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Trust people to pay for music: Amanda Palmer at TED2013

Posted by: Ben Lillie

At the end of a Kickstarter backer party in Berlin, Amanda Palmer stripped and let everyone draw on her. “If you want to experience the visceral feeling of trusting strangers, I’d recommend this.” Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Amanda Fucking Palmer wants us to re-think how we think about paying for music.

She is known for her music, first as half of the Dresden Dolls, now as a solo artist. But for 5 years after graduating, Palmer made her living as a living statue called the Eight Foot Bride. (“Everyone always wanted to know, ‘Who are these people in real life?’ Hello!”) When a stranger gave her money, she gave them a flower and extreme eye contact. This allowed a remarkable connection with people — especially lonely people, who felt no one ever saw them. She was, of course, yelled at from passing cars: “Get a job!” As if what she was doing wasn’t real.

Palmer started making money from the Dresden Dolls, but didn’t want to lose that sense of contact. So they made an art of asking people to help out, in person. Then Twitter came along. She could ask for a piano to practice on, and be in a fan’s house in an hour — an experience that was great for her, and for the fan. Twitter helped her to connect to her fans, and her fans to connect to her.

One time she pulled up to a fan’s house, which turned out to be a family of undocumented immigrants, who gave them beds. She wondered if it was fair since those people had so little. In the morning, the mother pulled her away and said, “Your music has helped my daughter so much. Thank you for staying here.” There is a value to art, and that experience convinced Palmer it was fair to ask.

The Dresden Dolls signed with a major label and sold 25,000 copies of their much-anticipated second album. But 25K was considered a failure and the label walked away. Shortly after that, after a show someone came up to her and gave her a $10 bill and said, “I’m so sorry, I burned your CD from a friend, and I want to give you this money.”

Right then she decided to give her music away for free and ask fans for help. She got off the label and set up a Kickstarter. The goal was $100,000. By the end, she had recieved $1.2 million. It was the biggest music Kickstarter ever. And the number of backers? About 25,000. People ask her, “How did you make them give?” She replies, “I didn’t make them, I asked them.”

And she was criticized for it. On the tour, she asked local musicians to join her on stage in exchange for love and hugs, the same way she had before. Because of the fundraising, people reacted with something that made her feel the same as when people yelled, “Get a job!” She says the critics didn’t understand the nature of the transaction, “They weren’t with us on that sidewalk. They couldn’t see the exchange that was happening between us.”

TED2013_0040958_D41_6342What she has built is trust in her fans. At the end of a Kickstarter backer party in Berlin she stripped and let everyone draw on her. (“If you want to experience the visceral feeling of trusting strangers, I’d recommend this.”) The point, though, is that for most of history, musicians were part of the community, not stars, not out of reach. Celebrity has changed this, but now the internet is changing it back. Says Palmer, “It’s about a few people loving you up close — and about those people being enough.”

People are confused by how she sells with no hard sticker price. What they’re missing, she says, is that this is about trust. Online tools are making interaction easier and more effective, but, “The most perfect tools can’t help us if we’re not willing to face each other and give and receive fearlessly. And more importantly, to ask without shame … When we really see each other, we want to help each other.”

She thinks people have been asking the wrong question, “How do we make people pay for music?” What if instead we ask, “How do we let people pay for music?”


Later she took the stage again to play “Ukulele Anthem,” to a transfixed audience. Here’s what TED’s Music Director Bill Bragin had to say about what he was looking forward to from her:

“She’s a fantastic writer and performer who has a really unique ability to connect with her audience. She more than almost any other musician has taken advantage of this new model of the music business where she brings everything to the fans. Her success with the Kickstarter campaign was really transformational for the music business, showed the power of that direct engagement. Her honesty and openness through her blog and her Twitter feed really showed the way that musicians can take control of their own destiny, in partnership with their fans. Given all the conversations TED has been having over the last several years about crowdfunding, open source, looking at new models and disruptive tech, she is an incredible example of that.”

“One of the things we’ll see is a celebration of the ukulele. And one of the key lines in her song is “stop pretending art is hard.” It’s a battle cry for people to participate in the arts. She’s someone who started her career as a street performer and she has learned to really grab people and pull them to her.”

