Recording engineer (Nirvana, Pixies), alt-rock musician (Big Black, Shellac), and reliable curmudgeon Steve Albini has some sharp words for cabaret-tinged rocker Amanda Palmer.
In a post on his own Electrical Audio board, as Stereogum points out, Albini suggests that Palmer’s recent crowdfunding and crowdsourcing efforts make her “an idiot.” By soliciting money to record an album or asking fans to play for free in her band, Albini very strongly implies, Palmer is confessing that she is worse at her job “than Jandek, Moondog, GG Allin, every band ever to go on tour without a slush fund, or the kids who play on buckets downtown.” He also equated such charity requests to asking fans to “gather at a mud pit downstate and sell meth and blowjobs to each other.”
Palmer raised a record $1.2 million over Kickstarters to create her new album Theater of Evil, which came out this week from the newly formed group Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra. On August 21, in a blog post titled “WANTED: HORN-Y AND STRING-Y VOLUNTEERS FOR THE GRAND THEFT ORCHESTRA TOUR!!!!,” Palmer invited fans with “professional-ish” string and horn abilities to join her onstage in each stop of her upcoming tour. “we will feed you 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.
Albini’s harsh response follows a New York Times blog post detailing a broader backlash to Palmer’s request. Commenters on her website have demanded that she pay her backing musicians, and Seattle musicians union Local 76-493 has launched a Twitter campaign to similar effect. “If there’s a need for the musician to be on the stage, then there ought to be compensation for it,” the Times quotes Raymond M. Hair Jr., president of the American Federation of Musicians, as saying.
Palmer, speaking to the Times, defended herself again the outcry. “If you could see the enthusiasm of these people, the argument would become invalid,” she’s quoted as saying, adding “If my fans are happy and my audience is happy and the musicians onstage are happy, where’s the problem?”
It’s easy to take sides in this particular case, but viewed apart from Palmer, the question is a nuanced one. Many of us have probably seen small, unjustly obscure bands go up onstage and maybe get a helping hand — unpaid, no doubt — from friends who are also musicians. It seems ludicrous to say that takes money out of the pockets of professional musicians, because those bands often don’t have that money anyway.
But when you reach a certain level, it’s clear that the laws of supply and demand are in effect: If artists start being able to tour backed by strings and horns without paying string and horn players, that hurts professional string and horn players. A thorny issue for your Thursday afternoon.