RedEye

SXSW 2013: For Amanda Palmer, it takes a village

AUSTIN, Texas -- Amanda Palmer concluded her panel Wednesday at the South by Southwest Music Conference by pulling out a ukulele, bashing out a few chords and rhyming "banish evil" with "save the people."

Fortunately, Palmer is better at financing albums than she is writing folk-punk parodies. But the new darling of crowd-funding advocates and music revolutionaries everywhere laid out her business model and -- no big surprise -- it's hardly a one-woman, me-against-the-world operation. For the former Dresden Dolls singer, it takes a village.

To create, manufacture, distribute and fulfill all the merchandising and promotional responsibilities tied in with her 2012 album, "Theater is Evil," requires a small team not unlike a traditional record label used to provide.

To make the album, Palmer mounted a campaign on the crowd-funding Web site Kickstarter, which raised nearly $1.2 million from 24,883 fans. The money was poured into recording the album with a respected producer (John Congleton), videos and a tour; $240,000 alone was spent on shipping and handling of merchandise, said the singer's manager, Vickie Starr. Albums were sent to Australia and New Zealand at a loss after Palmer decided not to charge fans who paid $50 for the deluxe vinyl edition for shipping ($85). Another member of her management team, Eric Sussman, is in charge of putting together 35 house parties on five continents this year in order to pay fans back for their contributions.

"To be DIY at Amanda's level requires an enormous staff," Starr said. It can even require a record company -- U.K. label Cooking Vinyl was brought in to help distribute "Theater is Evil" in 40 countries.

All of which strongly suggested that the idea of becoming a direct-to-fan artist hasn't so much killed the old industry infrastructure as transformed it. "Labels are just a bunch of people who should be helping artists," Palmer said. Whereas record labels were once the primary resource for funding and helping artists run their careers, there are now multiple sources that can be configured in a way to suit each artist's needs. 

After bashing her former label, Roadrunner, for making each creative decision increasingly difficult as her career with Dresden Dolls progressed, she acknowledged that the label's resources helped establish her career in Europe and Australia. And though Palmer feels perfectly at home running her day-to-day business affairs, she also fretted that not every artist -- PJ Harvey, Jeff Mangum, Elliot Smith, to name just a few -- can be or wants to be as "hyper-social" as she is. "It's our collective responsibility to help them because they're not as loud," she said.

The reality of recent music conferences such as South by Southwest is that artists and bands must become as business savvy as they are musically adept if they want to build long careers. It was a familiar message for Martin Atkins, the former Public Image Ltd. drummer-turned-multi-tasking music mogul. Atkins has been counseling would-be artists in the demands of do-it-yourself independence for decades, and his presentations are in themselves a form of theater. In his multi-media persona as the kindly punk rocker with the acid tongue, he dispensed shots of advice and humor like so many factory-produced muffins -- which he also tossed into the audience, along with T-shirts. "You get 13 seconds to get someone's attention," he said, "and it's getting shorter every year."

greg@gregkot.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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