a somewhat endless supply of new artists willing to take the "deal" for "exposure". So, basically, very few people can actually make a living at it because the bar has been set so low.

    It's a race for the bottom - the universal truth that "you get what you pay for" hasn't changed, but people seem to think you can squeeze the same value out of volunteer, amateur workers. Probably good enough for a one-night stage show, but a bad precedent to set.

    • jwz says:

      You hear this complaint from absolutely everyone in any creative field that touches commerce: writers, designers, photographers, whatever. "In the Golden Age people paid for what I do but now there are all these punk kids willing to do it for free and now I can't eat." It's a bummer, but it's also what the market will bear. The work is not "undervalued": the market has found it's price based on supply and demand. There's no reason to assume that any given person can make a living doing what they love.

      I appreciate the instinctive reaction to be pissed and say "if these people didn't give it away for free I could make a living at this", but it is what it is. That won't change.

      And Amanda Palmer has found that people will accept the value proposition she offers, so in that sense she's right. It's working great for her. Will it work for others? Is it nice? Opinions differ.

      • Yes, I agree, it won't change. It's just irritating that someone who came from that world originally, so easily forgets how hard it is to be a working musician.

      • Chris Davies says:

        In ye olden days, instead of whining about it the creatives who wanted to get paid formed a union or trade guild and made it such that people who didn't join didn't work.

        We really need to get out the habit of thinking of "union" as a dirty word if we don't all want to end up as indentured servants.

        • Nick Lamb says:

          Thanks for reminding me why union is a dirty word. "People who didn't join didn't work" is exactly how the unions got themselves that reputation. If I don't want to join the union and support its politics, I can't get a job, and I get to die on the streets while the union's multi-million dollar executives tell people what's right and wrong.

          Unions are capable of doing good, but as they're representative of their members they're only as capable of doing good as the average member. So, too often they will be greedy, selfish and just not very nice. They're also (contrary to their own propaganda) not very interested in safety. Like individual members the union says "Ah, it's not that dangerous and I want to get paid". So unions support fatigue-inducing overtime and dangerous shift patterns for safety critical workers (think of the money) and push back on safety improvements that would cut jobs (and thus reduce their power).

          Jamie is doubtless familiar with your argument since it has been made (and continues to be made) over and over about Free Software. If you want to get paid, find someone willing to pay you, don't start by trying to eliminate those you mistakenly regard as "the competition".

          • 47f274a3faaf says:

            The historical reality has been that unions go hand in hand with organized crime and violence. Scabs get beaten and uncooperative business owners get their stuff smashed. Dunno how it plays out these days.

            • Spiny Norman says:

              Similarly, the bosses have always gone hand-in-hand with organized crime and violence. Unions were born out of the unmet need to provide workers with a means of self-defense from their bosses.

        • James says:

          Unions won't help much if aggregate demand is low.

          "I think we annoyed everyone else with our repeated insistence that reducing economic inequality was somehow always the appropriate solution to each of the many social ills the group identified." -- Aaron Swartz

      • Nick Thompson says:

        You are conflating price and value. Maybe the market is right about the value of minor artists, but if you apply the same logic to schoolteachers it's obviously wrong.

        • Chris says:

          I've heard this argument repeatedly, but rarely see anyone go into specific detail about how value is actually different than price, and how value can be determined independently from price. Any thoughts?

          • David says:

            Are you saying you've never heard of externalities? There's plenty of simple examples of externalities that show how "value is actually different than price". That said, valuing externalities is still extremely difficult. Of course, anyone who has run a company knows that pricing is also extremely difficult, and in many markets it is very hard to find an optimal price, nor do products generally go to optimal prices. Think of all the prices that end in 99, is that actually the optimal price for the market? Usually not.

            • Chris says:

              You're the first person I've run into using these terms to make a purely economic argument. The usual idea is there's some moral "value" of teachers that if we just realized it, teachers would be paid millions of dollars because children are the future.

              Until some way can be discovered of linking teacher salaries to some educational endpoint, the salary will only ever be useful in making sure there's enough of them.

              • David says:

                You're obsessing over teachers, let's look at the lead smelter in Herculaneum, MO

                There are very straightforward studies that look at the productivity of children who had lead poisoning in their childhood. Since you like prices, let's just say salary is a good approximation. Kids with lead poisoning definitively make less money than those without.

                For the lead smelter in Herculaneum, filtering lead particulates costs money. So they didn't filter their exhaust. Houses near the smelter ended up with huge amounts of lead in their soil, leading to children to this day having elevated levels of lead, even after the smelter reduced its lead emissions. This is a clear example of a negative externality that has nothing to do with teacher salaries. It is less expensive to filter lead at the exhaust than the lost lifetime salary of the children who grew up near the lead smelter during the pollution and those who continue to face lead poisoning from the contaminated soil.

