The Five Percent Rule

We’ve had some downtime here at the Five Percent Rule, and were honestly a wee bit scared off after a floor-consuming fire halted our last podcast, but I’ve been meaning to write down these ideas forever.

Discographies's Visual Review of Amanda Palmer's Solo Catalogue

Discographies’s Visual Review of Amanda Palmer’s Solo Catalogue

There are lots of reasons to like or to dislike a musical artist. In a culturally utopian world, the most musically talented artists would be the most appreciated and have the largest following. That said, I’m glad that we don’t live in a culturally utopian world. I think that would be boring. I am very glad to be able to make my own choices, informed by the constant barrage of content writing on the web, on whose music I’ll purchase, or even enjoy anymore. Of course, there are a lot of people whose very job it is to try and win the dollars of people who buy music – often for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with musical content.

While I have many more thoughts brewing on which artists I feel comfortable supporting based on a number of factors, I’ll zero in on one in particular who we’ve written a bit about here on this blog. Truth be told, there is a lot written about this woman on most every blog, and I dare say that way more people have heard about her than have heard her music. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I’m speaking of the blogospherically-ubiquitous Amanda Palmer – contemporary popular music’s favorite lightening rod.

If you’re into the idea that fans can be won simply by marketing (i.e. the Simon Cowell method), then you can see clearly that I would be a targeted Amanda Palmer fan. If you look at my music purchasing history or my Spotify records, it would be very easy to market Ms. Palmer to me. I learned of her because of her husband, author Neil Gaiman, who I began reading solely because I was a pretty big Tori Amos fan throughout high school and college. Finding out that she had a solo album produced by Ben Folds won me over pretty quickly.

In much of what we’ve written on The Five Percent Rule, we have come down pretty heavily on the Pro-Palmer side, and many of the opinions I’ve expressed about her are not widely agreed with. We’ll start with her massive Kickstarter success, which made her the first musician millionaire as a result of the online fundraising service. I’ll be frank – I paid for her album Theatre Is Evil (which I do enjoy) via Kickstarter, and even went to see her in concert in Portland, OR not long after its release.

And I stand by the idea that the concept that any artist can do what she did is pretty amazing. Did she have more platform to do it because of the success of her earlier band, Dresden Dolls, her first solo album, and her general notoriety? Of course she did. But the fact that she brought in as much money as she did is still pretty astounding – and it was paid for by fans, who parted with it willingly. The power of people who are willing to part with their money is what drives the entire music industry, so we can’t blame anyone in particular for that.

Some people also take huge issue with the fact that Amanda Palmer is celebrated for raising this much money via Kickstarter, seeing that her husband is wealthy & famous. That’s logical, but from we can tell from Twitter, the happy couple spend very little time even on the same continent together. I somehow doubt that their tax returns look anything like those belonging to me & my husband.

The next Palmer-gate I wrote about involved her not paying backing musicians on some dates for her tour supporting the Theatre Is Evil album (alternately titled Holy Shit You Guys Kickstarter Is Amazing). As a classical instrumentalist with music degrees and admittedly fading chops (practicing heavily while teaching music 8-11 hours a day and trying to have a life doesn’t work so well), I still came down on Palmer’s side. Let’s be honest here – I just paid to join a choir to sing with to help me exercise my voice a little bit better. Yes, that’s right, instead of getting paid to use my musical knowledge, I am paying into a non-profit in order to be permitted to sing. (And buying a $75 dress for our concert, no less.)

Drum & Bugle Corps, a huge organization, require that members not only attend grueling auditions, monthly camps, and live like nomads on school gymnasium floors, they also require that members pay all their own way, receiving no financial compensation from their performances whatsoever. You’d think that no one in their right mind would ever involve themselves in this activity – and you’d be wrong. Marching Band kids from every corner of the country salivate over the thought of joining a Drum & Bugle Corps; even as many high school band programs in almost every state diminish, DCI is more alive than ever.

Suffice to say, fair labor and musicianship do not always get along. But Amanda Palmer neither invented this concept, nor did she practice it to the worst degree. Reports say that she ended up paying every musician who backed her onstage in cash after each show. That works.

