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Thursday, September 13, 2012

Why I'm Fine With Playing For Amanda Palmer For Free, By S.F. Cellist Unwoman

Posted By on Thu, Sep 13, 2012 at 1:37 PM

Unwoman in concert. - DAVE BRYAN
  • Dave Bryan
  • Unwoman in concert.

Editor's note: There's a flurry of arguments floating around online about independent artist Amanda Palmer asking skilled musicians to play a couple of songs at each stop on her upcoming tour for just beer, merchandise, and affection. Many argue that it isn't fair that Palmer -- who raised more than $1 million in a Kickstarter campaign for her current album -- is asking musicians to play without pay. S.F. cellist and solo artist Unwoman (aka Erica Mulkey) played with Palmer in July, and will again perform with her at the Fillmore later this month. Here, she explains why she's happy to do it for free.

I'm a solo singer-cellist. I've been performing as Unwoman for 12 years now, after studying cello, composition, and electronic music rather seriously. I've been a fan of Amanda Palmer since I saw the Dresden Dolls open for Nine Inch Nails in 2005-ish. I've found her music inspiring -- of tears, musical expression, and confidence in my ability to do this as a career. In fact, it was her blog "Why I Am Not Afraid To Take Your Money," that inspired me to take the plunge into doing music full-time, supported directly and solely by my fans. In a slow and steady climb, my most recent Kickstarter -- partly because it got Amanda's attention and she tweeted about it -- raised $23,000, or 306 percent of my goal.

Now, that's about 2 percent of what Amanda raised on her last Kickstarter. But her endeavors are on a vastly greater scale than mine, and she actually talks about where all that money goes, even though in my opinion she doesn't need to justify taking money that people want to give her. In fact I will say this: if you think artists are accountable to use Kickstarter funds beyond the goal (and apart from obviously delivering their promises) for what you want them to use them for, please do us all a favor: Stop pledging on Kickstarter and STFU. As my dad said once, some people give you a dollar and think they own you.

Anyway, I'm nowhere near rich -- I live with my parents, and very modestly, but for the last four years, every year I've made $8,000-$10,000 more (gross) than the last on my music, after having supported my (small-scale, DIY) solo project with a day job for seven years so that I was never in debt. I've been really intentional about doing things that are long-term profitable all along, like having sources of passive income, rocking my own engineering and production, and not spending much money on marketing until recently.

I was overjoyed to have the chance to play with Palmer when she came through San Francisco in July. I got the gig through my friend and occasional collaborator Charith Premawardhana of Classical Revolution. I played two shows with the Grand Theft Orchestra and Amanda. They were magical experiences, and I would have done it for free, but they paid (more than I usually get paid), and Amanda put me on stage to do a surprise solo song the first night. That exposure alone was huge for me. The second night I brought some of my CDs, and I sold a bunch.

There, they told me about the Sept. 26 gig (at the Fillmore) and that they hoped I could make it. I had planned to fly to Boston with my mom on that day (which happens to be my 32nd birthday) for my cousin's wedding, but a few weeks ago I confirmed that I'd be playing the 9/26 show, and I moved our flights to the following day, which cost $240. I didn't find out till later that it would be unpaid, but I thought, "Eh that's kinda lame," then went right back to looking forward to the show. If Amanda lets me sell CDs there, and mentions that I have CDs for sale, I'll probably make that much money. And even if I don't, this is a much better way to celebrate my birthday than on a plane!

So those are the economics of the situation for me. Now, here are some points.

* I worried, as I began to write this piece mostly defending her, that I was just excusing her because I want to kiss her butt, because she's cool/famous/has been helpful to me personally. But I am absolutely honest about my bias toward her, as both a fan and a musician. And the fact that people like myself -- both her fan and potential collaborator -- exist, is kind of the point of this whole thing.

* Amanda Palmer is not a support system for struggling classical musicians.

* Classical Rev musician and letter-writer Amy Vaillancourt-Sals would believe me naïve for wanting to play unpaid, and I just can't believe that after 12 years. On any given night, would I rather be playing with one of my top-10 favorite current musicians, or hanging out at home? Or buying a ticket, merely watching the show, wishing I were on stage? The answer is obvious for me. A musician who only wants to play paid gigs? That's valid too; neither of us is more serious or righteous than the other.

* The thing that bothers me the most about this debate is the people who guilt those who do work for free, as if we're devaluing the work by doing so, as if we're scabs. I am very firmly for labor unions, but playing a super-fun rock show is not at ALL the same as manual labor, or teaching. Or playing a corporate gig no one really wants to play. As soon as actual musical love and sparkly fame come into the picture, you're looking at currency that's not dollars. That currency is, in Amanda's case, invisible to anyone who doesn't love her music or want to play for her fans. But it's real to us.

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