                • Chris says:

                  Thanks for your time and all but I'm specifically talking about teachers. Not one word I've written is in contradiction to the idea of externalities or your version of "price =/= value."

                  This is, however, an excellent example of an externality; good luck with the rest of your textbook.

            • Sarah says:

              externalities are just neo-liberal capitalist hand-waving of the negative affects of capitalism. Pollution is an "externality." Unemployment is an "externality." And so on.

          • captain18 says:

            I've always understood "price" to be the point at which a transaction happens in the marketplace, whereas "value" is a measure of the (potential) utility derived from a good or service. This makes value a much more subjective and conditional thing.

            Let's say you and I walk into a restaurant. The advertised price for lobster on the menu will be the same for both of us. I may decide that's more than I'm willing to pay that night so I order the chicken, but maybe you just got a promotion so you order the lobster.

            For me, the value was less than the price so no sale took place; for you the value was equal or greater than the price so you accepted the offer. This is a simplified illustration and can be applied to things other than money, of course.

  3. I am shocked, shocked, to find that Amanda Palmer is still exactly the same tone-deaf narcissist (sorry, can't improve on that phrase) that she was a decade ago.

    The Dresden Dolls are easily one of the top five live acts I've ever seen, but dear god is she exhibits A, B and C for the law of diminishing returns on artistic overexposure.

  4. gryazi says:

    Oddly, this coincides with a kerfuffle between(?) Wonkette and The Atlantic re: the latter getting over-the-top defensive about soliciting someone to write for free (who apparently declined politely, but I guess someone had to fill the void with the resulting drama?).

    Watching some documentary a couple nights ago I was reminded more-viscerally-than-the-usual-peripheral-awareness that there are kids in Vietnam standing in the street trying to hawk things seven days a week to maybe make $1 to be able to eat and cover their school costs. So fuck if I know what "the answer" is. The world's 'market rate' being so low is the only reason our standard of living can still manage to be so high (and I guess once you've experienced indoor plumbing it becomes easier to reimplement than explain the first time around).

  5. Jeff Atwood says:

    Isn't this a bit harsh? The first part of her talk is about her working as a street performer during the day to get by while working nights as a musician -- and people yelling "get a job" at her as they drove by. I got the impression she worked hard to get where she is now. She wasn't born into wealth or success, or born married to Neil Gaiman.

    As she said in her talk, the Dresden Dolls major label release was viewed as a commercial flop with "only" 25,000 sales, whereas her Kickstarter with 25,000 supporters generated 1.2 million dollars.

    I'm not a fan of her music at all, but she seemed genuine to me, and I personally love the idea that artists can a) work hard to succeeed, b) get paid directly by their fans and cut out all the bullshit middlemen.

    Not seeing what there is to hate here, personally.

    • antabakayt says:


    • k3ninho says:

      The Cord Jefferson piece sets the context, which is The Atlantic/Wonkette story. In that light, JWZ is saying that 'privileged person (standing in front of privileged people) preaches to the choir about paying for her creative output, but outside of that TED setting you can describe it as the confidence trick of gaining someone's trust and asking the right question'.

      I think that's the point here. I might be wrong - but as someone whose DNA Ventures Incorporated places bets on the good relations between artists and their supporting benefactors - JWZ knows that you can ask people for money and they give it, and that you don't need to be a leeching middleman while doing so. (The Cord Jefferson piece also raises the question about privilege supporting privilege and minority representation not getting a look in, but I don't know whether that's particularly relevant here - JWZ seems to me to be an equal opportunities middleman.)

      Do I have a comment on that? I'm privileged and I know people who've been creative and made it pay later - there's a whole free-software/open-source thing about that too. However, I also concede it makes the successful/rich get more of what they have, and that is one of the core promises of the American Dream. Problem with that is that it's a first-approximation model, which needs subsequent iterations to adequately describe what's going on.


    • I think the point is that she spent years not getting paid, and now that she's successful, she asks others to not get paid for her own enrichment. Hypocrisy is a particular Internet hot button issue.

    • Doug Orleans says:

      Kickstarter & Amazon are the middlemen, taking 5% each. But maybe you mean that they are non-bullshit middlemen?

    • brianvan says:

      I think it's her attitude toward a range of privileges in life that makes her seem, to many of us, as someone who is immoral.

