I sit in my father’s garden, way in the back, hidden behind the big apple tree, and cry like a baby. I weep tears of profound emotion, of “Exactly!” and “Finally! For fuck’s sake!” I would like to throw myself on the ground and shake my fists at the sky, but the horse grazing near me casts an admonishing glance in my direction. And so instead I weep silent tears, and they fall on the uncomplaining pages of an unassuming how-to book: The Art of Asking, by Amanda Palmer. A book about making art and selling art and the emotional and financial difficulties associated with both. But most of all: an earnest invitation to share, give, and--damn it --finally take what people want to give you.
Over the next few days I tramp through the countryside with my bewildered husband, walking much too fast as I pull him along behind me, I can’t keep all this new energy to myself. The man bears up bravely to my enthusiastic harangue, takes my hand, and says: “Oh.” And: “Mhmmm.”
I bought The Art of Asking after seeing Amanda’s TED Talk on the same subject. There she speaks of her roots as a street performer, as a living “Five Foot Bride”-statue, and of how she learned, from that, to translate this attitude of giving and receiving to her later art.
In the late 2000s, when she was lead singer of the Dresden Dolls, and right in the middle of the promotional phase of the duo’s first big album, Amanda Palmer left her record label. She´d freshly been deemed an “underachiever,” a non-starter, with 100,000 copies sold, because the overblown expectations of the record company didn’t pan out.
Shortly after that separation, Palmer raised an uproar with the first large-scale crowd-funding coup in music history: her fan base put up over a million dollars for her first solo album. Amanda made a definitive and spectacular exit from the conventional record industry.
The success, but also the shit-storm that followed it, the small-minded score-settling in the media and fan forums, raised new questions: did she really earn the money? Why the fuck not? Didn’t the people give it to her of their own free will, in exchange for things that they wanted to have? Why are we so petty with regard to artists? Is art only worth something when the artist dies broke and alone, preferably riddled with syphilis, in a poorhouse? And above all: why are we always engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the “Fraud Police”--out in the world, but even more so right here: every time we look in the mirror?
From those considerations came the TED Talk, and from the talk came a wonderfully inspiring, life changing book: about the roots of this austerity, and about a probable antidote. Questioning a scarcety mindset which blackmails us into submission, bullies us into accepting schemes and recipes for success which are not at all compatible with the essence of art. Competition, marketability, chart systems, advances. High bets, with winners and losers. And in the middle of it: the artists, who try to preserve their craft --the inner generosity, the fearlessness, the utter defenselessness that it takes to bring anything of real value into the world.
Today, Amanda Palmer finances her art through Patreon, a subscription system, in which fans can support their artists on an ongoing basis, without them having to swing wildly from one giant, breakneck project to the next. An idea that makes my heart race, one that I’ve discussed with friends until my tongue was about to fall off. The gist of their objections: “That would never work in Germany, we’re much stingier with our money than the Yanks are.” And “Nobody’s going to give money to you, you’ve already earned a lot of money back in the day with your hyper -successful band, people won´t understand.”
We’ll see. For now, I’m finally releasing my second solo album on my own label, “Därängdängdäng Records.”
Amanda has touched some sore spots with those probing, piano-playing fingers of hers. It’s true: unlike her, I’ve always been lucky with record companies, and have worked in the best conceivable circumstances since the magical beginnings of Wir sind Helden. Nobody’s ever really meddled with us. Also, at least with the first three of four albums, we made everybody very, very happy. But despite that, over the years I became increasingly depressed, feeling numb and heartbroken about being somebody else’s show horse, about the art never being the actual „thing“ but always a means to an end. I have completely worn myself out trying to conform to other people´s definitions of success, to the point of systems failure.
And then along comes Amanda, and she looks me deep in the eyes and says, “You’re not crazy. And also not ungrateful. You’re only unhappy with a work environment that contradicts your mission. And yes, that has got to change.”