But for Palmer, the hits just keep on coming. And with more and more coverage, and more and more bloated responses from Palmer, and the most heavy-handed blog comments I’ve seen this side of Reddit (both pro-&anti-Palmer), I just got tired of it all. In many ways, the message, whatever it was (because I essentially stopped listening) started to become louder than the music.

I can’t do that. I can’t listen for message. Maybe I’m one of those utopian cultural fans who will listen for musical content, as I perceive it. I didn’t start listening to Amanda Palmer for anything that she stood for. I liked the music. Her breathy, six-eight assault, backed by strings and vocal sforzandos in “Runs in the Family” is impressive.  Her song “Oasis” is about a teenager going through some pretty horrific things, and despite the Palmer protocol of over-explaining your art until it causes people to dislike it, what really comes through in that song for me is the power of obsessing over pop culture to get you through atrocious, awful experiences.

But when someone starts preaching, doing TED talks, writing books more so than they’re writing music, it becomes almost like Christian Rock at that point: the music then becomes secondary to whatever ideology you’re peddling.  Her blogs are almost as pedantic as Gwenyth Paltrow’s these days.

And now, apparently, she seems to think she’s qualified to talk about race problems in America, and how she is at a disadvantage as a result. Some of her thoughts on Macklemore and how she is the victim of “bullying” from feminists of color (apparently this is a thing now – she is one of many self-proclaimed white women feminist writers who see the rising prominence of feminists of color on social media outlets as a threat) honestly make me want to hurl. Rather than go after anyone else who has gut-punched her by way of critique, including Steve Albini, she has targeted a good number of black feminists online, claiming that they’re pushing her around.

Honey, when you’ve got one million twitter followers (a landmark she literally just celebrated today), you’ve successfully led a fan revoltbefore, and have raised over a million dollars, you are influential. You have power. As a teacher, I have had so much anti-bullying training over the past five years I’ve got it coming out of my eyes, but one thing I’ve learned is quite true: it’s actual bullying and not just whining when it’s Repeated, there is an Imbalance of power, and it is Purposeful. (Yes, the training videos had us use “RIP” as an acronym.)

But the necessary Imbalance of power is not between Amanda Palmer and her so-called antagonists – it’s between her legion of fans that she has almost sicked on her critics, many of them black female writers, and said writers themselves, many of whom speak truth to power and are further marginalized because of it. One writer who has openly (and justifiably) criticized Palmer is also one who has become the ire of many news outlets. Her name is Mikki Kendall and I found her, too, via Twitter.  I have been reading a lot of her these days. While Palmer stands tall and says, “Look at me! I don’t shave my armpits and I’m not taking my famous husband’s last name! FEMINISM!!”, in the other corner, we have Kendall, who won me over completely with this sentence, describing her feminism:

Frankly, I couldn’t care less about whether or not someone changes their last name, or who is shaving what.  (8.27.2013)

The article on XOJane from whence this quote came is really, really excellent, as well. I think that at some point I woke up and wanted to live up to the promise of anti-racism that punk rock and its kin spouted when I was a teenager, and if you’re interested in that pursuit yourself, then read the article, where Kendall straight up tells you how to legitimately live up to those ideas.

It’s not about who said what on Twitter (which, again, if we’re being honest, is the reason I started listening to Amanda Palmer’s music in the first place – what a 21st century problem all of this is). If I am going to listen to an artist solely on the basis of a message, I want it to be someone who is spewing a message that I at least agree with. I want it to be a message that is talking about how to treat other people with more humanity, how to take care of one another, regardless of ideology, and to genuinely try to get some good out of this ragged planet we live on. She might genuinely believe that’s what she is peddling, but Amanda Palmer is not fooling me anymore.


There is a so much more to be said on the topic of ceasing to like artists for reasons beyond their oeuvre, but that’s for another day. Another podcast, even. We’re working on it.

And seriously, not to be yet another writer who solely depends on Twitter as sources, but if you’re not reading Discographies (and back-reading old “reviews”) you are doing yourself a massive disservice.


