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CrowdFunding promotion - Art of Asking - Art of promotion - Stop Worrying and Let People Help you

posted Nov 19, 2014, 2:00 PM by David Khorram
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Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer

Author, "The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help"

What My Kickstarter Controversy Taught Me About Asking for Help

One of my favorite yoga teachers once told a story during class.

Since ever, in China, bamboo farmers have planted baby bamboo shoots deep into the ground. And then, for three years, nothing happens. But the farmers will work, diligently watering the shoot, spreading hay and manure, waiting patiently, even though nothing is sprouting up. They simply have faith. And then, one day, the bamboo will shoot up and grow up to thirty feet in a month. It just blasts into the sky.

Any small, sustainable artist-fan community works like this. Crowdfunding works like this.

There’s years and years of authentic work, tons of nonmonetary exchanges, massive net-tightening, an endless collection of important moments. Good art is made, good art is shared, help is offered, ears are bent, emotions are exchanged, the compost of real, deep connection is sprayed all over the fields.

Then, one day, the artist steps up and asks for something.

And if the ground has been fertilized enough, the audience says, without hesitation:Of course.

But it isn’t magic. That first part can take years. Decades.

A lot of misunderstanding about crowdfunding stems from missing this point: if somebody hasn’t been watching you farm, suddenly sees the fruits of the labor, and thinks that maybe it all happened by magic, it can be painful. I got a lot of that after my Kickstarter launched:

But I’ve never heard of her… how can people want to give her that much money? What a lucky bitch.

This is why some lesser-known people have had such real success with crowdfunding—they’ve fertilized over time, and diligently—and some better-known people who appear to have massive reach haven’t done well at all. Fame doesn’t buy trust. Only connection does that.

National Public Radio has been following the connect-connect-connect-then-ask model forever: it’s called the annual on-air fundraiser. They create and transmit nonstop, they give away their reporting, storytelling, and content for free all year.
And then when the time comes: they ask.

And, fundamentally, all asking works like this. You must prepare the ground. If you’re going to be asking one day, you need someone to ask who is going to answer the call. So you tend to your relationships on a nonstop basis, you abide by the slow, ongoing task, going out there like a faithful farmer, landing in the unseeable bamboo shoot.

And then, when it is time—whether you’re asking a bunch of people to preorder your album, or asking one person to hold back your hair while you’re puking—people will be there for you.

There’s a difference between asking a stranger for a handout, a friend for a favor, and a customer for a down payment on a piece of merchandise. Crowdfunding artists are generally working in the third category, in the spirit of the second.

My Kickstarter had been carefully constructed to allow everyone who wanted to get involved to contribute, no matter how little the amount. The lowest price point was a single dollar, which bought you a simple digital download of the album (which we promised would be out within five months). The CD package cost $25, and the more expensive packages included an art book, a painted portable record player (I spent a whole weekend that summer painting them, with Casey and two artist friends of hers, on my parents’ back porch), fancy double-disc vinyl records ($50), limited-attendance art parties in five cities ($250 a ticket), and house parties ($5,000 each).

By the time we closed, after a month-long campaign that gathered over a million in backing, the most astonishing thing to me wasn’t the number of dollars. It was the number of people: There were just under twenty-five thousand backers. Almost the exact number of sales that had constituted a failure in the eyes of my previous record label. I had fallen into my crowd, and they’d caught me. The backers were ecstatic about the success of the Kickstarter, and everybody who had helped me to build it was over the moon.

But a backlash started in the press and on the music blogs. Some journalists were suspicious about artists doing business via crowdfunding, calling Kickstarter a form of “online begging.” I blogged my position and made my business expenses transparent so that people could understand the nature of this system.

Crowdfunding wasn’t charity, as some people seemed to think; my backers were buying things. It was a means for implementing a business model based on the currency of asking and trusting. I was doing exactly what I had been doing for years, going directly to the fanbase, asking them to buy everything in advance: the records, the tickets, the high-level record players and the intimate house parties. Some journalists didn’t understand how crowdfunding worked, and many thought that all the money was donations, rather than advance purchases of actual things that I had to create and deliver.

It shocked me that even some of my smart business friends asked me what I was going to do with a million dollars. I explained that the million dollars was going to be used to pay back my recording debts, and to manufacture thousands of records with high-quality packaging, and to print thousands of art books, and to pay thirty-five fine artists for their work in that book, and to pay for the shipping, and to fly me around to deliver what I’d promised. And after that, there wouldn’t be a whole lot left.

