“Money appears here as the sower of death, shattering the social unity that had been restored through music.” – Jacques Attali
Recently Amanda Palmer submitted an article to The Guardian entitled “Art is a business – and yes artists have to make difficult, honest business decisions.” Essentially, Palmer plays the self-assigned role as the bearer of what she believes to be bad/suprising news to music/art fans, i.e. an artist must engage in ugly, unromantic business affairs if she or he is to be successful. Before I get to the main point of this blog post I think it is worthwhile to recognize Palmer’s insufferable rhetoric and faulty reasoning, e.g. —
“Megastars can flaunt their tour revenue and album sales when they reach the millions, but you won’t see Lady Gaga, former London School of Economics student Mick Jagger, Pink Floyd or the management behind any of these artists chatting openly about the more painful moments behind their massive paydays,” or “If there was any naiveté in Jack’s post, it wasn’t in how the band spent their money but rather in his assumption that a compassionate universe was ready to accept his transparency as an important contribution to the music information economy instead of a mercenary gimmick promoting his own cause.”
So first, we should recognize the manipulation in this language, positioning the artist as a cautious, aware, discretionary, unfair target of the laymen’s uninformed criticisms on how art should be expressed and offered up. Certainly, Palmer is guilty of the same dogmatism from the other side of the coin, taking up this role of exposing the “reality” of the creative/commercial experience.
But that isn’t the main problem with this article, rather, the problem stems from a general false equivalence between art and business, the stench of self promotion and further explanation of her now controversial Kickstarter campaign, and most consequentially, what it reflects about this industrial shift in the production of music and the artist’s position within that change.
Palmer writes that risk based investing exists everywhere but the arts…I don’t agree, and either way..making such broad claims is transparent in its sensationalism. While we could agree that it is hardly a risk for a major label to throw $800,000 towards a failed record, it is an entirely different game when a small boutique label out of Seattle invests even $4000 in a new unheard of project. That is most definitely a risk to both parties involved. While one may combat my response by discerning the difference brought upon the industry by digital technology, I would counter that Palmer makes no distinction in her claim. It’s worth noting that small record labels still sign small bands, and while the framework of record deals have indeed changed to reflect this new landscape, it would be remiss to claim that there is no risk involved. Ultimately, such a claim disingenuously isolates and consecrates the artist which serves to instill a degree of impunity against accusations of unethical practice. Indeed, what is ethical is not determined by the fans. It should be recognized that fans are not unwilling to pay for products and in most cases music fans do not take such a critical or principled stance on the modes of production – that is..mostly, fans just want new music and want to have an experience. Most fans are willing to put up with a lot for very little. Most fans truly love and appreciate the artist. Thus, fans can not be the litmus for questionable behavior. So while Palmer is framing her article around the behavior of Pomplamoose, the underlying theme is one that arms artist against the fan and those who offer commentary by attempting a general defense of what could very easily be interpreted as deceitful (and let’s not forget that sketchy behavior is not exclusively associated with misappropriation of funds), and of course, not surprisingly, this leads to her own Kickstarter campaign. By emphasizing the art is indeed a business, she betrays an understanding between fan/consumer and artist that has generally been understood. The business side of the artistic career has always been recognized and utilized in the narrative associated with operative notions of the artist – i.e. the romantic notions of the transcendent genius. Indeed, the artist has often engaged in this notion and made efforts to distance him or herself from the business side of the equation by way of hiring others to deal with it. Ironically, this dynamic becomes promotional fodder. I’m sure we all remember Kurt Cobain’s t-shirt displayed on the cover of Rolling Stone, and surely, any amount of research into Nirvana’s career will reveal a conscious effort to maintain a representation despite peripheral and necessary dealings with business contracts. In other words, no one has ever pretended that the artist should, or is able to, avoid business. No one blames the artist for selling CD’s, t-shirts, beer coozies, and indeed, engaging in commerce doesn’t necessarily undermine perceptions of authenticity or “purity.” Here again, we see Palmer reducing the nuance when she writes:
“Perhaps the stickiest problem when comparing art and business is that the definition of ‘success’ becomes muddied when you opt for a career in music. On the one hand, you’re told you haven’t ‘made it’ until you’re a megastar – making a living at your art isn’t enough – and, on the other hand, musicians aren’t supposed to be concerned with profits if they’re ‘real’ artists – Didn’t you get into this job just for the love of it?”
First of all, as a musician, I have never been asked that question. Second of all, and more importantly, the question fails to recognize one side of a two sided argument. Indeed, I would suggest that being concerned solely with “profit” is a potential liability for anyone when it comes to decision making. Of course, concern with operating in “the black” is a wise goal. What Palmer is doing is essentially PR for an emerging phenomena – the neoliberal artist. In as much as the monetization of art has been disrupted by digital technology (e.g. file sharing, web 2.0, hyper-access, etc.), Palmer has become the spokesperson for a model (crowdfunding) that allows the artist a degree of unchecked autonomy which opens up a vulnerable space the artist must negotiate. This plays out against a recent history rife with corporate abuse of the artist. Thus, within this emerging space exists a new freedom for the artist to take full advantage of new tools which allow for the production and distribution of one’s artistic product without the constraint of third party investors. This arrangement is full of potential, and simultaneously, it’s vulnerable to abuse. This new autonomy, combined with this nurtured notion of the artist as the underdog, provides a space in which questionable behavior can be laundered in through a false principle…such as the one taken up by Palmer. It’s one step away from Gordon Gecko, but this time it’s couched in this promise of artist/fan redemption and emancipation from the chains of “enemies of art.”
Palmer is inventing a tension that isn’t there. Music/art fans don’t mind contributing to crowd funding campaigns, paying for concert tickets, paying for records and re-releases of the same record, etc., and are relatively uninterested in peripheral commentary offered from music writers. What fans do mind is deception and duplicity. The locus of my disappointment with Pomplamoose, regardless of how they budgeted their tour (and to be sure, I know from experience that it can be done more efficiently and economically), lies in the fact that their plea for understanding and sympathy was ultimately an advertisement for Conte’s crowd funding platform Patreon. The rhetoric feeds into a myth wholly betrayed by the driving motivation of those decisions.
No one would argue that an ambitious artist (depending on his or her goals) must be aware of business and surely, I am not claiming that the artist can not take advantage of opportunities that arise… but I would argue we should strive to maintain an operative distinction between art and business by way of transparency and discourse. Business should not find an opportunity in art, and artists should indeed do their best to reverse the degree to which it already has, and that is why crowd funding is so promising. Although, in the wake of the absence of the corporatized apparatus (or some breathing room to operate without the corporatized apparatus), the artist must respect that void and engage the fan with transparency in order to establish trust and see this transformation through until the “major label” (used here in the pejorative sense) is either eliminated or reformed. Palmer’s rhetoric arms all parties and forces a tension by defending questionable practice by claiming it is simply part of the game, i.e. “how things are.” This type of language sustains the fans suspicions towards both the artist and the corporations. Fans are tired of duplicity. For all the criticism Palmer or Pomplamoose has received, I would bet that their fan base is still with them, which begs the question…what exactly is Palmer defending?
Art is most certainly NOT a business. It is a form of refuge and release for both artists and fans. The transition from artist to businessman and fan to consumer is unfortunate and to be told that it’s simply a matter of how things are reeks of an ideology which betrays the power art has to effect change.