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March 17, 2015

Book Review: The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, Amanda Palmer

Metalheads Who Read

art of asking still life

“Don’t make people pay for music. Let them.” – Amanda Palmer.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I’m a fan of Amanda Palmer. I first came across her music through a high school friend who loved the Dresden Dolls. I bought their album and enjoyed it, but it was seeing them live in Auckland in … 2007, I think? … that really pulled me into serious fan territory. The fusion of performance art, street art and traditional rock show bring something wholly individual to the stage. The duo’s performance was like nothing I’d ever seen before – Palmer succeeds in pulling (sometimes literally) the audience right up on stage with her – the crowd is as much a part of the show as the musicians. Plus Brian Viglione is one mean drummer.

I’m not a complete fangirl, though. Since Palmer left her label, she’s done records I’m not overly fussed on, and said and done some stupid shit that makes you take a step back and think, “Whaaaa?” Some criticism lobbied in her direction (“She’s married to Neil Gaimen, a super-rich dude. She’s only famous because of his audience. Why doesn’t she just use his money?”) is destructive and insulting to artists (and women) everywhere, but other criticisms (such as the controversy over paying artists who get up on stage with her, and her ill-conceived poem to one of the bombers of the Boston Marathon) and, at least in some circles, worthy of addressing. But whether you love her or hate her or are indifferent, there’s no denying she’s a completely authentic person, who gives and gains in equal measure to her huge, adoring fanbase.

Palmer’s book, the Art of Asking was borne of her TED Talk of the same name. In both the talk and the book she talks about how the relationship between artist and fan is one of mutual admiration, trust, and asking for help when you need it. “Don’t make people pay for music,” says Palmer. “Let them.” Given the option, many people will pay to support the artists they love. Those that don’t support in other ways, through lending a couch, bringing food to a show, or just telling a friend.

amandapalmer

In her typical, no-holds barred style, Amanda Palmer lays her life, her career, and her heart wide open. She leaves nothing out, including her side of some of her more public controversies. I love Palmer’s narrative style – a word-vomit of memories and observations and moments in time that is part Kerouac, part Caitlin Moran, all punk rock.

From her days as a street performer, to the emerging popularity of the Dresden Dolls, to meeting and falling in love with author Neil Gaimen, Palmer lays her life bare – her emotions raw and authentic, and her incomparable good humour often seeing her though. We become privy to intimate conversations with her husband and follow as she drops everything in her life to wait alongside her friend Anthony through his cancer treatment.

Even if this story were just a memoir of Palmer’s career and life so far, it’ would be an interesting read, but the book also serves as a manifesto for Palmer’s unique fan/artist relationship. She embraced crowdfunding (which makes perfect sense, as she has pretty much been crowdfunding her career from the beginning, even though that wasn’t a word then), and pulled in $1.2 million dollars on Kickstarter for her album Theatre is Evil, she speaks of the ninja gigs and house parties she’s organised over the years – free events where anyone can come along and participate. To me, the Art of Asking is a roadmap for artists who want to succeed in a world where their art itself is becoming increasingly detached from its price tags.

art of asking

Every musician, every writer, every artist, every creative working today should read this book. Why? Because it gets to the heart of what it means to build an audience. There’s no surface stuff here. It’s people helping people. Artists are building something legitimately beautiful and valuable to the world, and they can and should be able to ask, freely and without derision, for help in return, in whatever form that help may take. Just because you ask, doesn’t mean the person you’re asking has to say yes, and you have to be OK with that. But first, you have to be OK with the act of asking.

The ethos, the manifesto of this book is relevant for all artists, and to my mind, especially to those who are flying under the radar of the mainstream. Especially to those who are starting small. When you read about the role Palmer plays in promoting her own work, especially in the early days, what you see is someone who was born to hustle what she believes in. That’s a skill anyone can learn, even the shy and awkward.

“Effective crowdfunding is not about relying on the kindness of strangers, it’s about relying on the kindness of your crowd.” – Amanda Palmer.

“But,” cry the critics. “You have to have a crowd first, for this to work! She already had a crowd. So it worked for her, but it won’t work for Joe Nobody.” Which seems to me to have missed the point entirely. Palmer didn’t wake up one day and suddenly have thousands of adoring fans. She built her fanbase slowly, person by person, the same way every artist does, through starting locally, travelling ever wider, making connections, giving freely, continually producing new work … has she had opportunities many of us might not ever have? Of course. But she worked her ass off to get to the position where those opportunities were offered. It pisses me off that critics like to disregard her achievements because she had a record deal, or married a rich dude. Palmer is now running her career through Patreon, where supporters pay her a certain amount per “thing” (song, video, art book, etc) she produces. Only an artist of her volume and popularity would be able to command her current base of $28,511 per “thing”. That much is a fact. But you must remember she didn’t go from nothing to $28,511 per song – she’s worked her arse off the get to that point.

Of course, her crowd is not your crowd, and you have to consider what you ask your crowd to do. What are they able to do? What is kind and fair? You, and your own crowd, have to decide this and nut out the details. Do you set your Kickstarter campaign at $100,000, or do you start with $500?

When I teach self-publishing classes, people often ask me if I’m afraid my books will be pirated. I shrug my shoulders. “Does it matter?” I’d rather have a fan than the $1 I’d get from the book. There are people who read this blog who will never buy my books. There are people who will buy every book I ever write. A quick Google search reveals my books are on some pirated websites. I don’t care.

If people email me and say, “I’d like to read your book, but I don’t have the money for a copy.” I’ll send them a file for free. I might even send a paper copy. In exchange, I ask that they write a review, tell a friend, share one of my blog posts. The art of asking goes both ways, and the fan/artist relationship doesn’t have to be one focused around a monetary transaction. I’m by no means a successful artist of Palmer’s level (yet!), but I make a steady four-figures from my fiction books, so I have real shit to lose if that dried up. But I wouldn’t have that income in the first place if it weren’t for readers. Readers come first. Always.

I know a lot of musicians read this blog, and other creative and arty people, and I’d encourage you to read this book. Of course, it’s not perfect, and Palmer’s experiences and results will not be your own, but as a way to think about the future of patronage and making a living as an artist, it is a fucking good start.

You can buy the Art of Asking from Amazon, your nearest independent bookstore, and you can also join the Art of Asking Gift Exchange to get a book sent to your from someone who doesn’t need their copy any more.