      Maybe she's 100 years early to a new form of creative economy. Even so, her "advice" is still ridiculous. What worked for her almost certainly won't work for a lot of people. It's disingenuous to evangelize - especially on a platform of intellectualism like TED - advice that simply isn't going to be effective for the typical musician who isn't already famous. (and god help us if the new plan is for people to play a game of escalating attention tactics to facilitate the Kickstarter end-stage, because it's already wearying to keep up with the C-list of touring musicians)

      It's also a fair point to say that she's got no need for money anymore. Her artistic persistence is not a valid case of poverty. But she's asking for money in the context of need, not value or labor. That is seen as immoral by many.

      It's also fair to note that the average Kickstarter contribution to her campaign was over $40, with some people donating well over the average. Given the minimum donations required to earn particular rewards, and what those rewards ought to cost on the open market, she's asking for more money than she's providing in value. Mind you, she's running the show with that and doesn't have to claim that onerous partner deals or contracts prevent her from pricing her goods at industry average.

      And last but not least, anything disputable said in the context of TED tends to trigger an outsize response. It's the flipside to branding your organization as a source of infallible intellectual authority... to paraphrase Douglas Adams, what sets infallible ideas apart from normal ideas is that when infallible ideas break they inspire much more intense effort to correct them.

      • antabakayt says:

        "It's also a fair point to say that she's got no need for money anymore."

        How did you come to that conclusion?

        • brianvan says:

          She has had good fortune as a musical artist in a group over the years (with the Dresden Dolls) and her husband (author Neil Gaiman) is a wildly successful author. At their levels of career success, they have income streams that could supply funding for her music writing, recording and publishing activities.

          Turning it around, how would we feel if Neil Gaiman used Kickstarter to raise for himself a $1.2m advance for a self-published book, at $40 an average donation?

          (Overall I think the Kickstarter concept needs a little work. It's perhaps best suited to projects that are entirely non-commercial, to avoid these issues where people make investments into someone else's profit machine without getting equity or fair value in return)

          • Martin Epsz says:

            But I'm happy that I gave money for a lot of commercial projects that wouldn't have existed without kickstarter, and I feel like I got fair value. If I wouldn't have felt that way, why wouldn't I have given my money? Who is to judge what is "fair value" if not the person spending money?

            • brianvan says:

              If I donated money to a complete stranger's commercial project where they made a ton of profits and I got NOTHING in return, I would feel like a chump.

              I feel like I'm in the majority of society in finding it presumptuous, arrogant, and absurd to ask for money from strangers and provide little or no value in return.

              I'll allow that there are people that don't feel that way and who are very happy using Kickstarter. But that just seems like one more way in which interactive media culture is ungrounded, using privilege to encourage creativity for the sake of whimsy and asking why the rest of us don't choose to be like that.

              That said...
              As it works most often, Kickstarter allows for donation "rewards" and the commercial product that is the end result of the project is the reward. In effect it is a different model of making a purchase. We could talk all day about whether or not that is what Kickstarter intended for itself to be used for, + whether or not that fulfills its terms of service, or any consumer/financial regulations in the territories in which it operates. (Not that they reject making 5% either way) But I have no problem with some people trying to run their own crowdfunded versions of Etsy shops. I've bought things on Kickstarter before in that manner. It's not ethically suspect at all for most people, though it's probably more sensible to wait for something to be sold under the auspices of an actual shop rather than a "will they or won't they make it" crowdfunding campaign for strangers.

              Also worth noting, if someone I know, someone with whom I have an actual connection and whom I have a good reason to trust to act ethically, is launching a project with financing needs and I support them for whatever reason, I can just hand them cash with no strings attached and not use Kickstarter. I'm assuming that Amanda Palmer didn't limit her donations to friends only. And it's a little suspect to see her continue to barter for things well after she's raised plenty of money to make routine purchases instead.

          • antabakayt says:

            Getting dropped as the Dresden Dolls from your record company does not equal "good fortune" to me - neither does the almost complete lack of commercial visibility of the Dresden Dolls over those years. They were a rather obscure band with a very devoted but overseeable following (~25.000 judging from the record sales and Kickstarter, incidentally). I think you vastly overestimate the income of the Palmer-Gaiman household and presenting your estimate as "facts" isn't helping. I'd like to place my trust in some math on this instead.

            About that second argument: I don't get it.
            If I have the choice to pay $40 bucks for a book from Neil Gaiman which would otherwise probably not be written and published at all and then I decide to pay those 40 bucks via Kickstarter - why exactly am I not getting my money's worth in return? At which point of funding do you draw the line from "good thing" to "padding ones bank account"? And why does that even matter?

