Chapter 73: The Art of Asking (and it’s an art, not a science)


https://www.flickr.com/photos/uitdragerij/3274206589/in/photolist-5ZkaxK-8U5pBE-8TL7uQ-8TH2Z2-8TL7Es-8U2m4p-8U5osb-xD99f-xD96w-xD9Tr-8U5p9C-6MfHk5-xD9Wu-8U2kaT-9Ar5hb-8TL7Cj-oEescq-cxdWDG-5BNwX4-5BSQjN-opM93r-8TL7vY-8U5pK5-dBsDoS-8U2jFR-8TH38x-8U2mp6-8U5q9E-8TH382-8TH37t-8TL7D3-8TH2Rr-8TH2S8-8TH35e-8TL7pQ-8TH2Vr-8TL7tJ-8TL7BG-8TL7ky-8TH3cR-8TL7jU-8TL7z3-8TL7qQ-8TH33z-8TH2WD-8TL7GS-8TH32x-8TH3dH-8TL7wy-6ySW1i
(‘Broadcast – The Long-Playing Record’ by Hans Dinkelberg)

 

Dear Diary,

There’s been a run of music business related posts recently, and… I know that you’re not fantastically interested in the music business.

It’s okay, you don’t need to apologise.

You’re a diary.

You want scandal, and…

Okay, you want basically just want scandal.  You want salacious gossip, inappropriately revealing detail.  You want, in a word, intimacy.  Because of course you’re not just a diary: you’re a pillow book.

And of course I’m happy to oblige.  I enjoy writing that stuff more anyway.

 

So let me do this last one, and then I’m going to make a new blog category: Thoughts on the Music Business.

There’s been a fair bit of discussion on the last blog piece: on the point of Spotify specifically, and the future of the music business generally.

Plenty of people have voiced various opinions and theories about how the old music business is doomed, or about how it could still work better.

But no one has actually described how the new one might work.

No one, of course, except Amanda Palmer.

 

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Art-Asking-learned-worrying-people/dp/0349408092/r
‘The Art of Asking’ – click to go to the Amazon.co.uk page

 

On the subject of the new music business, all roads lead to AFP on this one, because she is the one with the most interesting ideas, and practices.  Ideas which don’t just relate to the last blog, but also the one before that, because she has spoken at length on the importance of busking and how her years making money didn’t just give her a surprisingly regular income but also gave her a great training in the art of letting an audience pay you.  (And it’s an art, not a science, but more on that later.)  It made me realise, busking is not for me, right now, but I totally agree with her that everyone should get their practice playing to groups of passing strangers.

Incidentally, Diary, whether you agree with her or not, please don’t bore me by saying she isn’t interesting.  Just as the words “I fucking hate Willie Nelson” will tell you all you will ever need to know about a person, any out-of-hand dismissal of Amanda Palmer is simply a way of telling the world that you are a boring person.

Anyway, it’s been an interesting week for the Future of the Music Business, with Amanda Palmer’s new book ‘The Art of Asking’ out on Tuesday, and Taylor Swift finally making a statement about why her songs were pulled from Spotify.

While I’m on the subject, I was late to the Amanda Palmer party, and even later to the Taylor Swift party – having only recently really registered who she is.  But I’ve been impressed by pretty much everything I’ve seen thus far by the Jennifer Lawrence of Pop Music (who would have thought that ‘nice’ would suddenly be so fashionable?), and I think that she’s absolutely right to describe Spotify as a risky experiment for musicians.  Because it is, basically.  It has only just started to make any money at all, and only in Europe.

So I’ve been spending the last few days, reading about Taylor Swift and the music business, and Amanda Palmer.  And I’ve also, rather stupidly, been trying to cut right back on sugar and caffeine.  So today my fuzzy brain has been able to focus on either this:

Or this, which my brother Ben sent to me a few days ago, and I lost the link for, and then Hannah sent it again just to make sure:

The two have started to merge in my mind now, and somehow the Fleetwood Mac song “Everywhere” has been added to the mix.  I’ve also been using power tools to cut through a rubber tyre reinforced with wire, and have been genuinely worried about cutting off my fingers, so all in all it’s been a rather fraught afternoon.

But anyway.

I haven’t had time to read Art of Asking yet, but I’m looking forward to it.  Amanda Palmer has famously earned the ire of thousands of frustrated indie musicians for her brazen requests for money, labour, accommodation, baked goods and more.  Or… perhaps it’s not been the asking that’s pissed off the online music boards, so much as the receiving.  She asked for $100,000, and received $1.2 million.  She’s been called arrogant, narcissistic, delusional, but fundamentally her fans love her, and only a rabid cynic would suggest she doesn’t love her fans.  So it doesn’t really matter what the “it should have been ME!” crowd feel – whatever she’s doing is working.

The big question everyone is asking is whether what she does is repeatable.  Can other people, who haven’t had her good fortune, achieve similar success?

Probably not, is my thinking, although I don’t really think her success is good fortune alone.  Yes, she seems to have gone to a good private school, and yes, she was signed to a record label that promoted her previous band, The Dresden Dolls, to the point where she was enough of a celebrity to go it alone.  But I suspect that her years of earning money as a street entertainer probably gave her the training to make the most of these things.  One of the most interesting things about her, I think, is that she is one of the few people that talks about how to make enough money to live by.  She says that as a street performer, perhaps surprisingly, she made a regular and fairly predictable income.  I think she’s learnt a very delicate art, and it might be too subtle at this stage to be scientifically repeated again and again.

But the next question is: does that matter?

I don’t feel I need to be as successful as Amanda Palmer; I really just want to make a career in music sustainable.  And this is partly selfish, but it’s also because I know so many great musicians who have even more non-music obligations to meet than I do.  And I think it would be wonderful if they could find the bigger audience they deserve, and maybe even be financially rewarded for it to.

And for this level of success, I think that the idea of asking for payment rather than forcing it is the most interesting one going.

 

My problem is that… although I recognise the importance of the idea… I still don’t quite understand it.  I wish it was a science I could study, rather than an art I can only admire, because I don’t understand why an audience wouldn’t want to pay for music.

 

I’ve read a lot (from Amanda Palmer amongst others) about musicians who want to ‘keep the gates closed’ and make people pay for music.  And about how these people are from the old, bad music business, and are only self-interested money-grabbers and don’t want to join this culture of sharing.

And I feel I want to defend these people and say that I can totally understand why they feel like that, and not just because it was always hard making a living out of music, and now it’s got a whole lot harder.  It’s scary.  But then, if the business changes, you have to change – I get it!

It’s just that I don’t understand the free music culture yet, but from the point of a consumer, not an artist.

I’m an adult now; I can afford to pay for music.  Letting kids who can’t afford it copy music… well, I copied music off people all the time when I was young.

It’s a bit naughty – a kind of stealing, really.

And good… what kind of childhood would it be if you weren’t a bit naughty?  If kids were ever being naughty by stealing my music instead of, say, mugging pensioners in underpasses, I would take that as a very high compliment.

But I actually want to pay for music.

In this article from last week Amanda Palmer talks about fans guiltily handing her money for all the Dresden Dolls CDs that they copied, because they wanted to support her career.  And I feel like that about artists too.  But I’d much rather hit a ‘Buy’ button, and pay… well, £5 sounds reasonable for an album to me (£10 if it’s 69 Love Songs, £25 if it’s made by refugees who are fleeing their homeland and trying to support their families, you get the drift).

Let’s take an example: brother Mark plays me a song from the new Leonard Cohen album, and I haven’t bought a Leonard Cohen album in a while, but after that one song I go straight to iTunes and buy it.  And I like that.  I’m sure I could keep listening to it free, but I don’t want to.  I know I want it, and I know it’s worth the money.

The thing is, it’s the same system I use to buy food, clothes, household items.  I want to buy it, then (if I have the money and it’s worth it) I pay money for it, and that whole side of the deal is done.  If I could walk into Tesco and take whatever food I wanted for free, and then had to make a donation at some point in the week… I would *dread* going to Tesco.  Because, me being me, I’d probably keep forgetting.  And then I’d feel that the staff would be looking at me and thinking: “Is he going to donate this time?  Hey, you!  Are you donating?  I have to eat here!”

I would say: “Look, can I just pay you, for the products?  I’d much rather just do that, and not have to think about it.”

Paying for things works for me.  Apart from anything else, it’s a really good way of making sure I don’t have too much stuff in my life.

Actually, it works in much the same way as charity and taxes now.  When I was young I felt very strongly about giving money to charity, but now (mainly hearing first-hand horror stories about the NGO sector) I’d much rather pay more taxes, and then lobby government to use them in a responsible way.  I don’t want to make decisions on a case by case basis about good causes to spend my money on.  It’s too complicated for my little brain.

And this puts me at a distinct disadvantage, because all my business decisions are based on ‘what would I want in this situation?’  Which sounds like a dumb and self-centred thing to say, but to explain that a little: if I am providing any kind of service (for money or for free) I need to have some idea what the recipient actually wants, to make sure I do the job right.  They may want something I don’t, and that’s fine, but I need to understand why they want it, or I can’t provide it.  So I feel out of my depth here, and realise I have a lot I need to learn.

And probably that means a lot to learn about the art of asking.

Because the actual mechanics of how you ask… enough to pay just for your artistic costs, never mind your living ones, is not obvious to me.

It’s an art, not a science.

And I know we shouldn’t bitch on our blogs pretending that Art is Hard.

But… yeah, it sort of is.  I think we shouldn’t pretend it’s Difficult, Inaccessible, Only For The Worthy.  But the ‘figuring out how to say what you really mean to say, in a way that people will hear it, and understand what you mean’ part.

That is actually hard!

But if an ‘Asking’ economy works in the arts, or wider, then that’s great as far as I’m concerned.

I really don’t mind how it works, so long as it works.

 

Which is why I love Bandcamp.

I asked in the last blog post why any artist right now (and that’s key – I’m just talking about right now) would want to be on Spotify.  I wasn’t actually saying it was bad: I was saying I didn’t understand the appeal.

Now I’m asking why any artist right now wouldn’t be on Bandcamp.  Bandcamp lets you offer music to stream if you want to.  But it also lets you offer it for download, and it allows the buyer to set the price they think is worth.  This is a really interesting step, I think.  On my page I’ve set prices that I think are reasonable (generally about 40p per track, and £5 for an album).  But occasionally, people pay more!  And I hope to put some new stuff on there fairly soon, and offer some stuff for free and some stuff perhaps available only when you buy an album.  It gives you the ability to tailor it to people’s listening preferences. 

And they, like, pay you.  I keep getting notifications that people have bought music off there (I sell more on Bandcamp than CDs at gigs, and for a mostly trad artist that’s quite a big deal).

They also take their costs (because yes, they need to be paid too) out of your sales.  Which makes total sense to me, because you don’t have to pay a regular charge.  It’s really Win Win, as far as I can tell.

Is it the future of the music business?  Who knows.

But for me at least, it is the present.

Bandcamp front page (click to go to site)
Bandcamp front page (click to go to site)