Amanda Palmer’s talk is now available for viewing. Watch it on TED.com»

Comments (23)

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  • commented on Mar 5 2013

    Reblogged this on Association of Me.

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  • Monika Jarosz commented on Feb 28 2013

    Watched this talk last night at TEDxKrakowLive.
    It’s one of the most inspirational talks I’ve ever heard!
    I would love everyone to watch it!

  • Malixe Photo commented on Feb 28 2013

    I don’t remember where I first discovered Amanda– I think it was reading about her online during the “Re-bellyon” when her (now ex) record company wanted to re-edit her amazing video of “Leeds United” because they felt her belly was over-exposed and unflattering. (They were nuts!)

    I’ve been a fan since, and seen her perform live multiple times now and been blown away each time; bought digital copies of her online albums and paid a fair price for them… I was a kickstarter backer and the CD booklet and the bonus gift was a lovely artistic object that was well worth what I paid for it.

    I know there’s a private person in there, but her online transparency and the work she puts into maintaining it is nothing short of amazing. Amanda makes you want to love her, and then works her damn ass off to make sure that you’re not disappointed when you do.

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  • commented on Feb 28 2013

    Reblogged this on Music.Box.Blogger.

  • Karen Hart commented on Feb 27 2013

    Reblogged this on karenatstepney and commented:
    I am very proud to have been a Kickstarter supporter. It wasn’t just at Berlin that we had the chance to write on her. One amazing private show, one guestlist experience to a terrific rock gig, a beautiful art book and so much music. She is a phenomenon.

  • Ben Lillie commented on Feb 27 2013

    Good catch, Mariah. Fixed, and thanks!

  • Mariah MacCarthy commented on Feb 27 2013

    That comma splice changes the whole meaning of the lyric.

    It’s “stop pretending art is hard,” not “stop pretending, art is hard.”

  • Tony Bisson commented on Feb 27 2013

    As an attendee who was not yet an Amanda Palmer fan I have to say her’s was the best presentation of the morning session. Her message was really entertaining and moving.

    I was basking in the glow of her message of fan interaction but It kind of left when she turned and left the stage without the props that a fan had lovingly delivered to her all the way from Newport Beach, a good 100+ miles from Palm Springs because “I didn’t want to iug them from New York.”

    She mentioned his name which was a fair exchange but as sign of respect for fans who give like that she could have bent down and carried them off herself as if they were still important to her even though the performance was over.

    • commented on Mar 1 2013


      As the person who loaned Miss Palmer the hat and the crate, I see no disrespect in her not carrying them off the stage. The items are being returned to me, so they were not left behind.

      I only live 20 miles from Long Beach, where the conference was held. Not sure where Palm Springs comes in. (Though the photo of me and my girlfriend with the hat and crate was photographed in Downtown LA, and that is a bit of a drive.)

      I am honored that Miss Palmer reached out to her fans, and I was able to contribute a tiny part to her Talk. I am also one of the Kickstarter supporters she mentioned. This is what we do for those we respect. I’ve driven over 100 miles to see a performance of hers, and would do so again in a heartbeat.

      Don’t let that small act taint your view of Miss Palmer. She is a gracious and giving artist and person, and we all love being a part of her community of fans.

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  • Sizefour Riggerboots commented on Feb 27 2013

    I only heard about TED because of AFP’s talk, I follow her on twitter and when she started on about how she’d been asked to give a talk, I had to look it up. Now I can’t get enough of TED! Please oh please can we (the unlucky one who were not there) see it on here, please.

  • commented on Feb 27 2013

    Reblogged this on Leta Blake and commented:
    For a long time I wanted to dislike her for very valid reasons, at this point, though, I find I just can’t. I give in to the liking of her.

  • Alysha Vaughn commented on Feb 27 2013

    I look forward to watching Amanda’s talk. I love that she interacts with her fans, and makes herself accessible to them. When she asks for something on twitter, there is always a quick response. And I think it should be mentioned that the props she uses during her talk – the milk crate and top hat – were solicited from her twitter followers last week.

  • Nicole Doring commented on Feb 27 2013

    will i be able to watch this on the site???