When Amanda Palmer played Tipitina’s in 2012, she was riding a wave of controversy.
She had left her major label deal and independently recorded the Kickstarter-funded album “Theatre is Evil.” She announced her campaign to raise $100,000 to pay for the album with a video that obviously emulated the footage of Bob Dylan presenting the lyrics to “Subterranean Homesick Blues” on a series of posterboard signs, then raised $1.2 million from her fans.
She’ll return to play The Civic Theatre Saturday night, but little has changed.
Palmer’s fundraising efforts were impressive, but they were surprising as well because nothing about the sales of music by her goth-punk-cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls suggested that she had such impact on her audience.
Palmer quickly became emblematic of the new social media-centric music world, one where an artist could develop a relationship with her audience away from the watchful eye of labels and the music press, and one that was more lucrative than anyone imagined.
“Theatre is Evil” marked a musical change for Palmer as her songs became less theatrical and more muscular, but she didn’t sacrifice any emotional intensity.
When she went on tour with her three-piece band, she asked musicians at each tour stop to fill in some musical gaps, but to do so for free, though she promised to “feed you beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily.”
Critics pointed to the million she’d raised and considered it shabby treatment from someone who could afford better.
In 2013, Palmer laid out her philosophy in a TED talk titled “The Art of Asking,” and last year she published a memoir by the same name. In her talk, Palmer recalled working as a street performer, posing as a bride statue that would give flowers to those who made eye contact and put money in her tip jar. She contends that there was a subtle exchange in that moment, as those who gave money felt acknowledged and noticed — something she said they didn’t feel in the rest of their lives.
That experience affected the way she conducted her musical career, using Twitter to find food, instruments and places to sleep while touring.
“I maintain that crowd surfing and couch surfing are basically the same things,” she said in the TED talk. “You’re falling into the crowd and trusting each other.”
She contends that when you connect with people, they want to help. The relationship formed, no matter how brief, is a fair trade, and she sees that approach as the solution to many problems — certainly the music industry’s.
“I think we’re asking the wrong question,” she said in her TED talk. “It’s not ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ It’s ‘How do we let people pay for music?’?”
In the wake of the Occupy Movement, Palmer’s decision not to share the extra million with local musicians seemed particularly tone deaf, and she has a problematic blind spot where her own place in class structures is concerned. A genuine exchange initiated through asking may be possible, but it could be uncharitably boiled down to “The rock star noticed me.”
When the women in the local band St. Cecilia’s Asylum Choir volunteered to be part of Palmer’s band at Tipitina’s, other subtle exchanges became clearer. Hannah Kreiger-Benson also plays trumpet with The Local Skank, but she appreciated being called on to sight-read horn charts — a skill that her musical life in New Orleans rarely requires.
The show was also a chance to be a part of an event — something that doesn’t always happen for local bands. They had worked up a version of Palmer’s “Map of Tasmania” with four-part harmonies, so Palmer called them out to perform it in the middle of the show.
“It was a great experience to be a part of,” said Ashley Shabankareh, who plays with Krieger-Benson in both bands. Admittedly, she was already partially pre-sold.
“I’m a fan of her music and her abilities to create inclusiveness with her fan base,” Shabankareh said.
They didn’t face a cash-free thank you, though. By the time Palmer’s tour got to New Orleans, she had changed her mind and paid the local musicians $100 each, along with the promised beer, face time, merch and good vibes. Hardly a windfall, but most New Orleans musicians would agree that they’ve been treated worse.