Amanda Palmer asks fans to decide how music is distributed. You can download the full talk, plus live performances, as a BitTorrent Bundle.
Amanda Palmer taught us that musicians could make money on Twitter. She showed us that we could survive, and thrive, in the Kickstarter economy. She reminded us — more than 5 million of us — to keep asking. She’s pointed out over and over again what’s right about music in our post-digital age. And also: what’s not.
Recently, Palmer came to us with an issue that, well, most artists face. I have an album ready. What do I do with it? Let’s call a Town Hall, she said. Let’s let the people listening decide, she said. And we did. For a few hours in December, Palmer, Zoe Boekbinder, and a hundred fans and music lovers came to BitTorrent HQ to talk about the state of music: the promise and problem of art in the Internet age. Here’s what went down. (Download the Bundle for the full story.)
By way of beginning: the Internet kinda sucks for artists.
Amanda Palmer and Zoe Boekbinder sit on two large purple chairs in the middle of BitTorrent’s lobby. They’re surrounded by Bay Area fans, music geeks, and coders. They’re among the smartest people we know online. They love technology. And they lament it.
For Palmer, the issue is proximity. The Internet was supposed to bring us closer to people; closer as communities. “Technology has made so many things easier. But it still hasn’t achieved the level of ‘I’m an artist. I have a thing. You have ten bucks. Let’s make an exchange.” Digital interactions aren’t necessarily direct, or simple. Technology isn’t yet an adequate substitute for what’s so inherently human.
“As soon as musicians hit technology, it’s art versus commerce at its weirdest, because the agendas are different.”
For Boekbinder, the issue is complexity: the never-ending learning curve, the hamster-wheel-ishness of digital marketing. “We’re in a place where we have to figure out a new system every six months. We get used to these technologies, and then they disappear. All I know is I want to make music, and I want people to hear it.”
For both artists, digital is inevitable. But that doesn’t mean that it’s working, and that doesn’t mean it’s a given.
Technology gives us a leg up. It gives us unprecedented choice. But along the way, artists and fans have lost control of the stuff that matters: the songs and stories that connect them. How do we get it back?
It’s about simplicity.
For Palmer, Boekbinder, and the people in the room, restoring music online in part meant restoring transparency. It’s not that the label system was perfect. But it was simple.
“You’d go to a record store. Everything was laid out. You didn’t think about the artist. It was taken care of; part of some unknowable system. And now, it’s all out there. You think about the artists. You know if they are, or aren’t, making money. Depending on that one decision you make in that moment, when you choose to take in content.“
We can’t not think about the artists. We can’t trust that they’re getting paid, or paid adequately. These are heavy issues; ones not easily drowned out by a Spotify playlist. And the transactions themselves have become complicated, too. Why should we have to shell out our mom’s maiden name for a music track? Boekbinder points out that digital payments should be as simple as “you give me money, I give you music.” Nothing more, nothing less. Both artists advocate for a system that’s “as simple online as it is on the street: walk by, enjoy, and give”.
It’s about community.
As one attendee pointed out, the most important part of distribution is that connection. The exchange of music has always been emotional.
Preserving, building and sustaining this connection requires a willingness to let go; to let people listen. For Palmer, success came from fans sharing live music.
The complicated thing for artists is that the Internet’s changed the meaning of music: from sonic good to social object. We used to want to be part of communities, or bridge them. Now, we have to create them: to build up fans and friendly ears, from scratch. Making communities is different from making music.
It’s not enough to just make music.
And making music isn’t enough. The music is the music. It’s not a poster.
Independence shouldn’t change the integrity of the art object. But going it alone means that artists will have to embrace new roles. Including marketing.
“Something has to happen. And I’m the first one to say it. If you’re a quiet, soulful, introverted banjo player, and all you want to do is just sit in your garret, and write amazing songs, and slip them under the door, you might just be fucked. You have to do something. You have to open the door. You have to shout out your window. And historically, you’ve always been fucked. It’s not just now. Your music is awesome, but you’re fucked.”
It’s not going to work if we give everything away.
That said, these shifting roles put music at risk. We ask our artists to make music. We ask them to make it findable. And we ask them to package it up in a way we can pick apart: giving listeners the flexibility to make calls on patronage, on pricing, and premium content. Along the way, we’ve turned our creative class into a fulfillment center. If artists have to make more than music, we need to make a choice about where to draw the line.
What if we treated music like a living thing: like agriculture?
Maybe we need to take this conversation offline. For both Palmer and Boekbinder, the model that makes most sense looks a lot like community supported agriculture. You subscribe to an artist. They release music. You support them on a monthly basis; through changing harvests and crops. It’s about keeping music local, sustainable; held in common by artist and fan. Our work is just beginning.
Download the BitTorrent Bundle for the full Town Hall, plus live music videos from Amanda and Zoe.
This event was hosted at BitTorrent HQ. And simply: it was one of the most profound dialogues on music, technology — the art of making, and the art of listening — that we’ve ever had the pleasure to take part in. The idea for this Town Hall started with one of our own: Conor Fahey-Latrope.
Conor was part of our team, and our family; he was one of Amanda’s life-long friends. And he was hurting. Conor struggled with a lifelong battle with depression. He lost that fight, not long after this.
We dedicate this project to Conor, who made transformative things not just possible, but everyday. And we hope that we can offer a reminder. We are always here. And there is always help. For anyone who wants to make a difference, we encourage you to volunteer at, or donate to, SF Suicide Prevention, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.