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Summary:

Amanda Palmer, an alt rock fan favorite who’s worked Kickstarter and social media masterfully in her career, may have mis-stepped when she posted a plea for free musicians to back up her band in its current tour. Or else it was a publicity stunt.

Amanda Palmer
photo: Flickr/Zawesome

Is it right to ask for (and use) free labor? That’s the question that erupted after Amanda Palmer, former lead singer of the Dresden Dolls and a fixture on the Boston music scene,  posted a request for musicians to back up her band on its new tour.

Palmer wrote that she needs “professional-ish horns and strings for EVERY CITY to hop up on stage with us for a couple of tunes.”The pay for  a “quickie rehearsal” and performance?  “Beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make,” she wrote.

The post sparked a firestorm, as The Boston Globe reported Thursday, as several commenters accused Palmer of trying to get something for nothing. What made her request especially galling to some was that she recently raised $1.2 million from Kickstarter to fund her music.

The post and the blowback from it renews a debate over how ethical (moral?) it is to get free or near-free work out of people especially in these hard times.

One of the commenters on Palmer’s site, Chris Siebert, who described himself as a professional musician,  was clearly not amused:

With all due respect, your request for free labor sounds like a promotional gimmick dreamed up by a corporate republican who has no concept of the history of working people in this country …  you raised a million dollars through [K]ickstarter. That’s a lot of money. And the best you can do is come up with a scheme to take advantage of desperate musicians by reinforcing everything that’s wrong with the music business and the modern American economy?

Some said her request was so tone-deaf she must have written it on purpose to provoke the controversy.

Palmer did have her defenders among the commenters, one of whom pointed out that the Kickstarter campaign funded her new CD, not the tour per se. Others praised her for playing free concerts including for the Occupy Movement.

But the issue of wangling free or really cheap labor goes way beyond music. Unpaid internships in businesses of all types; the rise of user-generated content in media; and crowdsourcing across the board are all part of the same bigger picture.

And pushback as evidenced by the Palmer comments is likewise growing. For example,  Ryan Carson, founder and CEO Of Treehouse, assailed hackathon promoters for treating programmers as trained monkeys. If you doubt that this is a touchy subject just try asking an artist what she thinks about  99designs or a reporter about Journatic. Then duck.

As GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram pointed out in his post about Journatic, it’s important to maintain professional standards — including pay — but it’s also important to face facts — and the facts are that crowdsourcing, in some form, is a now a reality.

Feature photo courtesy of  Flickr user Zawezome

  1. Why did you link to an article about 99 Designs infrastructure instead of one detailing the controversy that enforces the discussion in this article? While I generally like GigaOm articles, that seem a little tack to link to your own articles when they have nothing to with the subject matter of the current one.

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    1. the references to 99designs and journatic were meant to show that this trend towards outsourcing work to cheap or free workers is a trend…. all part of the same macro issue imo. thanks for your note.

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  2. As anyone actually in a creative industry could have told you, they\’re getting attention. Obscurity is the biggest problem for every artist in every industry, by playing for someone established they immediately get exposure to hundreds of people in their home town. Disappointing analysis.

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    1. The only thing that this would “expose” them to is the scorn of a lot of pissed-off musicians who would have liked to have been paid.

      She’s asking for strings and horns – either classically trained players or jazz musicians. They won’t care a whit if someone played with Palmer, and they might hold it against them, you know, being scabs and all.

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    2. It will “expose” them to the scorn and ridicule of other musicians.

      No pro musician would take them seriously after this.

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  3. Well. She didn’t put a gun on another’s head. So I think that she did nothing unethical. Just like supply and demand. She will get what she pay for.

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  4. The “Amanda Palmer brouhaha” looks to me like a bunch of people getting upset about something that wasn’t aimed at them. There are lots of good musicians who aren’t looking to make money from music. Here in Durham, NC, which has a terrific local music scene, I know some of them. For example, we have an edgy, rocking jazz big band, D-Town Brass (http://www.reverbnation.com/dtownbrass). The leader is a successful restauranteur. Two other friends of mine, a biologist and an electrical engineer, also play in the band and have played in various other local bands. I’m pretty sure Palmer was aiming for people like my friends, not professional musicians, “desperate” or otherwise. (In retrospect, she may wish she hadn’t said even “professional-ish.”) We’ll see – I’ll be at Palmer’s gig tomorrow night in Carrboro, NC. I won’t be surprised to see a friend or two on the stage.

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    1. i agree that the use of “professionalish” was a mistake. There are people who play becuase they love to play, write bec they love to write — the issue is that there are still people who hope to make a living doing things that others are now willing to do for free as an avocation. tough problem. Journalists are particularly sensitive about the issue as Mathew Ingram has written.

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    2. So, then…
      We can all make music if we already have great jobs! Whoopee!

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    3. Lame logic, Ralph. I don’t pay to see part-timers (granted, Amanda and her band are full-timers). The Beatles were not part-timers. We need to elevate the arts by having more full-time dedicated musicians getting paid. The same can be said for other professions. Kudos to Barb for having the vision to see the big-picture similarities in many industries that are being shaken-up and de-professionalized (for the better or worse? ) by technology.

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  5. 1. Characterize volunteerism as “free labor” and soliciting volunteers as “the dark side of crowdsourcing.”
    2. Include quote from pissed-off professional who feels only professionals are entitled to be offered work, and who would never work for free, even for the goodwill and promotion—bonus if uses ad hominem, politics, and how he feels “desperate” and “taken advantage of.”
    3. ???
    4. Profit!!

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    1. Yeah, spoken like someone that’s job isn’t diminished by non-professionals that think that performing for free will actually turn into a paid job. My wife makes a decent living performing and touring but you would not believe how many people think it’s OK to ask her to play for free. Would you ask a plumber to come over and fix your pipes for free? Musicians often have a lot more training, practice and student loans than a plumber. FOr some reason, people think music isn’t a real job.

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    2. Volunteerism is for benefits and non profits. Volunteering to raise money for a food bank? Awesome, sign us all up.

      Volunteering to raise money for a musician with a million bucks to spend? Pretty damn exploitative.

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      1. well put @monkey.

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