12 Amanda Palmer Lessons (Not About Kickstarter)

Naked Picture of Amanda Palmer She TweetedI’m not a huge fan of Amanda Palmer’s music, in fact, I admit I haven’t listened to her newest album. This is particularly embarrassing because I was a supporter of her Kickstarter campaign.  But what drew me to donate, and what continues to intrigue me about Palmer, is less her music, and more the gestalt of her success. As an indie artist myself, I got to thinking lately about what differentiates Palmer in a sea of indie musicians. Why has she risen above the noise in such a big way?

By writing this list, I am not suggesting that every artist should emulate Palmer, and I certainly don’t plan to myself. Instead, like David Byrne, I believe we should be inspired by her to think creatively about how to gain exposure for and market ourselves, not just our music. This is what fans really want: they want to be intimate with artists, to connect, to feel moved emotionally through experiencing their art, to feel they know them. All human beings are attracted to (and frankly a little afraid of) people who are unusual, creative and dynamic. As musicians, we may choose, like Palmer, to use that attraction to create exposure for ourselves and our music in an increasingly cluttered musical landscape, with an audience that has a shorter and shorter attention span.

  1. Amanda Palmer is not a musician. Not just a musician, anyway, and I would argue, not primarily a musician. She is a performance artist. She is a provocateur. She gets a lot of positive attention, but also some negative attention and criticism of both her music and her actions. There is no such thing as bad PR, right?
  2. Nudity is provocative and gets attention. So does profanity (Amanda Fucking Palmer, like Martin Atkins, likes to use the word fuck a lot). It implies an honesty and anti-authoritarian vibe that many people find attractive. Palmer does the nude thing a lot. Is it a feminist statement or simply pandering to baser male (or female) voyeurism? You decide.
  3. Closely collaborating with an already established artist in another completely different genre is brilliant (Neil Gaiman) because a) you can cross-promote to both audiences, automatically doubling each artist’s potential reach and b) it adds significant creative value to the consumer experience. Palmer and Gaiman collaborated in 2009 to create one of the first multimedia releases (book and album), and have gone on to collaborate even more closely by getting married in 2011. The fact that he is British and she is American gives them cross-marketing opportunities geographically as well as by genre.
  4. Hard work, energy persistence and vision is everything. Read this article about Amanda Palmer and you realize Palmer has had a vision for her art for years, as well as an incredible work ethic.
  5. Being a social media fiend makes communicating with fans more personal. Follow her on her blog or Twitter, and you will see what I mean.
  6. You are an entertainer first, and live performance is everything. Being a great studio artist isn’t enough, you have to deliver a great live performance – regularly. Being a musician isn’t like being a guy who owns a tire store, able to drive all the customers he needs inside with some pretty advertising flags outside his business on the sidewalk. Concerts must be performance art, fan communication is also performance art – everything is performance art. It creates so many more opportunities to create stories, which, as we all know, are where it’s at in marketing these days.
  7. Having opinions on current events and doing something about it gains you visibility. For example, Palmer organized this Twitter data collection and PR coup on healthcare recently.  She didn’t make any money doing this, but she was making a political statement, and, one could argue, being altruistic about using her celebrity to shine a light on an important national issue, especially for musicians.
  8. Being unapologetically yourself is important. No, actually, it’s critical. I guess you can be a recluse and be a successful artist (Jeff Magnum of Neutral Milk Hotel, or Lauryn Hill), but being yourself out loud is probably going to be more successful, faster.
  9. Meeting controversy (especially the controversy of your own making, see items #1) head on is better than being an apologist. Here’s how to respond when your own fans accuse you of exploitation.
  10. Creating real life events around as many things you do as possible creates buzz and thus PR opportunities. You have to be constantly visible, in person in a society where news lasts 30 seconds on Twitter or TV, and is then gone from our collective ADHD, short-attention-span consciousness.
  11. Create something bigger than yourself by collaborating with other artists (in addition to those you marry). Even though the whole supporting-musicians-for-her-tour thing in # 9 above was controversial, I think collaborating and giving other artists exposure is a stand-out tactic. Palmer also did this for the visual art associated with her newest album and Kickstarter tour. Creative things come from engaging multiple creative minds with each other, more than when your create your art in a vacuum. Remixing and collaboration are where it’s at in pop and hip-hop music, but you can do it in any genre of music.
  12. Don’t be afraid to change your business strategy if it benefits you. Like Trent Reznor, Palmer got some heat, or at least raised eyebrows, for ultimately signing an agreement with indie label Cooking Vinyl to help distribute her newest album. Despite putting a short term dent in their indie DIY credibility, that is likely the best business decision for both artists.