            • Aidan Kehoe says:

              … with a very devoted but overseeable following (~25.000 judging from the record sales and Kickstarter, incidentally).

              Denglisch alert; Übersehen means to overlook, so that phrase would be better as ‘… with a very devoted but easily overlooked following (~25,000 …)’. Grüße aus Irland, Aidan.

              • antabakayt says:

                Grüße nach Irland and thanks for the alert, but I didn't mean "overlooked". I actually meant "overseeable", as in "it can be easily looked over, because they are so few".

                Full disclosure: The german equivalent would be "überschaubar".

                • Grey Hodge says:

                  Then you should have used overlookable. Overseeable is able to been observed/supervised.

                  • antabakayt says:

                    I'm not quite sure we are thinking of the same meaning. But I just googled "overseeable" and it supposedly means exactly what I wanted it to say. Maybe only in Britain? Not used in the US like that? I don't know.

                • relaxing says:

                  Actually, you meant "overlooked." "Overlookable" sounds awkward and is not generally used. (My spellchecker flags it as a misspelling.)

            • brianvan says:

              "a rather obscure band"

              They were not particularly obscure. They earned significant coverage in the music press and did a lot of touring and publicity. Maybe they didn't monetize quite well, though. Maybe she should get another job!

              "I think you vastly overestimate the income of the Palmer-Gaiman household"

              I'm not estimating anything at all in particular, I'm just guessing that they're not broke and that's a very conservative argument.

              "which would otherwise probably not be written and published at all"
              It's a fallacy for Palmer, and you, to claim that she would have no means to record an album if she did NOT receive gratis, no-strings-attached financial help to make that happen. There are plenty of means available. She knows because she's an experienced recording artists with prior label backing! And it takes a raging narcissist to willingly take money & bartered things from people under extremely generous terms and to then get up on stage and say, "Yes, I deserve this. You did the right thing."

              As far as getting your money's worth... that's subjective, but I think the terms of exchange count as much as the cash value. I feel much more comfortable buying a $30 CD in a store than I do depositing $30 in someone's Kickstarter for a "reward" CD that hasn't been produced yet, in circumstances under which I have no recourse if that reward never comes. And for Palmer, it's much unfortunate that many CDs can be found for cheaper than $15 in a lot of stores, so there's no urgency to accept her terms. They're bad terms, and she is negligent to lead other artists down that path. (And TED is negligent to promote that advice as meaningful and relevant)

  6. mspong says:

    I don't understand why there is so much hate floating around about her TED presentation. At no point is she forcing, or even coercing, people to play with her for free, or put her up in their homes, or give money to her Kickstarter campaign. It's not even a con, because in all these situations she gave something in return, be it the album the Kickstarter was financing, a chance to play with musicians you might like, or even in the case of that family who gave up their beds, they explained clearly that their young girl idolized Palmer and was utterly thrilled that she would stay with them. Maybe she could have slipped a few bills into the pillow case for them to find, but also maybe they might have been deeply offended by this gesture and considered it an insult. People are like that.

    That Cord Jefferson article really rustles my jimmies because he leaves out salient details of her story to make it sound seedier, which a lot of the critics do. He leaves out the fact that she got "married to a very successful author named Neil Gaiman" after she had a long and successful career in music. He skipped the important part of the street performer story, which was that what she was doing was deeply affecting people in highly visible ways and that it was a fair exchange. "Artists with million-dollar checks in their pockets are telling other artists that they shouldn't expect to get paid" - bullshit! She clearly states that they CAN expect to get paid, paid much better than if they went through existing channels, if they ASK. It's fucking cognitive dissonance to argue this point: if asking for money doesn't work, where did that "million dollar cheque" come from?

    The thing that REALLY gets me about all the criticism is how everyone has to put in how they hate her personally, how she annoys them or they think her music is shit and overrated, how fake she is, her ego etc. What the fuck? Are we really that shallow? Does that have any bearing on her actual message? How old are we? I don't like her music, but that has nothing to do with what she is saying, and if you don't know what she is saying watch the fucking video. She isn't saying some new unsigned artist can ask for and recieve a million dollars. She is saying you can ask fans for help, and if you have actual fans and they like you and want to help you, they will help you. What she is saying in particular, and she makes this clear repeatedly, is that the act of helping you is their actual reward, is what they want, and any other benefit they might receive in the form of your art or attention is a bonus. She makes it clear that you should give this freely in return, but generosity is rewarding for many humans and if you aren't one of those people, don't play.