Our girl Neko released a new album last week.  And it’s awesome and this is EmmaJ’s review.  After writing album reviews for various published media for nearly 15 years, EmmaJ decided to give up on writing something that she thought would make sense in a print/blog context and decided instead to say what she thought about this album.  Enjoy!

The famed siren does not give a fuck about sporting a gray streak. Hey – men have gotten away with it for years, right?

Maybe it was the Grammy allure. Maybe it was the wealth of critics referring to her last album as the best of that particular year. Maybe it was the well-documented incident from a New Pornographers show in 2010 where she told an audience member who had hurled a CD (in its case) at Carl Newman that she would “kick his fucking ass”. Maybe she was emboldened by the huge tattoos on her forearm that she got after she turned 40. Or maybe, like many of us, it’s just a matter of getting older, wiser, and the rapidly diminishing number of fucks we give. But with her sixth* studio release, Neko Case has stopped caring whatsoever about what anyone thought. And that, my friends, is a very good thing.

Evidence of this lies in the lyrics found on her latest album, The Worse Things Get, the Harder I Fight, the Harder I Fight, the More I Love You. Many of the lyrics are surprisingly straightforward, often creating moments of scream-along-at-the-top-of-your-lungs-glee. I think my family is getting tired of hearing me shout “And if I get drunk on pink perfume / then I am the man in the fucking moon” (from the track “Man”) at strange intervals throughout the day. I’ve heard Case swear a lot in interviews and the aforementioned stage threats, so it kind of feels good to hear her let loose in that sonar wave of a voice she sings with. And if truth be told, “Man” is the best New Pornographers song I’ve heard in six years.

Aligning with lyrical directness, the actual musical content of the album contains some familiar sounds. And they should sound familiar, as she has an impressive array of guest instrumentalists in the liner notes, including M. Ward and members of My Morning Jacket. Songs that longtime fans might expect to be shorter are extended by brass licks and guitar solos, both which seem a little strange at first for a Neko Case song. Even so, where she has pulled off two-chord songs with chromatic changes in the past, many of the songs on The Worse Things Get… start to sound slightly conventional by comparison. That’s not a knock on Neko, but the more straightforward songs on this record hearken back to some of her earlier albums, before she encountered swarms of hovering bees, fox confessors, killer whales and magpies.

But just when you think Case’s work goes down too many well-tread paths, she springs something on you that is relatively unexpected. The Nashville chug describing a hellfire young woman on “Bracing for Sunday” gives way to an instrumental fallout: the fully acapella “Near Midnight, Honolulu”. This is the “Marais La Nuit” of this album – “Marais” was the 33 minute track of looped frog sounds on her earlier album confused the shit out of some people. At least she left it until the end, making it possible to listen to the entirety of Middle Cyclone and then hear frog sounds only at the end. “Honolulu” sits squarely in the middle of the album, not only distinctive in its lack of instrumentation, but the fact that Case turns up the volume as she sings a line she lifted from a mother-to-child conversation she encountered in an airport: “Get the fuck away from me! Why don’t you ever shut up!” Strangely enough, “Honolulu” is also written in free verse, and is essentially melodic material without ever forming into a real melody. Strangely still, it is still so sing-songy that it becomes an earworm just the same.

Aside from “Honolulu” and the perfectly minimalist, brilliantly clever “Where Did I Leave that Fire?” (a question I ask myself far too often), Case’s new work is not exactly revelatory, at least not in the way that several of her last albums have been. That doesn’t stop it from being excellent. I had excitedly tuned into a preview of the album on NPR one morning and briefly heard her sing “blah blah blah, blah blah blah…” Those words excited me tremendously, and sent a message that Case has genuinely stopped caring about what anyone else thinks or wants from her. Of course, on the album, those words belong to the song “Calling Cards”, and describe an actual conversation. A much more conventional use, but that particular song is so sweet and honest and reminiscent of a warm blanket friendship that I’d have to say its my favorite from the album thus far.

The lyrical honesty and the mix of straightforward head-nodders with sparse soundscapes indeed prove that Neko Case can do whatever she wants at this point in her career. She can destroy societal perceptions of motherhood. She can cover Nico and make it her own, and not only for the purpose of confusing people. She can write rockers and love songs. She can be both meek and macho. I hope that regardless of what anyone has to say about her music, she continues to do precisely what she wants, because she does it better than anyone else these days.