What I take away from this analysis is that any artist can rise above the noise by adopting even just a few of the strategies employed by Palmer.  Social media offers musicians unprecedented new free platforms to increase the reach of our exposure. If we use it to connect with fans, to mould and amplify our message, a message that is creatively provocative can be very successful. What about you? What do you think of Amanda Palmer’s success? Have you tried any of the techniques she has used to create visibility for your music? I’d love to hear your comments below.

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    1. You make some great points – it’s not just women who can and have used this technique. Now, I’m not advocating everyone market their nude bodies to get attention for their music. One could argue also that it’s less of a marketing technique and more of a statement of freedom of expression – but still, it bears analyzing how much this exhibitionist technique lends to these artists’ PR success. Certainly it must be tastefully done : ) Let me know if you ever decide to follow suit (Birthday Suit, that is!)

  1. Great article.

    I dunno. I suppose you can’t argue with success but I never drank the Amanda Palmer kool-aid. Probably because I’m not just a musician, either. There’s a few things no one ever mentions when her DIY success is touted — mainly that it’s not really DIY. At one point, Ms. Palmer (or Mrs. Gaiman, I guess) was signed to a major label, with all of the exposure, pr, tour support and heat that can bring. With minor success, a major label can bring you out of the darkness of relative obscurity and into the marvelous light of, well, you know. Exposure. Ms. Palmer was simply ambitious enough to keep that ball rolling. No small feat, I guess — but then again, yeah, she had a team of people to help her, after the major label went away.

    That major label push changes things. Dramatically. So does maintaining your momentum.

    Her husband has had MAJOR success as a screenwriter, journalist, graphic novelist, comic book writer, etc for a very long time — so DIY really isn’t in his vocabulary, either.

    My point is, no one can do it impactfully on a worldwide scale without a corporate push. Well. No one has done it yet, as far as I know. (Please correct me if I’m wrong I would love to know otherwise.)

    1. yeah. I knew Amanda – or I should say the Dresden Dolls – before the label and after. BIG difference for them. they toured Vermont before the label; Europe & Australia after the label.

      and marrying Neil Gaiman – best-selling author in the states, right? – & getting her getting him onstage as much as possible & billed with her as much as possible – not exactly a DIY possibility for all.

      so Amanda’s story of her big DIY success is yet another media ploy. she’s darn good at stories about herself that get press. you gotta give her credit for that.

      but then there’s the “acting like an asshole” to get attention problem. that hasn’t changed btw. Amanda used to get naked as much as possible back in the day. not everyone – especially every female – is willing to go there. and saying fucking all the time is just crude & unpleasant. that *has* changed, interestingly. not sure where she picked that up, but she didn’t talk like that in the early days of the Dresden Dolls.

      Amanda has always been a consummate performer though. she has always acted as if she was a big rock star as soon as she hit the stage, even if there were 10 people in the room. oh, to be a narcissist.

      1. Thanks for your comments, Mary. I agree with much of what you are saying, although it doesn’t bother me. I think if I married someone famous I’d probably do a lot of the same cross-promotion they do. I think being DIY doesn’t mean eschewing self-promotion, and I do think Amanda Palmer has used her hard-earned soapbox to raise awareness of more than just her own music: things like artist health insurance and the exploitation of women in music and what that means. She provokes thought, and for that she is a lightning rod for both attention and criticism. As you point out, getting naked and swearing isn’t for every artist. It’s who she is, though, and I applaud her for not conforming. Her marketing methods methods may not appeal to every artist, but I admire her courage and forthrightness. Sure, there is narcissism there, but there is also real courage and insight. Sometimes I worry that we are so quick to label women who speak out as self-promoting and narcissistic, when men are viewed as genius mavericks (eg. Edward Snowdon, Richard Branson) for using the same tactics. I guess I’m just loathe to judge Amanda negatively as a person, I just want to point out some tactics she has used to market herself that have been effective.

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