Open Letter to Amanda Palmer, The Newly Arrived Member of the Petit Bourgeoisie

Edit: Amand Palmer has now decided to maybe do the right thing, although the details are still sketchy. A new blog post reports that she is now going to pay her "volunteer" musicians, and I'm glad she's decided to do that right thing. That said, I hope she really does learn from this and spends some time thinking about her newfound power as a person capable of raising the kind of capital she finds herself in command of. ANd I hope she's paying her volunteers AFM Scale for their performances.

Note: This began life as a comment on AFP's blog here. It's been expanded and edited a bit below.

Dear Amanda,

First, know that I'm a fan. I like your music. I like what you do. I think you're a very talented performer.

Second, know that I'm a musician, and an accomplished one. I graduated from Berklee College of Music in 2000 and I've been around working musicians my whole adult life. I've been a working recording engineer, record producer, and live sound engineer. I've also worked for no money at friends gigs and I've got lots of friends who have struggled hard on tours trying to make enough gas money to make it to the next town. And I have dozens of friends and acquaintances who to this day make their living as professional musicians.

I want you to know this because I want you to understand where I'm coming from when I tell you that what you're doing is awful and you need to stop.

It is not ok to ask people to work for free when you are making money from their labor. That's exploitative. You are trying to extract the surplus value from your workers. You are reaping a profit in part from the value you are providing in not paying these people. Their labor is putting money in your pocket. You don't have to do this. You can work in a more equitable form where you and your musicians all hold the means of production in common and all share in the profits. Or, at the very least, you chould be paying all of your musicians AFM rates every night. All of them. If you can't afford that, you need to tour with a smaller band.

The fact that you have worked for free and that most musicians have to work for free sometimes in order to get somewhere does not excuse your choice to now turn around and exploit others. Rather it makes it more difficult to understand why you feel so okay with the devaluation of the labor of creatives in our society, which has gotten so bad that it is now extremely difficult for us all to make a living doing what we do because everyone expects us to work for free. You appear to not understand that all that time you've spent working for free for other people to build your name and try to make connections was also exploitation, and that all of that exposure was still a form of compensation that you are not giving to these one off performers in every city. That you and all of these other musicians have been so co-opted by the capitalist mode that has captured so much of your and my and everyone else's labor is a sad comment on the state of the arts. Particularly at a time in our culture where so many small acts are having such a hard time convincing people to pay for their work.

It's fine if you want to give your music away, that's your property. You can do what you like with it. But don't ask the rest of the world to go along with your bizarre stockholm syndrome that makes you think this is all ok and a reasonable way for the world to work. It isn't, it's immoral. You're no different from factories opening sweatshops in indonesia to avoid having to pay even a minimum wage with the laughably minimal labor protections in place in developed nations. You're doing it to lower your costs so you can put more money in your own pocket. Nothing you can say will change that and you need to understand that and stop with the BS rationalizations.

Whatever the reason is you think it's okay to hire people on and pay them scab wages by dodging union contracts, frankly, are irrelevant. You are still hiring people at scab wages and less. And that makes it harder for all the professional musicians in the world who haven't been blessed with the good fortune you've had. The AFM is the difference between being able to make a living and have things like health insurance and a pension for old age for thousands of middle class musicians in this country, and your decision to forego that small bit of fairness that organized labor has been able to claw back from the ruling class makes you complicit in the structural unfairness in our economy.

Sure, you'll say, you've made these choices and you're just offering the same choices to other people. I invite you to listen to the arguments made in favor of anti-labor "right to work" agitators trying to strip labor of the right to collectively bargain for better conditions and real remuneration all over the United States. They are identical. It's a matter of choice. You shouldn't force people to not work. Look of the anti-labor decisions of the pre-New Deal supreme court. The so-called Lochner Era "right to contract" was used as a bludgeon to strike down everything from child labor laws to 40 hour work weeks because they interfered with people's free choice to make whatever contract they wanted to with their employer.

Now, I'm not saying you're trying to get around child labor laws, there are gradations of exploitation and not all exploitation is equally unethical. BUT it is ALL more or less unethical to some extent. And what I am saying is that the rationale you are using is the same, and it's just as much bullshit here, where the damage is much lower, as it was when it was deployed against the right to overtime pay.

You are entitled to your opinions, and you can run your business however you choose. You don't get to delude yourself that this is anything other than an attempt to increase your profits at the expense of your employees, however. If you can sleep with that, fine, you're no different from all manner of other regressive employers greedily extracting more profits out of the desperation for work in the labor market. I find it strange that you can be kept up at nights over a mercy killing of a bird, but you feel no qualms over exploiting your fans' devotion to you in order to make more money than you would if you paid a professional musician. I understand that you need to tell yourself all these stories in order to make yourself feel better about what you're doing. But don't expect the rest of us to buy the lies you tell yourself to help you cope with it. Comrade.

Yours truly,
JF Quackenbush