* seventh if you are her PR people and count The Tigers Have Spoken as a full on Case album, but the specs are vague.

Also be it known that EmmaJ is such a Neko fangirl that she decided to make “borscht a la Neko” on a Monday night, and it turned out pretty fantastic.  Here’s Ms. Case’s video about making borscht:

Learn to Make Borscht with Neko Case

and EmmaJ’s video of boiling beets.  The beets available at Whole Foods were freaking huge and relatively cheap.

Tonight was our first night back in podcasting after about a year and a half hiatus. This episode is a bit stream of consciousness as both of us are out of practice. Since our last podcast, we both got married. Emily got a new job and went to graduate school and I played a lot of gigs and did some science research. It’s been a busy year!

Episode 10: Where no two feminist musicians are not on fire

Also, you may notice this episode comes to a rather abrupt end. That is because firefighters banged on my front door telling me to evacuate the building immediately because it was on fire. Luckily, nobody was hurt and we are back in our place now. The building that was burning was next door, of which the entire third floor is now gone. Seems it has already hit the news.

So, at the risk of prematurely ruining it’s delicious shock appeal, I’m seriously considering quitting my day job to pursue my band full time. And not “seriously considering” like you say when you’re just so fed up with work you start making idle threats. I am genuinely trying to plan this leap.

The reason I have started to flip this burger over in my mind is because lately, I have started to doubt my abilities as a scientist. Moreover, I have begun to doubt my ability to LIKE being a scientist. I do think that I like the idea of being a scientist very much, and I like what can be learned from science, and I definitely feel an endorphin rush when I finally (for the love of God) understand something complicated that I’ve been working hard at for a while. But, I don’t enjoy the day to day process of science because of what I believe to be some physiological shortcomings of my own brain.

Be it my illness history, my female hormones, or my sensitive personality — the hamster trips on the wheel on a fairly regular basis and this feeling that resembles  “ka-CHUNK, ka-CHUNK…” indicates that the gears are turning but nothing is moving. I take forever to get organized. I panic when things get complicated. My notes are very thorough and organized, but my organizational methods keep changing and so my thought processes lack continuity both on paper and in my head. I have a hard time reading anything because I need to re-read sentences over and over and over. The time pressure of school is nothing compared to a job. When someone is paying you to do a job, you’d better get it done and get it done right and efficiently. This is not and never will be me.

I also got into science for the wrong reasons. I have some very lofty ideals that keep me tethered to the lab that have very little to do with who I really am on the inside. For example, my desire to make money and prove feminism and equality and whatnot. I also said I’d cure diseases when I was laying in a hospital bed vowing to give back to the illness community since not all sufferers of chronic disease can get surgery and put their illness behind them. Since I was lucky, I was going to give back, rather than take my good luck and run. Yes, the guilt of getting well when others cannot has driven me this far, and incidentally the process of research has taught me that no single person can really make much of a difference in the course of a broad research question such as, “What causes autoimmune disease?” At no point did I ever believe I had the thick-skinned, methodical, even tempered, quick witted personality of a scientist.

I am a flower child, but unfortunately I am a nerdy flower child. I’m a round peg in a square hole, meaning I can pretend to be a scientist such that I put on a pretty good fake exterior for now, but in the end of some arbitrary time period, my net productivity will be less than what it is for the square pegs in the square holes. I don’t belong here. I belong somewhere more irreverent and haphazard. And forgiving.

That place is a music festival.

The life I am signing up for, of course, is that of a loser housewife freeloader festival freak, at least on paper. This decision will inevitably make my whole family pissed. Some part of me revels in that detail.

That being said, I will probably continue to pursue my courses and keep pushing to get into the Applied Stats masters program, because for whatever reason math gives me something to chew on that I actually kind of enjoy a little more than biology right now. I can’t really decide if that’s because of the “grass is always greener” mentality or if the fundamental nature of math makes me feel powerful. Either way, continuing with my classes will at least keep what little technical prowess I have from disappearing completely.

But my happiness is a big, important factor in this decision, if not the most important especially considering all of the surprisingly horrible mental health breakdowns I’ve been having in the last year. In fact, I didn’t really begin to seriously consider dropping science to join the circus until I heard some local talk radio pundits waxing on about the ridiculous lawsuit drama going on regarding our university’s recent scandal and the state cutting our appropriations. If these assholes can throw around tax money and pull power plays for more millions and earn in one signing bonus what I will earn in my lifetime for doing literally nothing of substance at all, then why do I work so hard? Why do I beat myself up over not having a paper published just so some old scientist can half-smile at me and say, “Yes, I deem you worthy to be my servant and in the end I will give you a PhD.” I don’t need anyone but ME telling me what I am worth, and I don’t need to toil away doing work that less than 1% of the population cares about if in the end it does not make me happy?

You know what makes me happy? The girl dressed as a peacock that I met on New Years Eve. The people who dance like Gumby and sing every word of my songs back to me. The sound of instruments booming all around me, and how the songs come to life when everyone is locked in. The fact that nobody ever asks me to be anything but me, so I am free to challenge myself to be a better person on my own terms and on my own time frame. I love how walking into the venue before a show and seeing the first few Phamily members makes the whole week’s troubles melt away.

And you know what? It could fail in a year. It could succeed. It could do something somewhere between. My somewhat cushy foot-still-in-the-career option is to keep working on my masters part time because it’s a good fallback option and in a way, it still “proves feminism” since most of my classmates so far are men and math is still considered a man’s game, which I am happily playing. I should hope I do not have to actually work in the field, however, since it is a sad fact that my brain will never be efficient enough for either academics or industry. But if I do have to pay the bills, I have some practice at being a round peg in a square hole and I could possibly network my way back in doing something if I had to.

So I’m taking the leap at some point. The band is going through some transitions itself right now, too, so time is needed for those to run their course. I also need to do enough work on my research so that I can hand it off to someone else, which may bleed into the summer. Then, I can go.

Stay tuned for part 2….


:::excessive whining alert:::

I read this on a forum and it made me laugh and also sort of annoyed because my mind can’t tell if it’s inaccurate or just unkind.

“Rock guitarists play three chords for thousands of people, and jazz guitarists play thousands of chords for three people.”

I’m always happy to rip on “doodleydoo” jazz (my name for the style of jazz that every song on a jazz club trio’s set list eventually devolves into — get the idea.) It’s so pretentious sounding. It screams, “I am going to try to play as many notes in the shortest time possible with the secret intention of trying to impress you although all the while I’m trying really really hard to look like it’s no big deal and I don’t care.”

But, that comment is also a slap in the face for anyone who spent time training in music and learned more than three chords. So, I dunno. I can kinda see both sides.

I found the above quote by Googling “Nobody in my town cares about music” although I never found what I was looking for. (So I have taken the liberty to add it to the internet by writing this post.) Perhaps, at least on the internet, my town is unique. It’s a college town. 50% of the population is between the ages of 18 and 21. You’d think a place like that would be a breeding ground for new talent and that touring acts would do well here since the music buying public is usually young. Not so much. Legend has it that in the 90s, we had a music scene. There was a lot of jazz, bluegrass, and folk. A brief wave of indie Brit pop flowed through the town in the early 2000s, but then by 2004 the tide receded and all that was left were cover bands.

The cover bands in this town are one of two styles: 1) a loud, sloppy, distorted knock off of 90s alternative and 2) eighties cheese. Bar owners require a certain number of cover songs per set. Does anyone else live in a town like this? A college town that doesn’t care about music? I suspect that because it’s a Big Ten school that is addicted to football, maybe there isn’t room for anything else in their Cretan brains?

But that still doesn’t really explain everything. I have friends who don’t like football, or even actively hate the sports driven culture here. And they don’t care about music either. Attempts to discuss music with anyone I meet here, other than my husband and bandmates (who are not even from this town), end in blank stares. It’s not that people don’t like music. They are indifferent to it. But WHY?

I was picked on horribly as a child (enough that it has given me a legitimate mental disorder) and for once, I have a chance to be cool. I am in a BAND. Except I live in a fucking town where nobody gives a shit about bands. Lucky me, I guess.

I needed to post this because no one is writing about it online, and even though no one reads our blog and it will probably never get picked up by a Google search, I need to say this.

What have you done to Grace Potter??? Who did this? Who is responsible!!!!?

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals in 2006

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals in 2012

Why is she all sexed up and pop-starred now? Why is she standing and singing instead of sitting at the organ? Is it you, VEVO? Did you do this to her? I’m having a meltdown. Hyperventilating. There is almost no one left. Grace was one of the few semi-famous female rockers who was not into her appearance and the band itself is also full of talented people that should not be nameless!

I looked this up because last night at a show, a dude said to me after our set, “Are you the keyboard player for that band that just played? Cause you are sick! I’ve never heard a woman play like you…I don’t mean to be misogynistic or anything….”

I shook my head and said with a forlorn tone, “No, no. No…. It’s okay…I’m sad that people feel the need to say that.” Then I recommended that he go listen to a band called Mightychondria who has an amazing female keyboardist. He stared at me blankly and then told me to go listen to the keyboardist from some other band and that was the end of that conversation.

So, actually, dude from the show — IT’S NOT OKAY!!!! DON’T SAY THAT SHIT. NO! BAD! STOP.

I once thought of Grace Potter as another example of a woman who has stayed true to the craft and freely played badass organ while wearing a sweaty old T shirt and no make-up. Looks like some record executive told her to lose weight and get a hairstyle and get more fashionable and revealing clothes or something. And now she’s the centerpiece of the band, rather than a member. People in the Youtube comments are calling her a singer/songwriter. She’s not a fucking singer songwriter. She is (was) a badass rocker who kills it on the organ and totally brings the funk.

For the record, I am not jealous of famous female soloists anymore. That isn’t where this anger is coming from. Six days in a psychiatric hospital has taught me that I need to find my own inherent value and that there is more to life than looking like a model and having a beautiful singing voice. Especially if that’s all people expect of women in rock bands. If some dude is SURPRISED that I can play the keys competently than we have a LONG WAY TO GO. This is even happening in the supposedly ultra liberal progressive gender neutral hippie scene.

Part of maintaining my sense of inherent value is to do what I believe is right and true to who I am. I hope there are other women in rock out there who actually want to take the hard road with me. It gets pretty lonely out here.

So our girl Amanda Palmer is back in the blogosphere buzz, as her album that was distributed via kickstarter funds, Theatre Is Evil (no joke – she even crowdsourced the spelling of the title) has dropped. 

I’ll be honest and tell you that I haven’t listened to it yet.  I get like that with new releases.  I procure them as soon as they drop, and delay listening, often for a very long time.  Alas!  The first tune is great and I couldn’t get enough of it, and even Bob Boilen, who I often get in one-sided podcast screaming matches with (dude – I love Neko Case but you can’t call her music experimental) called Palmer’s new album “surprising.” 

But back to that later.  At issue here is the fact that Palmer is crowdsourcing backing bands for various dates on the tour backing her new album.  And to union musicians, “crowdsourcing” means “we don’t want to pay you.” 

Here is the letter that started it all, from a Portland horn player: A Letter to Amanda Palmer.

I think Ms. Vaillancourt-Sals has a point, and she expresses it with respect and dignity, albeit through some hyperbolic language.  (i.e. I don’t think calling Amanda Palmer the musical “1%” really helped her case.  A lot of people look at orchestral players as the 1%, but more on that later.)

So it started a shitstorm, of course, and reading comments sections of several pieces on this issue introduced me to the term “backlash panties”, for which I am quite grateful.  And after four hours of insomnia the morning I first read all of this, I hauled myself off to work, where major professional disappointment from colleagues and totally bizarre instrumental maladies awaited, and I lacked the energy to write out a proper response. 

But despite all of the many, many words that have been typed out over the issue, I’ve decided to add a few more.

I got married less than a year ago.  My mother has been having dreams in which she projects disappointment on me, mostly because we still haven’t gotten out our Thank You cards.  Yeah, we’re rude and terrible but alas.

