Best New Thing in the World?

by justindburton on May 8, 2012

Last week, Amanda Palmer began a kickstarter campaign – something she’s done before – to raise money for her new solo album. She asked supporters for $100K and set the deadline at 30 days. After seven hours, Palmer had her money, and a week in, she’s just shy of $600K. She’s also initiated the Loanspark Collective, a setup for big-money investors to provide interest-free loans for her projects and tours.

Last night, Chris Hayes, sitting in for Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, crowned Palmer the “best new thing in the world,” and her husband, Neil Gaiman, rather sweetly posted the video at his tumblr.

Hayes’ first statement is absolutely true: Amanda F. Palmer is a rock star. She has a sizeable fan base that is eager to give her money, and she pays them back with all manner of art. Plus she totally looks like a rock star, which never hurts.

But I’m not sure the tag quite works. While it seems that Palmer “has turned the model of the music business upside down” by sidestepping a label and receiving patronage directly from fans, it isn’t an entirely new road she’s treading. Radiohead, of course, famously offered In Rainbows without a label and allowed fans to pay whatever they wanted for the digital download. And in the comedy world, Louis CK has blazed a trail (quickly followed by Jim Gaffigan and Aziz Ansari) that allows him to sell his own show from his website without a formal distribution plan.[1. Interestingly, CK has now sold the show to FX, where it will begin airing this weekend.]

But besides the fact that what Palmer’s doing is a slight variation on what others have done, there’s a more fundamental way in which she doesn’t seem to “have turned the model for the music business upside down”: she (don’t forget Radiohead and CK and Ansari and Gaffigan) is already famous, thanks to the previous backing of a traditional record label.

Palmer, of course, knows this is true. In the short bio she provides on the Loanspark site, her time with a record label is presented as integral to her success:

In 2002, when my band The Dresden Dolls was broke, touring and unsigned, I financed our first recording (which cost, all told, about $20k) by going to our wealthier relatives, fans and friends. I borrowed $5k here and $5k there and, soon enough, we gathered enough capital to quit our day jobs and record and manufacture our CD.

I put the record out and paid everybody back.

Then we signed to a major label (Roadrunner Records) and for a little while, they provided all the capital I needed to create and manufacture recordings. After years of watching the label do less and less to hold up their end of the bargain, I struggled to get out of my record contract. In 2010, I got released from the contract (hooray!).

Sure, her first break came from personal loans, but her major fame came thanks to the financial backing of Roadrunner Records.

So while Palmer’s success on kickstarter is definitely and fantastically cool, it isn’t the norm, and it certainly isn’t the death knell of traditional record labels. For every success story like Palmer’s or Radiohead’s – or even Justin Bieber’s – there are tens of thousands of perfectly talented singers who have a couple hundred views on youtube and little else to show for themselves.

We seem to love the narrative of the indie rocker kicking the record label in the teeth, and we seem particularly eager to bury the traditional model of music production and distribution. But record labels don’t even seem to have a foot in the grave in 2012, even after more than a decade of turbulence started by the digital revolution.

In fact, the stories we tell ourselves about the end of record labels ultimately reinforce their power: had Palmer and Radiohead never achieved success the traditional way, they wouldn’t be perceived as revolutionary now. Even in the absence of a label, it’s about a label.[2. Cut to Theodor Adorno nodding solemnly]

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: