Amanda Palmer on Illegal Downloading and Protest Music
Toward a Free Digital Future
Nov 06, 2012 Issue #42 - The Protest Issue Photography by Tommy Kearns
Though musicians have been experimenting with crowd-funding of their projects in recent years, it’s probable that no musician has been as successful as Amanda Palmer at using her fans’ generosity to make record labels unnecessary. Case in point: her latest release, Theatre is Evil, was funded by the $1,192,793 that nearly 25,000 of her fans gave her via the website Kickstarter. Palmer is a forthright advocate of free digital content, and she also has spoken out on a variety of issues that are important to her, from gay rights to pescetarianism, and has written songs that have drawn the ire of record labels and uptight critics. Here, she talks about peer-to-peer trading, the history of protest music, and how the modern era presents fewer opportunities for shared cultural moments.
[Palmer was interviewed for, and is quoted in, the “Giving Back: Indie Rockers Making a Difference” article in our Protest Issue. This is the full transcript of that interview, mainly quotes that didn't make it into the print issue.]
Matt Fink (Under the Radar): I was wondering if you could tell me a bit about the protest sign you made for us. What was the message on it?
Amanda Palmer: I think I said something like “Free Digital Content (and Tits) for Everybody.”
What inspired that?
It was inspired by the few people left out there who are clinging desperately to the past.
So when did free digital content become an issue that you were interested in?
Ever since I encountered people who really legitimately didn’t understand why the free trade of digital information is a good idea. I read something this morning that was really upsetting. It was an open letter from a university professor to a girl named Emily White, who is a 19- or 20-year-old intern at NPR. And she was interviewed saying that she has 11,000 songs on her iTunes, and she has only legitimately bought 15 CDs in her life. And this open letter to her was a really long explanation to her why this is wrong and why the free trade of digital music is destroying musicians’ lives. And it kept saying things like, “I don’t mean to shame or embarrass you...” and went on to say “I knew this great musician Vic Chesnutt, and his career started to go downhill when people started trading files in 2000. And then he killed himself.” And I was like, ‘you know... something is really wrong here.’
Given that you’ve had so much success with your Kickstarter campaign, it seems like you’ve found a legitimate way to bypass that whole music industry system. Did you have any particular expectations for how successful that campaign would be?
Yeah, sure. I’ve experimented a lot with self-releasing and crowd-funding over the years. I had high hopes but no expectations, like a live musician. [Laughs.] It made me and my team insanely happy, because we worked really hard to make it work.
So, as someone who has written a few politically-minded songs, I was wondering what you think makes a good protest song.
Well, I’ve written a few songs that could probably be classified somewhere within the broad genre of protest songs, the biggest one being “Ukulele Anthem,” which I’m rereleasing on this record. Actually, I think the best protest songs don’t bitch and complain. They actually highlight that there’s a positive alternative to a negative situation. My favorite protest songs and the best political/protest songs of all time are “Imagine” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” which are far from saying “Man, the system is fucked up, and we’re really bitter about it,” and say more about the hope of an incoming generation.
Is it a different process to write a protest song than a personal one?
Well, no songwriter lives in a vacuum, and what worked in 1968 doesn’t necessarily work in 2012, because people have different associations and a different palette, and in order to be earnest, there are different tricks you have to go through. To be a good songwriter, you have to be paying attention to the voices inside your head just as much as you’re paying attention to the world around you and how they’re going to hear what you’re going to say. It starts literally with the language that you use and making sure that you can be understood, to the way you’re translating your message.
Do you think it’s more difficult today for a single song to captivate an audience or galvanize a movement? Or do you think we’re too fragmented today for something like that to happen?
I point you to “Friday” by Rebecca Black. Say no more. [Laughs.] I think we look back at the ’60s and really romanticize it, because we’re human beings and that’s what we tend to do. But I’ve been surprised to learn in my research of the things that cross my path about John Lennon that a lot of people were not into his fucking music. It’s not like “Imagine” came out and all of a sudden everyone embraced it and took to the streets with flowers in their hair. There were a lot of people that couldn’t stand him or Yoko Ono and couldn’t stand their music and bitched about it. We just don’t hear about those people today.
From what you can tell, do you think music is playing the same role in the Occupy movement as it played in the Civil Rights or Vietnam protest eras?
No. I don’t think so. When you talk to people who were there, music was a really electric, galvanizing force that really truly was bringing people together, and it was an alchemy of a zillion different things—the way that music was available, and the bands that were coming out, and the war protests that were happening at the same time. Like everything else that’s happening nowadays, shit’s decentralized. There are pros and cons in both directions. Back in the day, everyone would run out and get the new Doors or Beatles record when it hit the stands, and everyone would get together and throw it on the turntable and get stoned. We’re not consuming on a mass level anymore. But that also means that there’s a lot more room for a lot more art and a lot more artists. There’s not so much room for superstars and shared blockbuster moments. But that’s not just music; that’s happening with books and film and visual art. That’s just the way it is. I don’t think it’s good or bad; it has just changed.
As an artist, when you’re writing something that you know is going to be polarizing, do you think about that response, or do you just let the chips fall where they may?
More the latter. I’ve literally never sat down and written a song that I thought would polarize or offend anybody. Seriously. And in the two places where that has happened, I just shrug and say “That’s part of the job.”
Was that surprising when that occurred?
What song specifically? It depends on the song.
I was thinking about “Oasis.”
Yeah, that was surprising. I just thought that was a silly pop song. And since I’m not Katy Perry, it never occurs to me that anyone outside my cool community of smart, left-wing friends and acquaintances are ever going to care about my music. I think if I were a giant pop star, I would have different mechanisms going on in my brain.
Do you think you feel a responsibility as an artist to use the platform that you have to do good in the world or push for change?
I think for anyone to tell an artist that they have a responsibility to be political or create social change is completely missing the point. Artists are here to be artists, and some will be super political and will live and die for particular causes, and some will not. But we’re artists; we’re not politicians. You can actually waste a lot of your artistic energy if you try to be a politician and you lose sight of the reason that people connected with you in the first place.
In general, do you think people hear your music as you intend it or just find it however they find it?
You know, that is a question that fascinates me, and I’m not sure. Sometimes songs will really resonate with people when I didn’t expect them to, and sometimes I’ll write a song that I think really hits the perfect nerve, and it will go over everyone’s heads. That’s a fun part of the job, though. You just never know.