(Artwork care of Karen Ramsay (www.karenramsay.com), profile photo care of brianlackeyphotography.com)

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Commentary: Look for the union label

Amanda Palmer embraces controversy. Whether it's rooted in an attitude of "no press is bad press" or  righteous indignation, Palmer is always willing to stir the pot and see what rises. In 2008, she incited her fans against Roadrunner Records, claiming the label tried to censor images of her stomach in a video ("The Rebellyon"). Most recently, Palmer has squared off against musicians' unions over her invitation to amateur players to sit in with her band during her tour.

Amanda Palmer horn support
Photo by Lucid Revolution

There's no irony lost, with Palmer's band even called the Grand Theft Orchestra. Raymond M. Hair Jr., president of the American Federation of Musicians, sees her invitation as a case of larceny, saying, "There ought to be compensation for it [playing]." Her success crowd funding her latest album, Theatre Is Evil, has stoked the criticism against her. After raising so much money, people wonder why she's not paying these musicians if she thinks she needs them.

Without diving into a deep discussion of labor law, a big part of the conflict comes from the difference between unionized professional musicians and rock band culture. The unions are defending their profession, seeing Palmer's invitation as a way to avoid paying "real" musicians, except with beer, high-fives, and hugs. In their view, amateur musicians willing to work for free are a threat to professional musicians making their livelihood. This contrasts with how things work on the rock side. In clubs all around America, there are plenty of rock bands playing for free, not even getting the hugs. In some cases, the bands are even paying to play.

Here in Ft. Collins and along the Front Range, there are plenty of talented amateurs happy to play for free. Sometimes, they're doing it for the exposure and a chance to build a fan base. Other times, they're just happy for the opportunity to reach an audience and get experience. I've played gigs for fun, for bar credit, or even just the chance to collect tips. I agree with the unions that musical performance has value and should be compensated, but I also understand the market economics in play.

Ultimately, though, this controversy is a bit contrived. Reading over Palmer's blog post, she makes it clear that these guest musicians are only sitting in for a couple of songs or so (although the string quartets may be playing a little more). Rather than taking advantage of these people, I think she's trying to create excitement among her fans and make each show a special event. This fits with her Kickstarter success: Palmer has formed a strong bond with her fans, providing many chances for collaboration online and in real life.

Still, whether she intended it or not, Palmer clearly pissed off a lot of people. Amidst the firestorm, she's followed up to state that in some cities, like New York, she will be paying these musicians. Whether she's placating her critics or acknowledging union power in those places is almost irrelevant. The net result seems to be that the union folks and their supporters were all trolled or stoked the issue themselves. Despite the rancor, I think Palmer is the clear winner on this one. Her tour has gotten a lot of free publicity and there seem to be plenty of musicians happy to join her.

 Amanda  Palmer has announced that she'll start paying the musicians who sit in with the band, including those from earlier in the tour. Now, we can all kiss and make up.

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