Amanda Palmer: The Art of Asking
Certain art hungers for context.
As for me, it took a few months of hardcore statue work to really find my footing and develop this sense of deep gratitude for the sliver of the population, however small, that was willing to tune their head frequencies to the Art Channel for a moment, interrupting their march to work.
That ongoing sense of appreciation shaped my constitution in a fundamental way. I didn’t just feel a fleeting sense of thanks for each generous person who stopped; I had been hammered into a gratitude-shaped vessel and would never take for granted those willing to slow down and connect.
Given the opportunity, some small consistent portion of the population will happily pay for art.
Asking is, at its core, a collaboration.
Those who can ask without shame are viewing themselves in collaboration with—rather than in competition with—the world.
Asking for help with shame says:
You have the power over me.
Asking with condescension says:
I have the power over you.
But asking for help with gratitude says:
We have the power to help each other.
…to be sure: when you ask, there’s always the possibility of a no on the other side of the request. If we don’t allow for that no, we’re not actually asking, we’re either begging or demanding. But it is the fear of the no that keeps so many of our mouths sewn tightly shut.
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 our relationships, we often resist asking not only because we’re afraid of rejection but also because we don’t even think we deserve what we’re asking for. We have to truly believe in the validity of what we’re asking for—which can be incredibly hard work and requires a tightrope walk above the doom-valley of arrogance and entitlement. And even after finding that balance, how we ask, and how we receive the answer—allowing, even embracing, the no—is just as important as finding that feeling of valid-ness.
Asking is like courtship; begging, you are already naked and panting.
Asking is an act of intimacy and trust. Begging is a function of fear, desperation, or weakness. Those who must beg demand our help; those who ask have faith in our capacity for love and in our desire to share with one another.
On the street or on the Internet, this is what makes authentically engaging an audience, from one human being to another, such an integral part of asking.
Honest communication engenders mutual respect, and that mutual respect makes askers out of beggars.
But honestly? I didn’t want to be a statue. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be vulnerable. Not as a character, but as myself.
While Brian drove us to out-of-town gigs, I managed the band from the passenger seat on my bulky, blue, constantly crashing Dell laptop. Managing the band didn’t mean talking to labels, agents, or publishers; we didn’t know any. Managing the band meant making friends with other freaks in other cities, finding performers to share the stage with, lining up couches to crash on, chasing down a gallery where a friend was hanging paintings and was happy to have a band play at the opening.
I’ll never forget that brief encounter. I didn’t feel like a fan meeting a rock star. I didn’t feel like a groupie. I felt like a friend.
Brian and I took great pleasure in the fact that we seemed to have created the most eclectic community of fans in Boston: art college students, vegan punks, drag queens, metalheads, academics, people who listened to National Public Radio. That meant the world to us. We didn’t want to tap a particular crowd—we didn’t want to be a hip indie band or a goth band. We wanted the people who came to the shows to feel like they were part of our weird little family, that they would never be turned away at the door for not being cool enough.
DIY is a tricky term.
I’ve been called the “Queen of DIY,” but if you’re really taking the definition of “Do It Yourself” literally, I completely fail. I have no interest in Doing It Myself. I’m much more interested in getting everybody to help me.
Minimal DIY doesn’t rely on trust; it relies on ingenuity.
Maximal DIY relies on trust and ingenuity. You have to ask with enough grace and creativity to elicit a response, and you also have to trust the people you’re asking not to ruin your recording session, not to poison your food, not to bludgeon you with a hammer as you sit in their passenger seat.
I was learning, slowly but surely, that The Media—the traditional one, at any rate—mattered less and less. The ability to connect directly, under our own umbrella, was making one thing very clear:
We were The Media.
The happiest artists I know are generally the ones who can manage to make a reasonable living from their art without having to worry too much about the next paycheck. Not to say that every artist who sits around the campfire, or plays in tiny bars, is “happier” than those singing in stadiums—but more isn’t always better. If feeling the connection between yourself and others is the ultimate goal, it can actually be harder when you are separated from your crowd by a thirty-foot barrier. The ideal sweet spot is the one in which the artist can freely share their talents and directly feel the reverberations of their artistic gifts to their community, and make a living doing that. In other words, it works best when everybody feels seen.