We “crowdsourced” most of the items for our wedding, and had a big ol’ hoedown for over a hundred people for under about $12,000.  It took a lot of planning, and a whole crapton of work on our part.

I won’t give you a whole breakdown of the event, but I will tell you that musically speaking, we had a guitarist (who also did the ceremony), two flutists, one local band’s worth of PA stuff (that they drove three hours up here), another local artist emceeing, and my blogmate singing for the wedding.  The night after, we had a big show at a local place with about six local bands playing, made up of our friends, essentially for free.  They did all these things because we asked them.

I didn’t hire a DJ.  I know there are wonderful professional DJs out there.  But by the time we got married, we’d been averaging attending a wedding every two months for the past two years.  We knew all the ins and outs, and man, I had seen some really awful DJs.  I thought to myself, “I can do this better,” and so I obsessed over the exact playlist I wanted for my wedding.  I would not accept anything less.  We plugged in my laptop and went to town.  The music didn’t sound as good through the venue sound system as we wanted it to, and we might have been helped by someone with professional equipment, but to me it wasn’t worth paying someone $2000 to come in and play all the wrong music.

We did hire a live band – of the folk/bluegrass tradition, I guess you could say – to play for about an hour, later on in the reception.  At the start of planning, my husband and I agreed to not have our friends’ bands play the reception.  They’d have liked to, surely, but some had said way ahead of time that they would not play weddings for free.  For him, the cost wasn’t the issue; he wanted them to enjoy our wedding, rather than be employed at our wedding.

We saw the band we hired in a play, oddly enough, about six months before the wedding, and we asked them to play. When I saw them, I felt like they captured the exact feel I wanted for my wedding.  We had brief e-mail exchange with them up until the day of.  They came, they rocked, and man, everyone went completely nuts to them.  Many people said they made the wedding.  And while I don’t feel the need to disclose exactly how much we paid them, part of me cannot believe they agreed to pay for so little.  I will say, however, that they named their price, we agreed to it, paid them cash on the spot, and also that I’ve played paid gigs (typically on my secondary instruments, eek) where I’ve been paid individually much more, and worked way way less hard than they did that night.  So yeah.

Hiring musicians involves a good deal of haggling, and deciding what you value for someone.  People have gotten all over Mrs. Palmer because now she has raised a lot of money, and in certain cities on her tour, she doesn’t seem to think that hiring musicians for her backing band is a valuable use of her money.  Or supposedly she says it will help her cut costs?

Yes, she’s got her “orchestra”, which is really her main backing band on typical rock and roll instruments.  And they are salaried.  The “crowdsourced” folks would be more “color” instruments, as I understand it, i.e. a horn section.  But also, folks, Amanda Palmer’s book is not what you’d find at an Ellington-style big band gig.  Or Mahler 1 (which would involve significant onstage movement of brass players).  Have you heard “Leeds United”?  The brass licks are not that complicated.  If she only needs, as she has stated, “professional-ish” players for these gigs, I get it.  She has even described herself as an “amateur musician, professional party thrower.”

If she wanted to exhume the corpse of Clarence Clemons, and have him play with her touring band, she’d have done it.  But she’s okay with not getting conservatory level folks (or getting them, if they volunteer) for most of her gigs.

I personally think she’s over-explained it a little bit.  All of the professional advice I’ve gotten from people, and most of the advice I’ve ever gotten from my great and wise mother, is to explain simply.  Don’t over-elaborate.  It gives trolls more material to work with.

But as someone else stated, her huge kickstarter purse is “an albatross.”  She’s kind of damned either way.  I however, as an instrumentalist who does have a steady teaching job aside from freelance playing, or a teacher who moonlights in freelance playing (emphasis on “free” lance), and also someone who has crowdsourced friend musicians for a big event, come down squarely on Palmer’s side. 

Surely, professional, union-backed horn players who charge the musician’s equivalent of Equity rates may be fitting for some gigs.  But maybe that’s not what Palmer’s looking for. 

