The advent of the internet had a profound impact on the music industry. Artists were left scampering to keep up with the changing environment, their opinions divided over how to adapt to the rampant advances in technology. Some saw it as a threat — a sinister new platform that risked decimating their revenues by making their songs available online for free. Others embraced it as an opportunity — a way of connecting with their audience, making music more accessible to listeners, expanding their reach, extending their fame, and then capitalising on the many options presented by this new resource.
Amanda Palmer very emphatically fell in the second category. She took to the online world with gusto, and readily embraced blogging, tweeting, crowdsourcing, and crowdfunding, connecting with her listeners while building a solid community of loyal fans. That ardent fan base has since helped her continue her music career. She has asked them for money to make more songs and albums, couches to sleep on while she tours, and volunteers to perform with her, and her fans have yet to let her down.
Her aggressive internet presence, however, has also made her very divisive. Rabid admirers adore her and celebrate her fearlessness, while critics scoff at the entitlement and hypocrisy behind her approach. Detractors have repeatedly pointed out that Palmer wasn’t exactly an unknown indie artist when she started asking listeners to finance her recordings, having amassed at least a portion of her fan base during her years with a major label when resources were spent on promoting her internationally. And no one fails to point out that she is married to the famous writer Neil Gaiman, whose influence has given her access to a bigger audience that may have previously been unfamiliar with her.
“We ask each other, daily, for little things: A quarter for the parking meter. An empty chair in a café. A lighter. A lift across town. And we must all, at one point or another, ask for the more difficult things: A promotion. An introduction to a friend. An introduction to a book. A loan. An STD test. A kidney.” — Excerpt from the book
But whether it is through her knack of connecting with people or a series of fortunate events (or perhaps a bit of both), Palmer’s approach does seem to be working for her. She raised nearly $1.2 million in a fan-funded Kickstarter campaign, and was then invited to deliver a (very successful) TED Talk on the art of asking, which in turn led to a book deal. The result is The Art of Asking, a part-memoir, part-inspirational manifesto in which she talks about her journey, explains why she thinks asking is “the fundamental building block of any relationship”, and inspires people to not be scared of asking for help, assistance, and support.
The book finds the musician discussing various topics from her working life. Palmer details her time working as a living statue; dressed in a wedding gown with her face painted white, she would stand on milk crates on a sidewalk, coming to life when someone gave her money, then handing her patron a flower in return. She also writes about her time with Evelyn Evelyn and The Dresden Dolls, living at the Cloud Club, touring with her new band, the Grand Theft Orchestra, and the success of her Kickstarter, all the while highlighting the fact that asking played a huge role in her success. The lyrics of her songs serve as chapter breaks (and the singer has also made a Bandcamp playlist that readers can stream as they go through the book).
Intertwined with the inspirational notes and musical tales are stories from her personal life. Her friend and mentor Anthony Martignetti gets prominent mention in the book; she clearly seems to value his love, support, and advice, and is visibly affected by his battle with cancer. Also a repeated presence in the text is her husband Gaiman; from her reluctance to accept his financial help to intimate moments the two have shared, the singer mines their time together for anecdotes (and often ends up in TMI territory, although if you’re familiar with the singer and her website, you won’t be remotely surprised by the oversharing).
Throughout the book, Palmer’s boisterous personality shines through, and it’s hard not to admire her uninhibited nature and disarming frankness. Plus it’s thoroughly refreshing to hear from a musician who isn’t hell-bent on suing fans who can’t afford to buy her music and download it for free online, which is something she actually encourages. Her passion for the things she talks about appears to be genuine. But it does seem like she is stuck in a fan-base bubble and writes off any criticism being directed at her as the malicious effort of easily-offended haters and obnoxious trolls. Combined with the occasional tints of false modesty, her stance often feels dismissive and self-aggrandising.
Also, she never quite explains most of her points coherently. It becomes apparent fairly quickly that writing prose isn’t her strong suit. The book, which appears to take a stream of consciousness-styled flow, reads like an unfocused hodgepodge of thoughts, scuttling between various points without thoroughly examining any of them. Ideas are scattered throughout the book, and Palmer doesn’t bother to give them a cohesive shape. The anecdotes from her past — which don’t uniformly span her entire life — are more elaborate than the parts where she talks about the art of asking itself (or rather the art of networking, which is what it actually seems to be in this context).
Nor does she explain how her ideas would concretely apply to someone who isn’t an extrovert, attention-seeking, exhibitionist musician. Sure her crowdsourcing, couch-surfing escapades have served her well, but there isn’t a focused discussion on how those principles actually work or would work for people in general. The thesis, therefore, starts to feel myopic and at times even self-indulgent. Her TED Talk was a 13-minute speech. The book is a 300-page rambling version of the same topic, delivered with significantly less poise. And so the book just seems like an opportunistic attempt at capitalising on the success of the talk despite the fact that she doesn’t have anything truly profound to add to what she has already said.
Still, it paints the picture of a fearless woman who has led a very unconventional life, and that in itself makes it an interesting read. But there is nothing profound or life-changing here, and you have to glean for yourself how any of it actually works, or whether it would apply to anyone other than Palmer herself. Nevertheless, her fans who love everything she does are bound to love this too.
The reviewer is a Lahore-based freelance writer and critic.
The Art of Asking or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help
By Amanda Palmer
Grand Central Publishing, US