As artists, and as humans: if your fear is scarcity, the solution isn’t necessarily abundance. To quote Brené Brown again:
Abundance and scarcity are two sides of the same coin. The opposite of “never enough” isn’t abundance or “more than you could ever imagine.”
Which is to say, the opposite of “never enough” is simply:
It was a massive leap of faith for these people to believe that “just connecting with people,” in an authentic, non-promotional, non-monetary way, is so valuable.
But it is. It’s invaluable.
Those managers seemed really reluctant to believe that if you just trusted and listened to, talked to, and connected with the fanbase, the money and the profits would come—when the time came.
There’s a difference between wanting to be looked at and wanting to be seen.
When you are looked at, your eyes can stay blissfully closed. You suck energy, you steal the spotlight. When you are seen, your eyes must be open, as you are seeing and recognizing your witness. You accept energy and you generate energy. You create light.
One is exhibitionism, the other is connection.
Not everybody wants to be looked at.
Everybody wants to be seen.
As we were wrapping up our two-hour conversation and were well into our second (third?) glasses of wine, she said, You know, Amanda, one thing always bothered me. Something you said when you were a teenager.
Oh, no. Whatever it was, it couldn’t be good. I was a terrible teenager, an explosion of hormones and nihilism.
She can do this imitation of me as a teenager that makes me want to crawl under a table. She did it now.
You said: “MOM, I’m a REAL ARTIST. You’re NOT.”
Then she added, more kindly, You know you, Amanda, you were being a typical teenager.
I winced, and felt my neck tighten and my teeth grit down into mother-fight-or-flight mode.
She continued, But you know. You would say, “I’m an ARTIST…fuck you, Mom! What do you know?! You’re just a computer programmer.”
I had to admit…I could totally imagine myself saying that as a teenager. Maybe not the “fuck you, Mom” part. But still.
And then my mother said something that absolutely demolished my defensiveness. I don’t think, in all the years I’ve known her, that I’ve ever heard her sound more vulnerable.
You know, Amanda, it always bothered me. You can’t see my art, but…I’m one of the best artists I know. It’s just…nobody could ever see the beautiful things I made. Because you couldn’t hang them in a gallery.
Anthony once told me: It wasn’t what you say to people, it’s more important what you do with them. It’s less important what you do with them then the way you’re with them.
We have a fucked-up relationship with artists.
While artists are, on one hand, applauded for their awe-inspiring, life-changing works of art, they’re simultaneously eyed with suspicion, disdain, and other sentiments of the GET A JOB variety. Look at the media: we deify artists one second, demonize them the next. Artists internalize this and perpetuate the cycle; artists do this to each other, and they do it to themselves.
It’s no wonder artists have such a difficult time maintaining the romantic standard they try to achieve not just to please others but to hit their own internal bar that was set early on, when they were just starting to grasp their artistic identity. It’s no wonder that so many artists crack under the pressure, go crazy, do drugs, kill themselves, or change their names and move into hiding on remote islands.
Artists can get mentally trapped in The Garret, that romantic vortex where painters, writers, and musicians find themselves stuck in a two-dimensional nightmare starring their own image. You know The Garret. It’s a candlelit attic room, where the artist sits with a pen, a paintbrush, slaving away. Alone. Drunk. Chain-smoking. Creating. Agonizing. Probably wearing a scarf.
The artistic workspace is real and necessary, but it takes on every shape imaginable, […]
A balanced artist knows when to hide in The Garret, when to throw the windows open, and when to venture out into the hallway to the kitchen, where society exists. Most important is the understanding that there are no rules—what works on one day, for one song, won’t work the next.
Once the art is finished there is a new challenge. Down to the ground floor and out the front door, you have the marketplace. It’s loud down there. The stalls of exchange, the sound of bargaining and bartering and clanging cash registers. It’s crass and mundane compared to The Garret—no matter what your version of The Garret looks like—where the art gets dreamed up.