For me, and for our wedding, having our friends play was the more important part.  Saving money came second.  The day was that much more amazing because people we valued were an integral part of it.  I was stressing out so badly before everything came down, my vows had gotten lost, and it was almost go time, and I heard my two friends playing a flute duet they’d selected.  Two very important friends in my life, who lived on opposite coasts, both of whom I had played with, who had studied with different teachers, playing together on a cold November day, and the sound of it was purely magic.  Their harmony and counterpoint told me that everything was going to be okay. 

If our friends who we asked to play a part in our wedding were cranky about being asked to play and not being paid, they haven’t told us so.  And people still talk about the day in awed, sort of reverent tones.  Which I appreciate, because it took a lot of planning and decision making.  And while I actually haven’t played in anyone else’s wedding, I have helped with friends’ weddings in a variety of ways.  And I’ve seen lots of musician crowdsourcing at other weddings, as well.  I have also seen a lot of mixing, hiring some musicians, crowdsourcing others.  It’s not at all uncommon.

Professionals are great.  And academically trained musicians are never thrilled to lose jobs to people who don’t have massive student loan bills to contend with. However, in the tradition of art in the last century and a half, surely not starting with the French bohemians but hitting it big with them, sometimes professionals are not always what you need.  The practice of not hiring professionals for what might seem like a professional gig is not something Amanda Palmer does exclusively. 

Someone else posted on a blog, I believe it was the original letter to Mrs. Palmer, that an ideal solution would have been to contact local universities and get student musicians to play, and then pay them their expected rate (lower than a union musicians) and/or make a donation to the school of music.  For future reference, this is a brilliant idea, and if I ever go on a popular music tour requiring a massive backing band (and I can’t coax my friends into it), this is what I would do.

However, student musicians, to a lesser degree than student athletes but in the same manner, can get exploited.  While I loved playing five gigs a week by the end of my undergrad career, man did it get tiring.  Jazz Bands go on tour, and while yes, that might prepare you for life on the road, you get little from it, other than a free meal or two, and you make your school look good.  And I might be talking out of my ass here, but do the members of the Eastman Wind Ensemble ever see a red cent from the recordings they do?  Surely, they can say to future students or conductors of theirs, “Hey, I was on this recording!  We even won a Grammy!”  But financial compensation?  Whatever!  You got a graduate fellowship and we’re making you work for free some other way while holding free tuition like a carrot on a stick!  Stop complaining and start practicing!

People who love popular music but play classical instruments are sort of out luck, and many have adjusted to it.  If you’re not super competitive, you don’t get classical gigs, and while the kind of independently minded, lo-fi aesthetic bands you like say they’d love to have a bassoon play for them, they don’t really mean it.  (And no, I’m not anywhere as good as the guy who plays with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.  He has to be amplified to play over the saxophone anyway; it’s the nature of the instrument.) 

While other people who play saxophone learn to double on your instrument and get gigs you might get if you had the money for better equipment and didn’t spend so much time at meetings or writing lesson plans, you are stuck driving across the world teaching lessons.  I have actually found that as far as freelance income, for me, writing is much more profitable and reasonable, so now I write much more and play much less.  So is life.  But I’ve got a steady job that I’m pretty good at, so I can’t complain in that sense.

Being a musician is a hard life.  This is not a few fact.  Before Beethoven, you had to be all church-y to get patronage (at least in Western music).  The Mighty Five in Russian classical music, circa late 19th century (Balakirev, Borodin, Cui, Mussorgsky, Rimksy-Korsakov), figured this out, and all had other careers, which allowed them to write the music they wanted, rather than some dude like Tchaikovsky, who heavily focused on writing the music people wanted to hear.

The point in the end is that while Palmer is under increased scrutiny because she has raised so much money, she still can do whatever she wants with it.  The people who donated (full disclosure: myself included), the modern day patrons, gave her money to do what she likes with it.  And she is.  If her fans are happy with what they donated toward her total money raised, then why the hell does anyone care what Steve Albini thinks about it?

And if that means the Dirty Dozen Brass Band isn’t backing her when I see her show in Portland (for a very reasonable price, not sold through Ticketmaster), then I don’t have a problem with it.

I wonder if she needs another flute player for that gig.  I hate flying with a bassoon.