Entertainment TED Talks

11 entertainers who sidestepped the usual avenues and found creative ways to make a living

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Amanda-PalmerMusician Amanda Palmer has spent her career seeking out connection: first as a living statue on the street, who traded intimate eye contact and a rose for a passerby’s money; then, as one half of the band The Dresden Dolls, who didn’t hesitate to ask fans for support, either in person or over Twitter.

Amanda Palmer: The art of asking Amanda Palmer: The art of asking “I think when we really see each other, we want to help each other,” Palmer explains in her talk from TED2013, which has already surpassed a million views. Her experience bears out this theory: her fans are not just willing, but eager, to lend a hand in exchange for the reward they get from her music.

The Dresden Dolls built a loyal following, playing extra shows on their nights off from opening for Nine Inch Nails. Soon, they were picked up by a major label and sold 25,000 copies of their second album. For Palmer, it was a triumph — but the record label considered it a flop.

At a show, though, a fan walked up to Palmer with a $10 bill. “I’m sorry, I burned your CD from a friend,” he said. “I just want you to have this money.”

The exchange brought a realization. “This is the moment I decide I’m just going to give my music away for free, online, whenever possible,” Palmer says. She resolved to encourage people to download and share, but to ask for help in exchange — just as she had from passersby on the street. To fund her next album with her new band, Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra, she set up a Kickstarter page. Her goal was to raise $100,000. She got $1.2 million — from about 25,000 people.

When people ask how she made so many people buy her album, she says, “I didn’t make them. I asked them.”

Palmer is part of a cohort of artists who are finding methods of disintermediation. Instead of proceeding down the well-trod roads of signing with a record label, finding a book publisher or getting a video game distributor, this group is finding new ways to make a living through connection. Here are other examples — some successful, some not — but all fascinating new models for making a living in the changing creative landscape.

Who: Radiohead
What they gave away: Their 2007 album, In Rainbows. Downloads cost whatever fans wished to pay, from nothing up through £99.99 (about $212, at the time). The box set cost £40.
Why’d they do it? It was manager Chris Hufford’s idea, frontman Thom Yorke told David Byrne in Wired that year. “We all thought he was barmy,” Yorke said. “But it was really good. It released us from something. It wasn’t nihilistic, implying that the music’s not worth anything at all. It was the total opposite.”
The results: “In terms of digital income, we’ve made more money out of this record than out of all the other Radiohead albums put together, forever — in terms of anything on the Net. And that’s nuts,” Yorke said. Still, however, Radiohead returned to the traditional model for its next album, The King of Limbs.

Who: Nine Inch Nails
What they gave away: The first volume of the 2008 album Ghosts, on BitTorrent with a Creative Commons license. The entire four-volume album was available as a $5 download on the band’s website.
Why’d they do it? “We believe in finding ways to utilize new technologies instead of fighting them,” Nine Inch Nails said at the time.
The results: A week after the release, Trent Reznor reported that he’d gotten more than $1.6 million in orders and downloads.

Who: Louis CK
What he gave away: His latest standup special, Live at the Beacon Theater, which he made available for download on his website for $5 in December 2011. Not pay-what-you-wish, but still far less than a large company would have charged.
Why’d he do it? “The experiment was: if I put out a brand new standup special at a drastically low price ($5) and make it as easy as possible to buy, download and enjoy, free of any restrictions, will everyone just go and steal it?” Louis CK wrote on his website. “Will they pay for it? And how much money can be made by an individual in this manner?”
The results: In less than two weeks, he’d earned $1 million. A good chunk of which went to costs, bonuses for his crew … and charity.

Who: Aziz Ansari
What he gave away: His new comedy special, Dangerously Delicious, also for $5, a few months after Louis CK released Live at the Beacon.
Why’d he do it? Ansari noted on his website that he was inspired by Louis CK, and pointed out the freedom, for both artist and fans, that comes with controlling the terms of sale for your work. “I wanted to release it online because I saw how many people viewed clips from my last special online on sites like YouTube,” he writes. “I also like releasing it myself because there are no commercials, bleeps, or any of that stuff.”
The results: “As soon as I did it, the overwhelming response was, ‘I’m so glad you did it, too. I hope more comedians do this,’” Ansari told Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. Later that year, comedian Jim Gaffigan again put the model into practice, too, selling Mr. Universe on his website for $5.

What: Santorini Grill in Williamsburg, Brooklyn
What they gave away: Greek food. Name your price point.
Why’d they do it? Proprietor Paula Douralas planned to run the pay-what-you-wish promotion for a month, “but it’s worked so well and attracted so few freeloaders that she’s decided to make it permanent,” New York Magazine wrote in December 2011.
The results: Sadly, the restaurant closed four months later—not because people abused the flexible cost scale, Douralas told Gothamist, but because they stopped coming. (In a 2010 interview in Salon, an economist points out that pay-as-you-wish makes much more sense for a musician, since an album is cheap and requires a single purchase, than for a restaurant, which necessitates repeat business and higher prices.)

What: One World Everybody Eats in Salt Lake City, Utah
What they gave away: Café food, “pay what you can,” starting in 2003.
Why’d they do it? To bring healthy, delicious food to patrons who couldn’t otherwise afford it.
The results: Founder Denise Cerreta found the business model challenging, and One World Everybody Eats is now owned by a nonprofit group. In 2009, Cerrata closed the original café and now directs her efforts toward helping other, nonprofit-backed restaurants bloom. According to the website of the eponymous One World Everybody Eats Foundation, the organization “has directly or indirectly helped launch 30 community cafes and is mentoring over 50 cafe groups in the planning stage worldwide.”

Who: 2D Boy, an indie game development duo
What they gave away: Pay what you wish for “World of Goo,” their award-winning physics-based puzzle game, for two weeks in 2009.
Why’d they do it? To celebrate the one-year anniversary of the game’s release.
The results: A week in, about 57,000 people had bought the game off 2D Boy’s website at an average price of $2.03, and there was a spike in sales for a couple other games by the company. 2D Boy ran a survey to find out more, and reported that “few people chose their price based on the perceived value of the game.  How much the person feels they can afford seems to play a much larger role in the decision.”

Who: Joost “Oogst” van Dongen, a game developer
What he gave away: The game “Proun,” pay-what-you-want, in 2011.
Why’d he do it? As an experiment.
The results: In a very thorough analysis on his blog in 2011, after three months of Proun sales, van Dongen notes that he made a lot of money for a hobby project—€14,105—but estimates that if he’d set a fixed price, he would have made five to 10 times as much. Only 1.76% of Proun’s 250,000 players paid for it. (The Humble Indie Bundle, through which you can buy a group of video games from indie developers for whatever you want to pay, has done better—possibly, Techdirt has noted, because it offers the option of donating the money to charity, which Proun did not.)

Who: Moby
What he gave away: Music, for use in non-commercial or non-profit films and videos, via the website Moby Gratis. (Use in a commercial film requires that you apply for a license; proceeds are donated to The Humane Society.)
Why’d he do it? “I have a lot of friends in the independent film world and working for non-profits, and one of the problems that they have is getting music for their films, because a lot of times record companies and publishing companies make it difficult and want to charge too much,” Moby said.
The results: Moby Gratis is still going strong! The service even provided music for the montage featured in Yves Rossy’s talk from TEDGlobal 2011, “Fly with the Jetman.”