Some artists need to create in complete peace, but all artists are now empowered by technology to open the front door and chronicle their backstage and behind-the-scenes working processes. More importantly, they’re equipped to distribute the work themselves, sharing their writing, their music, and their digitally reproducible wares infinitely and at their own will—without printing presses, without CD manufacturers, without movie theaters. The art goes from the artists’ lips or pen to the audiences’ ears and eyes. But in order to share directly, the artist still has to leave The Garret and head down into the bustling marketplace, and that’s the catch: the marketplace is where you have to deal with people. To many artists, people are scary.
In The Age Of The Social Artist, the question echoes everywhere: what about the introverted or antisocial artists who have no desire to leave The Garret and enter the marketplace? What about the singers who don’t want to tweet, the novelists who don’t want to blog? What will happen to the reclusive J. D. Salingers of the world?
The marketplace is messy; it’s loud and filled with disease and pickpockets and naysayers and critics. For almost any artist, carrying your work through the stalls of exchange can be painful.
But there is another option, which is to yell from your window. You can call down to your potential friends outside, your comrades in art and metaphor and dot-connecting, and invite them to a private party in your garret.
This is the essence of crowdfunding.
It’s about finding your people, your listeners, your readers, and making art for and with them. Not for the masses, not for the critics, but for your ever-widening circle of friends. It doesn’t mean you’re protected from criticism. If you lean out that window and shout down to find your friends, you might get an apple chucked at your head. But if your art touches a single heart, strikes a single nerve, you’ll see people quietly heading your way and knocking on your door. Let them in. Tell them to bring their friends up. If possible, provide wine.
If you’re not social—and a lot of artists aren’t—you’ll have a harder time. Risk is the core cost of human connection. In most cases, the successfully independent antisocial artist pairs with an advocate to shout the message down to the street. Sometimes it’s a record label. Sometimes it’s a patron. Sometimes it’s a best friend.
Art and commerce have never, ever been easy bedfellows. The problems inherent in mashing together artistic expression and money don’t go away, they just change form. Nowadays a lot of apples get chucked at artists who try to get help through crowdfunding: Stop self-promoting. It’s shameless! Those words poke at the emotions most artists are already struggling with. That fear of being called shameless is what makes us think twice about sharing our work with ANYBODY in the first place.
No art or artist exists in a vacuum. Although artists may have access to all the latest social media tools, it doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all eager to use them. At least now there is a choice: you can either leave The Garret, or you can invite everybody in with you, or you can send somebody out on your behalf to round up your crowd and drag them up the stairs.
A warning: With every connection you make online, there’s more potential for criticism. For every new bridge you build with your community, there’s a new set of trolls who squat underneath it.
Fame doesn’t buy trust. Only connection does that.
Effective crowdfunding is not about relying on the kindness of strangers, it’s about relying on the kindness of your crowd.
There’s a difference.
My relationship with my fans is like a friendship. I have faced a slew of screwups over the years: accidentally double-booked shows, mail-order albums that shipped five or six months late. But most of the time, if I explain the backstory and the behind-the-scenes logistics of the situation, the audience stands with me. I’ve apologized tons of times. The only thing I must not do is break the code of honesty and steady, forthright contact. You can fix almost anything by authentically communicating.
My theory: one of the biggest reasons people usually want to help an artist is because they really want…to help an artist. Not get a fancy beer cozy. If they make the decision to help, they will help at the level at which they are able, no matter what token, flower, or simple thank-you awaits them at the other end.
I emailed a pal at Kickstarter to see if they had any hard evidence to support this, and indeed, they had the numbers: Since Kickstarter began, 887,256 backers have asked for the artists to refrain from sending them any kind of reward—which represents a little over 14 percent of their user base.
Sometimes people just want to help. You never know until you ask.
His Kickstarter didn’t get funded. It more than didn’t get funded: it only raised $132 of a $7,000 goal, from three backers. I was one of them.
Hundreds of thousands of people had enjoyed Walt’s work on YouTube, but he hadn’t cultivated a long-term relationship with them, he hadn’t yet built a bridge of exchange between himself and his potential supporters.
There isn’t always a crowd from which you can fund. Sometimes you just don’t know until you jump.
Asking for help requires authenticity, and vulnerability.
Those who ask without fear learn to say two things, with or without words, to those they are facing:
I deserve to ask
You are welcome to say no.
Because the ask that is conditional cannot be a gift.