Amanda Palmer, Artist
Amanda Palmer is Asking for it
How the musician embraced her audience, endured criticism, and became a revolutionary in her industry.
Amanda Palmer’s Definition of Changemaker: Someone who decides to play by their own rules despite the backlash, leaving a newly machete’d path in their wake, behind which people can walk. At least in the arts: the biggest changemakers aren’t so much the ones who set out to buck the system, or to be provocative, on the contrary, they’re the ones who spend more time thinking about and dwelling in the reality they want to see exist rather than stewing and complaining about the reality they want to change. The biggest changes I’ve made have all been by accident, not by the fight I fought, but by the wake I left behind me having made the path I had to in order to get where I needed to go.
In business, in music, or in life, there are few people you will meet as unapologetically honest as Amanda Palmer. Or as you may know her from the title of her recent tour, Amanda Fucking Palmer.
A lifelong nonconformist, Palmer has evolved from living statue to award-winning musician—as one half of cabaret rock duo Dresden Dolls and soon to hit the stage opening for Morrissey and Blondie—from TED-talker to esteemed author, and now thought leader.
Palmer’s Twitter bio colorfully advertises a performer, writer, giver, taker, yeller, listener, love-lover and rule-hater to her one million-plus follower base. And from our own conversation with Palmer, all of these qualities seem fairly apt.
But there’s one thing this self-account fails to capture, and that is how authentic she is. Palmer has built legions of passionate fans—and certainly her share of detractors—by having a unique voice that is louder than her music ever could be. And by simply asking.
And the answer for many is a loud and resounding YES.
Ask, Don’t Tell
Being a born storyteller has perhaps taken Palmer in directions even she did not foresee. As an arts graduate Palmer began her professional life as the Eight-Foot Bride on the streets of Cambridge, Mass. During this time she honed a deep curiosity for genuine human connection that has been the underlying theme of all her achievements.
It is this story that Palmer shared on the global TED stage in 2013, when she spoke of the profound encounters she experienced with people from all walks, often people who Palmer sensed were very alone. In her recollection, they would momentarily enjoy very intense eye contact and “fall in love a bit.”
In seeking this connection with others, Palmer and her Dresden Dolls bandmate Brian Viglione made a habit of always spending time “signing and hugging” with fans after each concert, and from here, the story takes off. In the past decade, Palmer has couch surfed the globe several times, sourced music, food, instruments and a hundred other forms of support from her loyal fan base, crowdfunded a cool $1.1 million to produce an album, and whipped up a good deal of controversy along the way.
When we ask how she got here, her response is not the usual story. Palmer has the sense that it somehow all began when she was 3 years old and took a tumble down the stairs of the family home.
“My first memory of asking for help is actually my first memory of life. I slipped at top of the stairs and fell all the way down. I didn’t break anything because I was pretty roly-poly, but I was shocked and had the wind knocked out of me. It felt so epic! I went into the kitchen expecting—I don’t really know what—sympathy or recognition, and I remember being completely ignored. For the first time I remember feeling utterly unloved and misunderstood, which was quite tellingly significant about who I was to become. A very loud and aggressive artist who insisted on being listened to and believed.”
By high school, Palmer had become adept at using The Art of Asking (the title of her book) to help her navigate the angsty teen years. Unhappy with everything and everyone, Palmer negotiated with her school counselor to drop the classes she detested, and replace them with subjects she enjoyed.
“That was the point in life when I realized, if I was going to get what I wanted and be the master of my own fate, I was going to have to be creative. I was going to have to look at the universe as flexible and plastic—and it ended up turning out beautifully. I was a little marketing and PR expert at 15 just trying to figure out what I could trade for what. I realized that the rules were flexible, but I had to put up my hand and ask.”
The Relentless Optimist
Believing she was destined to make it in the music industry armed Palmer with what she calls a relentless optimism from very early on. Pouring over her Cyndi Lauper records, she had the utmost conviction she was going to write songs and perform on stage.
“I remember thinking, I will accept no compromises; I am going to be a rock star. It’s just a matter of time. I really believed, with an insane amount of self-confidence, that I would eventually figure it out. But then there was the reality of learning to be a good songwriter, overcoming stage fright and honing my chops as a musician.
“There was definitely a point with the Dresden Dolls where—and it didn’t take long—the two of us found each other and we realized we had a magical combination. We both knew we would do whatever it took after watching the audience react to a handful of shows. We barely needed to say it, because it was palpable.”
As Palmer shares in her TED talk, as she began reaching out more and more to her audience, she was gaining more and more notoriety. Eventually, as the Kickstarter campaign for a new album started to raise some serious dollars, Palmer herself began raising eyebrows in the music industry, but for the wrong reasons.
Over the course of her career, Palmer has been a polarizing figure. But her crowdfunding campaign in particular, and the huge sum she drew in the process, drew some harsh criticism. Critics attacked the way Palmer regularly asks her fans for support, financial and otherwise, as well as how she uses that support. But Palmer herself couldn’t see the difference between putting an album on a shelf in the conventional way, and asking them to commit to buying it in advance, as she was essentially doing. It had always been about being open and accessible to fans, and smashing apart the impersonal, distant notion of celebrity.
“I can be weirdly grateful that I ran into controversy with the Kickstarter campaign, because I found myself having to explain this philosophy over and over again, so the invitation to explain it was a real gift. The talk was about connecting the dots between my experience as a street performer and then as a musician asking for help. Having built a real connection in the community through the act of asking people for stuff, it obviously culminated in the successful Kickstarter. But there was also a resonance back to my life as a street performer, where you stand there and give your art away for free and hope that the sliver of humanity who wants to support you will be consistently generous as they pass.
“I know it works because I stood there for five years and did it. Any busker who has made a living knows that you have to jump and hope that the net will catch you—and if you’re good it actually does! There is a consistent portion of the population who want to help artists and will reward you if you put yourself out there.”
On the heels of her TED talk success, Palmer was offered a book deal by Grand Central that gave her the chance to tell the full, uncut story about her own struggles and experiences with both asking and relationships. 37,000+ copies in the US alone later and she has proven there is an audience for her message.
The Connection Between Bands and Businesses
In the book, Palmer asserts that it tends to be our feelings of unworthiness that prevent us from seeking help, suggesting that fear of being rejected or appearing needy is what lies at the heart of it.
“Fear is directly tied to what rejection represents. No human being ever wants to feel unworthy of love. It may sound hokey, but that’s pretty much what it comes down to. Every entrepreneur I know learns, not necessarily to have a thick skin, but that sense of perseverance and relentless or even feigned optimism that you need to convince somebody to join your cause.”
It’s here where the parallels between the stage and the boardroom become more pronounced—it ultimately boils down to your confidence and belief in what you are promoting.
“Every band begins as a startup, unless they’re put together by Simon Cowell and sent straight to the Billboard charts. There’s a real difference between saying, ‘I have this startup and it might not be your thing but maybe you could fund us,’ and, ‘I have a startup that’s going to change the world, you need to come in and talk to us.’ One makes you really want to care. That belief in itself, combined with your ability to communicate it, can be the difference between sinking and swimming.”
Honesty, the Not-So-Secret
We’ve heard many times how those who fuel their success by building loyal communities can garner a distinct advantage. As Palmer sees it, this is the real lynchpin of her own success. With the online stratosphere providing the perfect breeding ground for her to build connections, she has made it her business to speak loudly, clearly, and often.
“The overarching rule is to communicate authentically, and try to build trust and keep it over time. A lot of companies and bands get this wrong. They think an authoritative voice is believable and miss the fact that a human voice is so much more desirable. I learned this in the beginning when I thought Dresden Dolls would sound more impressive if our website was written in the third person. As if some magical record label or marketing strategist was saying ‘The Dresden Dolls started in … blah blah,’ instead of saying just ‘Hey, it’s Amanda.’
“There’s a real gold in being authentically human. Over the last 10 years people are starting to understand this, and are peeling away the curtain of corporate bullshittiness and just saying hi, this is who were are. By doing this, you endear yourself to people because people like honesty. So much time and energy and bullshit could be saved if you remember the golden rule that people—while yes, they are manipulable and will respond to marketing ploys or cats on skateboards—at our core, we like honesty. Especially if we are to build an authentic universe and sustainable planet where people really take care of each other.
“Honestly comes in a lot of packages, but I think if I were starting my own company my core principle would be communicate authentically, don’t try to bullshit your way in to or out of a situation and always assume that honesty is the best policy.”
AMANDA FUCKING PALMER ON…
How she landed her job
“I’ve built my career very strangely, bit by bit, from day one. The best answer I can give is: nobody hires you. When you’re a musician and a performer and a writer, you don’t ever apply for the job. You fucking do the job and hope you get paid or that people at least hire you for a gig. This is also the lovely thing about being a performer and an artist. Your boss can’t come in and fire you!”
Walking her own path
“As an adult who’s almost 40 I can see my roots really clearly, and I see my similarities with my parents, but I also see real marked differences. There have been a whole set of different choices I’ve made going into a career in the arts and spending my life traveling instead of buying a house, and all that kind of stuff. But on the whole, my family have been insanely supportive. They don’t necessarily understand what I’m doing all the time, but they’re still proud of it because they know I’m doing something.”
Breaking the rules
“The field of asking is fundamentally improvisational. It thrives not in the creation of rules and etiquette but in the smashing of that etiquette. Which is to say: there are no rules. Or, rather, there are plenty of rules, but they ask, on bended knees, to be broken.”
- How to embrace your audience
- How to endure criticism and become a revolutionary in your industry
- The importance of asking for help
- How to build an extremely strong community
- Breaking the rules and why they were created
Full Transcript of Podcast with Amanda Palmer
Nathan: Hey, guys, welcome to another episode to the Foundr Podcast. Hope you enjoyed the last episode with Seth. Like I said, “We’re just getting warmed up.” I’ve got so many more epic guests coming your way, and today is another one, the one and only Amanda Palmer. Now, she’s a really really fascinating artist, creative entrepreneur, musician, and I just had to get her on the show and in the magazine because she is a very, very unique and interesting human being. And I watched her Ted Talk, “The Art of Asking,” and that’s one thing that I highly, highly, highly, recommend you do, guys, is after you listen to this interview, go and watch Amanda’s Ted Talk, “The Art of Asking.”
And she wrote a book based off this Ted Talk, and it’s a brilliant book. One of the best books that I’ve read in awhile. And pretty much she goes in-depth on what it means to make yourself vulnerable, and why people just don’t ask, and why their scared, and what holds them back, and what that fear is. And we talk about all sorts of really, really interesting things so if you haven’t heard of Amanda, she doesn’t really need an introduction because she’s got such a fascinating story and I know, who I hope a lot of you have heard of her. But that’s it from me guys. I’m just gonna let you roll with this one. This is awesome.
So if you are enjoying these interviews, please do take the time to leave us a review. Check out the magazine, it’s the fruits of our labor. If you like these interviews, I know you’ll love the magazine. If you do have any feedback, I’d love to hear from you either way. You can reach me at [email protected] Now let’s jump to the show.
Can you tell us about how you got your job?
Amanda: Which one? The one with the dominatrix? Well, this guy in a strip club introduced me to this woman.
Nathan: No, no, you joke right now.
Amanda: I’m still not sure which one you mean, book writing, music making…
Nathan: Music making, what…
Amanda: The whole thing?
Nathan: Yeah, the whole thing.
Amanda: The whole shebang?
Nathan: The whole shebang.
Amanda: God, I don’t even know how to answer that question because I’ve got…I do so many things. I think the best answer I can give you is nobody hires you. When you’re a musician and a performer and a writer, you, you know, you don’t ever apply for the job, you fucking do the job, and you hope that you get paid, and you hope that people, you know, at least hire you for a gig. It’s also the lovely thing about being a performer, and an artist, is that you know, your boss can’t come in and fire you. So, you know, I’ve built my career very strange, bit-by-bit, from day one.
Nathan: Now, I really want to talk to you about your latest book, but before I delve into that, I just have a random kind of question. Can you tell us about your family? What’s that been like? You know your whole career and how supportive of you have they been?
Amanda: Well, that is a pretty complicated question because, you know, it depends on which family you mean. You probably mean my immediate, nuclear-type. This is my mom and my stepdad and my sister, who are the ones that I shared a bathroom with growing up. And they have, on the whole, been insanely supportive. I’ve come to understand it and explain it to people as, you know, there’s a real…you know, there’s a little bit of a divide because they don’t necessarily understand what I’m doing all the time. But even when they don’t understand it, they’re kind of proud of it because they know I’m doing something.
But, you know, I didn’t come from an artistic family. I came from a pretty stable, loving family, but certainly, you know, there was very rarely music planning in the house. It was a very intellectual, very quiet, sort of classic, New England, you know, democratic liberal, you know suburban upbringing. And I look as an adult now, who’s almost 40, you know, I see my roots clearly, and I definitely see my similarities with my parents. But I also, you know, I also see some real marked differences. And, you know, a whole different set of choices that I made to go into a career in the arts and to spend my life traveling instead of buying a house and getting a car in a garage, and all that kind of stuff.
So on the whole, and I’m friends with a lot of artists and, you know, we do tend to sometimes have really fraught relationships with our families, especially if we’ve decided to do our lives not by the book. They can have a really tough time understanding why we would make the choices that we make when they aren’t the choices that they made. Whether it is, you know, the decision to not settle down and do a family or the decision to, you know, travel nonstop, and live in one place, or whatever it is. But, you know, underneath it all, my family’s been generally really supportive, compared to what they could have been.
You know, I have friends whose families have full on disowned them for being gay and just pretty much disowned them for their lifestyles. And I thank my lucky stars that I do not fall into that category.
Nathan: Well, thanks for sharing that with us. I always kind of like to ask that question just to open things up. So you wrote your book, “The Art of Asking,” and it was just delving deeper on your Ted Talk. I loved your Ted Talk, it really captured me, I’ve been following your work for quite some time now. For our audience that are listening, can you just give us a little bit of a walkthrough of the main message behind your book and what people will get out of it?
Amanda: Well, I mean the Ted Talk was about sort of connecting the dots between my experience as a street performer and then my experience as a musician asking for help, and ultimately crowdfunding and using kickstarter. And, you know, having built a real connection and community with my fans through the act of asking them for stuff, like asking them for food and asking them for places to crash, and asking them to help my band, you know, and that all culminated in a really successful kickstarter.
But I also, you know, I saw a resonance back to my life as a street performer where you stand there, and you give your art away for free and hope that the sliver of humanity that wants to support you, will sort of be consistently generous as they pass you on the street. And it does work. And I know it works because I stood there for five years and I did it. And, you know, any busker who’s made a living as a busker, knows that there is a…you kind of have to jump and hope that the net will catch you, but, you know, if you’re a good busker, it really does. There is a consistent portion of the population who wanna help artists and who will reward you if you put yourself out there, and I was really passionate about that.
Especially, you know…and I can be sort of weirdly grateful that I ran into controversy with my kickstarter because I found myself having to explain this philosophy over and over again to people who were like, “But kickstarter’s bullshit, it’s just panhandling, and you’re just begging people for money.” And I was like, “I just don’t get it. I don’t get it. What’s the difference between Madonna asking you to go and a buy a cd for 20 bucks and me asking you to preorder one for 20 bucks? I’m not really sure I understand why one is bad and one is good.”
So, you know, I was spending so much time explaining myself to people and explaining kickstarter to people. The invitation to go explain it all at once in one big go, you know, on the Ted stage was a real gift. And then when the Ted Talk did well, I was offered a book deal. And I took it because there was a lot I had to leave out of the Ted Talk, mainly my own struggles with asking and my own experiences in my own relationships, you know, all of which were related to the topic but certainly weren’t fittable, amenable to it, to a 12-minute talk.
Nathan: There’s a passage from your book that I’d just like to quote to our audience and just discuss with you because I found it really really powerful. “Often it is our own sense that we are undeserving of help that has immobilized us. Whether it’s in the arts, at work, or in relationships, we often resist asking, not only because we’re afraid of rejection, but also we don’t think we deserve what we’re asking for.” And there was another piece, “The fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak,” and I found that really powerful. It really hit home for me, especially because, you know, our audience is entrepreneurs, aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs, and I felt that as entrepreneurs, you always have to show up and put yourself out there and ask for help. And for me, personally, I realize that that’s actually something I’ve, personally, been afraid of, it’s always come quite natural to me. But why do you think that we are so afraid to ask?
Amanda: Well, I mean, the fear is, I think, just directly tied into what the rejection represents, which is what no human being ever wants to feel, which is unworthy of love. I mean it really does…it may sound hokey, but that’s pretty much what it boils down to.
You know, every entrepreneur I know, and most of the good artists I know, are also entrepreneurs. They learn, you know, not even necessarily to have a thick skin, but just that sense of perseverance and the kind of relentless optimism, or even feigned optimism, that you know you have to have to convince somebody to join your cause. There’s an extreme parallel between startup companies and startup bands because pretty much every band starts as a startup unless they’re put together by Simon Cowell and sent right to the Billboard charts.
But, you know, your confidence in your own band, and your confidence in your own company, it’s kind of the same thing. There’s a real difference between saying, “Well, you know, I have this startup, and we’re…we’re doing some interesting stuff. You may…I don’t know if it’s really your thing, but if you would consider funding us, maybe you can…” You know, there’s a difference between that and “I have a startup that’s gonna change the world. You need to come in and talk to us,” which is basically the difference between saying, “Yeah, I’m in a band, might not really be your sort of thing. But we have a show on Thursday, but it’s at this shitty club,” and saying, “I’m in a band, I love my band. You should fucking come to our show, it’s gonna be amazing, and it’s on Thursday.”
One makes you want to help, and one makes you not really care. And it’s not just in the sales pitch, but it’s in your own belief that you’re in the best band in the world and that your startup company really is gonna change the planet. And without the combination of the belief in the thing and the ability to communicate your belief in that thing, is sort of a difference between sinking and swimming.
Nathan: At what moment did you know that what you do was going to become big or that you knew that things were going to be okay?
Amanda: That’s an interesting question because, you know, in one sense, I was armed with that relentless optimism from day one, like from the time I was 12. You know, looking at my Cindy Lauper records and going, “I am gonna do that job.” Like, “There is no, there is no, I will accept no compromises. I’m gonna be a rockstar, and that’s that. And I have no idea how to do it and how one does it, but, you know, I know I’m gonna write songs, and I’m gonna perform on stage, and that’s that. And it’s just a matter of time.” And I really did believe that, with a kind of insane amount of self-confidence that, eventually, I would figure it out.
But then there was also the reality of it which was really learning to be a good songwriter, learning to overcome stage fright, learning to hone my chops as a musician, and learn the basics of touring and gear, and what you do and don’t do. And there was definitely a point with the Dresden Dolls, which was my first band, where, you know… And it didn’t take long, the two of us found each other, and we realized that our piano and drums duo had a magical combination, we didn’t need any other instruments. And we just kind of knew after playing 10 or 12 shows with each other and watching the reaction of the audience, we looked at each other and said, “We love this band, and we are going to do whatever it takes to take this band to the next level.”
And we barely needed to say it because it was palpable in the room. We passionately loved playing this music with each other, and people passionately loved watching us do it.
Nathan: Can you describe to us the feeling of the first time, I guess, you asked for help, in that moment?
Amanda: Well, the first time I asked and failed, or the first time I asked, and it worked?
Nathan: Let’s go with both. I’d just like to really delve deep on that and that feeling that you got.
Amanda: Well, this is gonna get really dark really fast because the first time I remember asking for help, was my first memory in life. I was three and I was this teeny weeny, I had toppled down the stairs of my folk’s first house, the one that I, you know, grew up in until I was about four or five. And I did that sort of cartoon thing where I slipped at the top of the stairs, and I fell all the way down. But I was three, and I was pretty roly-poly, and I wasn’t actually…I didn’t break anything, I was just really shocked. You know, I had the wind knocked out of me, I was kind of banged up, but nothing that was really broken. And I was so stunned at what had happened, and it felt so epic, like this fall from the second floor to the first floor, was so like…it felt so historic.
And I was crying, and I went into the kitchen where I don’t even remember who was there, but you know, I was the baby of the family, so it was like the rest of everyone. And I went in there like really expecting…I don’t know what I expected, but I was asking for sympathy, and I was asking for understanding that this huge thing had just happened. I just remember being completely ignored, and for the first time in my existence just feeling like utterly unloved and misunderstood. And, you know, that was the moment where I was like, “Yeah, humanity, not for me. I’m turning my back on all of you. I’m starting my own band.”
But also, I think that the fact that that was my first memory in life, it’s also so significant that that’s what my little brain at 10 or 15, or whatever, that sort of jelled as my first memory, which is so tellingly significant about who I was and what I became. You know, this very loud, aggressive artist who insisted on being listened to and believed. And, you know, and I also, I remember asking for help in other forms.
My sophomore year of school when I was about 15, I sort of looked around. I was kind of a miserable, depressive, angsty type as a teenager, as many of us were. And I looked around like, you know, the second or third day of school in 10th grade and I was just unhappy with everything and everyone. Hated my classmates, felt my teachers were stupid, didn’t understand why I was being forced to learn this stuff that I wasn’t interested in, and I just withdrew from school. I just took myself out. I literally like put my backpack on, I walked out, and went to the library and decided that I was gonna educate myself.
And, you know, it was sort of…that was the point in life where I realized, you know, if I was gonna get what I wanted, if I was gonna sort of be master of my own fate, I was gonna have to be creative. And I was gonna have to sort of look at the universe as flexible and plastic. And I wound up…it actually wound up really turning out beautifully. I struck a deal. You know, my parents withstood this for about a week and then absolutely blew their tops and marched me into the school guidance counselor and said, “What are we gonna do with her, she won’t go to school?” And I wound up negotiating a deal with my guidance counselor where I could drop out of all the classes that I hated most. So I dropped out of math, history, and science, and I kept Latin, English, and French. And that was my sophomore year. I took Latin, English, French, art, and gym, and then made up those classes in summer school and sort of suffered…compacted all of the suffering into three weeks.
But, you know, I asked like, “Can I do this? Can I do this? Well, what if I do this? Can I do this? Can I get away with this because otherwise, I’ll just drop out?” You know, I was like a, you know, little like marketing and PR expert at 15, just trying to figure out like what I could trade for what. You know, and I realized the rules were flexible, but I actually had to put my hand up and make the demand.
Nathan: I love that. Look, we have to work towards wrapping up, one last question. And that’s around community building and building that connection that something, as an artist, you are really, really good at and you are creating a movement that changes the way artists should build, grow, and maintain an audience. So what advice would you give around, you know, a couple pieces around building your community and keeping that connection and developing it over time, and building that trust?
Amanda: I mean there’s a lot of sort of gritty nitty nerdy ways to do it, but the overarching rule is communicating authentically. And I think a lot of companies get this wrong and a lot of bands get this wrong. They think that there’s an authoritative voice that is like the believable voice that a company would speak in or a band would speak in. And I think they miss the fact that a human voice and an authentic voice is so much more desirable if you’re trying to be heard and you’re trying to create and maintain a relationship.
I learned this in the beginning of my bands’ days when I assumed that my band would be more impressive if everything about us on our website was written in the third person. And it was like as if some magical record label or marketing strategist was going, “The Dresden Dolls were formed in…,” instead of just saying like, “Hey, it’s Amanda.” And, you know, there’s a real goal in being authentically human. And a lot of companies clearly, in the last 10, 20 years, are really starting to understand this and are peeling away a curtain of, you know, corporate bullshitting us and just saying like, “Hi, actually, our company’s a people, it’s me, Nicky, and Steve. Here we are, here’s a picture of us in our office. We’re not a giant corporate headquarters, we’re actually a little grassroots, blah, blah, blah.”
But by doing that, you endear yourself to people because people like honesty. And so much time and energy, and bullshit, could be saved if you remember the golden rule that people, they will respond to marketing ploys, yes, and they will respond to, you know, cats on skateboards, and, yes, people are manipulatable. Especially if we are to build an authentic universe and a, you know, sustainable planet where people are honest with each other and really take care of each other.
At our core, we really like honesty, and we really respond fundamentally, positively, to people being honest. And, you know, honesty can come in a lot of packages, but, you know, I think if I were starting up my own company, I think that would be, you know, that would be my core principle is communicate authentically. Don’t try to bullshit your way into or out of a situation. Assume that honesty’s the best policy.
Nathan: Awesome. All right, well, look, we’ll wrap there Amanda, but thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. It was an absolute pleasure speaking with you, I could talk to you all day.
Amanda: Same here, nice to talk to you.
Key Resources From Our Interview With Amanda Palmer
- Learn more about Amanda Palmer
- Follow Amanda Palmer on Twitter
- Checkout Amanda Palmer’s Upcoming Shows