    • Nick Lamb says:

      So, the argument against "come work for free" isn't that individual instances are always coercive so much as that scaled up it has a deleterious effect. If you're the one person in New York City who offers people with no past experience unpaid internships at your fashion magazine as a way to get "new blood" into the industry it seems laudable. When every magazine has a dozen such unpaid interns and it's "the way" to get a foothold in that industry then suddenly anyone who needs to get paid in order to make rent and buy food is locked out of the industry in favour of those who don't which is a problem in a country which has such economic disparity.

      I actually like a lot of Palmer's music, but JWZ gets to the point: Some of this stuff is true, but Palmer is definitely the wrong person to be smugly telling people about it now. If she'd presciently made her points in a talk recorded 10 years ago, when the Dresden Dolls was just starting to really happen then it'd probably get less of a mauling. If she'd happened to be recorded making such comments 15 years ago, when nobody had heard of her, it might even seem rather poignant. Now it's just another successful performer reassuring themselves that they're a good person.

      • antabakayt says:

        But that's about true for almost all now-succesful people, isn't it?
        Hey, maybe everyone should pre-emptively record his nobel price/pulitzer acceptance speech or TED equivalent twenty years in advance, just to be on the safe side from smug people in the internet.

        • Nick Lamb says:

          Yes, sort of. Success is not a very good platform from which to be speaking to be people about striving. It's maybe not the worst platform -- Jean-Louis Gassée somehow gets to be a "mentor" and pundit based on his experience running a series of technology companies into the ground with lousy projects like the Newton, BeOS and the never used PalmOS Cobalt -- but it's founded on a coincidence. "I did this and I am successful" is just an anecdote not some sort of formula.

          It depends what your message is. It's possible to give an acceptance speech which goes some way to acknowledging the reality that you're there by chance and by the work of a lot of other people who aren't getting a prize at least as much as on account of your own no doubt exceptional talent and hard work. It might be even better to take the opportunity to point out any unfair advantages you were given and to call for them to be addressed since probably your audience includes most of the people who'd need to act for that to happen.

          In the case of Nobel prizes you have a lot of time to prepare your thoughts on the subject, just as someone giving a TED talk does. The situation is a bit different for people asked to speak within moments of finding out they've won something, where it's understandable if all they can come up with is cliched elation. I do not know enough about the Pullitzer to say which category it would fall into.

          • antabakayt says:

            Yeah, I didn't mean each speech literally, more like generic terms for giving speeches once you are successful.

            Because that's the problem and exactly my point: People don't get invited to do such speeches _before_ they are succesful. They are invited because they are successful in their field and therefore it is assumed that they have some input others might like to hear and could possibly learn from.

            Telling people at that point that their speech/success holds no merit since they did not give the same type of speech 20 years earlier, when they were not succesful aka unknown... - well, she wouldn't have known that it worked back then and didn't know she'd be that successful with it.

            As far as I am aware, Amanda Palmer has been living like this for most of her career as an artist. Just too many people can't look behind that one million Kickstarter and assume that she must be some walthy writers' wife with a superiority complex.

            (Tangent: While that might possibly be true now - I don't know, I'm more a fan of Neil than her -, it doesn't mean that her message does not contain truth about the subject matter itself. I'm quite positive she could and would have done the same without her husband, just like she did before.)

      • Mike Hoye says:

        If she'd presciently made her points in a talk recorded 10 years ago, when the Dresden Dolls was just starting to really happen then it'd probably get less of a mauling.

        So, if she'd spent more time talking about it instead of actually doing it, she'd be a lot more credible now?

        I'm guessing you work in the valley.

  7. Kriss says:

    The problem is this is a classic "winner fucks all" situation made worse by others holding it up as an example of how great the world could really be if only one would truly believe.

    This is not a solution to anything, this is the problem, patting itself on the back for being so great.

  8. yabonn says:

    "a tone-deaf narcissistic putz"

    At a TED talk? You don't say!

  9. Ian Young says:

    The irony of this being posted on a Gawker Media (read "supported upon the back of interns") is not to be underestimated. It's rather like an antebellum plantation owner complaining that the Irish are ruining America by coming over and working for free.

  10. Brian B says:

    One obvious way to reverse media's glut of wealthy white people would be to stop making it so few others but wealthy white people can afford to get into media. But in the age of dramatic newsroom layoffs and folding publications, nobody wants to hear that.

    Cord Jefferson seems to be saying that we could solve this problem if only publication editors would stop covering their ears and shouting "LALALA CAN'T HEAR YOU" whenever someone points out that the system sucks. Either he hasn't really grasped the situation, or he's minimizing it on purpose for the sake of his argument. Must be nice to have someone pay you to whine in public.

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