by Amanda Palmer
“I never aimed to please everyone who walked by, or everyone listening to the radio. All I needed was…some people. Enough people. Enough to make it worth coming back the next day, enough to make rent and put food on the table. And enough so I could keep making art.”
Before she was a musician, Amanda Palmer was a street performer, dressing up as a human statue in Harvard Square in Boston. She costumed herself as a bride in a thrift shop wedding dress, and whenever someone put money in her hat, she came to life and offered them a flower from her bouquet. The flower was crucial; it was what allowed her to “feel like an artist, someone with something to offer, instead of a charity case.” It was also a moment of human connection, an opportunity to say, “I see you.” Later, when her punk/cabaret band, The Dresden Dolls, was taking off, she continued to connect with people by signing after shows, crowdsourcing meals on tour, and couchsurfing in fan’s homes. The Dresden Dolls were eventually signed by a major label, but her unorthodox way of doing business put them immediately at odds, and ultimately spelled the demise of their business relationship. Palmer went independent, and in May 2012, she launched a Kickstarter, asking her fans to front her $100 000 to record a new album. They responded by funding her to the tune of 1.2 million dollars. At the time it was the most successful music Kickstarter ever funded, and it became a flashpoint for a debate about the ethics of crowdfunding. This experience formed the basis of Palmer’s 2013 TED Talk, also called The Art of Asking. Palmer aimed her TED talk at other musicians and artists, but it struck a chord with millions of people well beyond that demographic, and fired up a conversation about the nature of the gift economy. In her book, Palmer expands on her talk, and how she built such a dedicated and generous fan base.
What is here in The Art of Asking that wasn’t in the TED talk is Palmer’s own struggle to ask for, and accept, help, and to feel like “a real artist.” From the outside, Palmer seems fearless, but the radical honesty of her memoir makes the truth clear; she isn’t fearless, she’s brave—she feels the fear, and she does it anyway. For years, she struggled with imposter syndrome, constantly worrying that she would be exposed as a fraud at any moment. In fact, her unique way of building a rapport with her fans arose out of that fear; it was only by connecting with the crowd, and hearing from them how much her work meant to them that she was able to see the value of her art through their eyes. The feeling of legitimacy is hard to come by, and “when you’re an artist, nobody ever tells you, or hits you with the magic wand of legitimacy. You have to hit your own head with your own homemade wand. And you feel stupid doing it.”
You would think that by the time she launched her Kickstarter campaign, Palmer would already have been a master of the art of asking. But her account of the Kickstarter makes it clear that the process is an ongoing one. A few months before the Kickstarter was supposed to launch, Palmer’s accountant told her she was broke, and wouldn’t be able to meet her payroll for her office staff and band unless she went out on tour immediately, postponing the Kickstarter, and the recording of the new album. Her husband was willing to loan her the money to bridge the gap until after the Kickstarter, but Palmer didn’t want to accept his help. In order to launch the Kickstarter, and ask her fans for help producing a new album, she first had to learn to accept help on a more personal level, regardless of her fears of being seen as a bad artist or feminist because she let her husband come to her aid.
The Dresden Dolls defied easy musical categorization, and Palmer’s book is similarly difficult to place. It is a memoir, certainly, but also a meditation on art, and a manifesto for a new way of doing business. Palmer’s husband, Neil Gaiman, dubbed it a “memifesto,” which gets at its hybrid nature nicely. Palmer imparts what she has learned about asking and collaborating, but she also shares the life that taught her the skills to get there. The growing importance of the internet and social media also runs through it, though Palmer cut out a lot of the nitty-gritty discussion about how she uses these tools, details of which are probably superfluous to fans, but important to other artists who want to understand how she does it.
Where her TED Talk was short and to the point, The Art of Asking book is long and little rambling. It is divided into many sections, but lacks traditional chapters, making it difficult to find a good time to put it down. It seems flowing and natural, but I suspect a lot of editing and rearranging went into creating it; Palmer said that during the seven months she was writing the book, she produced nearly twice as much material as what ended up in the finished product. Palmer’s TED Talk was precise and very moving, but not particularly detailed. It focused on inspiration, and left out the many down sides and difficulties that come with making yourself so vulnerable. The Art of Asking fills that gap nicely.
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