Even weirder, a few folks who supported the concept of crowdfunding singled me out. They grumbled that I didn't have the right to ask my fans to preorder the album using Kickstarter because I wasn’t a “true independent”—I was a refugee from the major label system who was already known. Therefore, I shouldn’t be allowed to use Kickstarter, which was, in their minds, supposed to be reserved for the unknown.

These sorts of critics would write screeds online about how I was equipped to “find some other way” to put an album out. This is what struck me as particularly ironic: Ihad found “some other way” to release music. Crowdfunding.

This made me wonder: Who wasn’t allowed to use crowdfunding? Who wasn’tallowed to ask for help directly from their fans? Lady Gaga? Madonna? Justin Bieber? The answer is: anyone can. Crowdfunding has to be a democratic tool, and mega pop stars have as much right to use the tool as anyone else—as much right as any unknown garage band with no fanbase or head start.

For a couple of weeks, I had a hard time looking at Twitter because for every thousand congratulations, there were another hundred insults being hurled in my direction. They were hard to read.


People were calling me “shameless,” but I decided to take that as an unintended compliment. Wasn’t shame… bad? Like fear? Nobody uses “fearless” as an insult.

I laughed most of it off, but it was hard in truth not to feel a glimmer of doubt. I knew I’d worked hard for all this, and I had an almost unquestionable faith in my songs, my band, and my ability to create something magnificent to send to my backers. But my ego also withered with the amount of people telling me I was a useless, entitled narcissist, conning my fans out of their money.

There was a distinctly familiar GET A JOB quality to all of the yelling aimed in my direction.

I recognized the voice.

You’re not allowed to ask for that. You don’t deserve it. You’re not real enough.

It was my own.

After the Kickstarter campaign succeeded and closed, my life turned into a hurricane of preparation for the upcoming tour, which was scheduled to last almost a year and hit dozens of countries. I wanted the stage show to be an unforgettable, rolling, worldwide celebration of the record the fans themselves had helped me to make, and, to that end, I wanted it to feature as much crowdsourcing, crowdsurfing, and crowd-connecting as humanly possible. I worked together with Michael (McQuilken, the Grand Theft drummer who was also a theater director) on a pile of ideas to take onto the road: we designed a dress with a train the size of a ballroom floor that I wore while crowdsurfing, covering the audience under a giant sheet of translucent blue as they held it aloft and sailed me over their heads; the band dressed from scratch using clothing items the fans brought and tossed up onto the stage; we asked people to upload photos of images that connected to specific song themes—childhood bedrooms, treasured objects, lost loved ones—and we projected them onto a giant scrim above the stage.

I also thought it would be fun to ask members of the fanbase to join the band onstage to play some of the string-and-horns arrangements we’d recorded on the album, instead of filling in those melodic parts on guitar or piano. I’d done similar things with musicians, dancers, and other random stage-performer volunteers over the years; the community always loved it. Hundreds of eager players volunteered via email, and we picked four or five volunteer musicians for each city. The payment for volunteering on stage was the usual crowdsource currency: free tickets and guest list for friends; merchandise, backstage beer, hugs, high-fives, love. The fans knew the drill. The first few shows worked out perfectly.

Then a French horn player wrote me an open letter, saying that while she was tempted to join the tour, she felt that the lack of payment was unethical. The blog post went viral, the New York Times ran a story, and within days a controversy had blown up.

And gotten distorted, to boot. A lot of critics on the Internet were starting to claim that I’d made a million dollars and I wouldn’t pay my band.

Actually, I did pay my band; they were all on salary, which meant they got paid even on their days off. As for the volunteers, they had no idea that their performances were going to be seen as political statements. They’d understood the deal when they volunteered, and just wanted to play music.

The initial Kickstarter controversy regarding digital panhandling, which was just dying down, began anew, and now things were darker. Now I was not only begging my fans for money, I was also exploiting musicians in a tawdry search for free labor. It got mean. Gawker, the celebrity news and gossip blog site, referred to my use of crowdsourcing as “the smoke and mirrors tactic of a grafter.” A blogger from theNew Yorker wrote, “Amanda Palmer’s hustle becomes a half-real and half-symbolic version of the competition to scrape a last dollar from the hides of the desperate.”

The noise was mostly from people who had never heard of me before and knew nothing about me—or the fanbase—apart from my Kickstarter. My Twitter feed and blog comments, usually sources of comfort and community, were now also filled with people who were only visiting to voice their outrage. A classical musicians’ union started a petition against my unethical crowdsourcing. The day after the Timesarticle ran, I received an email from a professional violinist who’d worked for years with my hometown’s symphony orchestra that opened: “Amanda, you ignorant slut…” and went on to tell me what a terrible person I was, and a shitty musician to boot.

That hurt. It all hurt.

After a week of this, I threw up my hands and decided to pay the volunteers. It seemed like a harmless solution: They’d be happy to get an unexpected $100 for their time (though some of them gave their surprise paychecks to charity, twittering and blogging that they’d volunteered and wanted to keep it that way). My stressed-out band and I could stop fielding hate bombs in our Twitter feeds. And we could all get back to work.

In the aftermath, a familiar feeling lingered, a leftover from my statue days. The whole controversy was pretty… GET A JOB. But we were all, in our own ways,doing our jobs.

Everybody on the sidewalk who interacted with The Bride was in the arena with me, engaged in the strange exchange. And everyone at my shows—whether on stage or volunteering or in the audience—was happily exchanging: favors, flowers, dollars, music, hugs, beer, love, whatever. But the critics were neither with us on the sidewalk, nor with us at the shows. They were yelling from their car windows, or from behind their laptops. They couldn’t see the exchange for what it was: a process that was normal for us, but alien to them.

A short time later, as the outrage was dying down, a paradox struck me that seemed to get at the heart of the matter: What if I’d simply SOLD the chance to come play with the band onstage by making it a package of the Kickstarter—an item for purchase, like a $25 CD or a $10,000 art-sitting? What if I’d charged $100 for the opportunity to come and play trombone live onstage with my band?

I didn’t need to do an experiment to find the answer; the Polyphonic Spree, an orchestral indie band, had already done it for me. They launched a Kickstarter that same month and offered a $1,500 option to come onstage with any instrument and join the band for a few numbers. They limited the number of packages to ten, and sold every one of them.

There was no controversy.

Why not? The conclusion I came to was that people are comfortable as long as there is money flowing in ANY direction, whether from the artist to the volunteer, or from the volunteer to the artist. People can understand a price tag, no matter what it’s stuck on. But some can’t understand a messier exchange of asking and giving—the gift that stays in motion.

I thought back to my days standing as a statue in Boston and the GET A JOBcritics, who didn’t feel very far off from the people calling me a beggar when I decided to take help directly from my fans.

It said, something, I think, about the fundamental discomfort people have around the artist—or the person—who asks for direct exchange.

A big part of the reason artists feel so squeamish about standing behind their own cash registers is a direct response to the fact that many customers feel squeamish about seeing them there. Nobody would have yelled GET A JOB at the ticket-taker outside a gallery door if The Bride had been on view for a dollar a pop. It seems that, over time, artists and audiences alike have become accustomed to a legitimizing agent, a transactional middleman to throw professional fairy dust over the exchange. The times are changing.

It’s a 180-degree turn from the eighties and nineties, when most exchanges with big musicians were entirely indirect, and only involved—at least in my case—getting on your dirt bike, cycling to the mall, walking into the record store, and exchanging your $9.99 for a physical album, which was rung up for you by an indifferent clerk who had absolutely nothing to do with the artist who created the music.

All buskers—and artists, and people—have different degrees of comfort with asking. Some buskers have perfect three-minute pitches in which they yell at a crowd to please give as much as possible (and watching a master at work is a treat—it’s a part of their craft). But my friend Jason Webley, who busked for years with an accordion, refused to put his case out for money… he didn’t like the idea of being coin-operated. So he would play for half an hour, build a crowd, and then he’d sell CDs for $5 at the end of his show, not accepting any donations. If somebody generously tried to give him a twenty instead of a five, he’d simply thrust four CDs at that person.

Everybody finds their own path for letting other people help.

Excerpted from The Art of Asking or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, published by Grand Central Publishing. Copyright © 2014 Amanda Palmer.

You can visit her website and blog On TwitterFacebookand Instagram, she's @amandapalmer. Tumblr

Photos: Getty Images

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