(Above: Image from the video Amanda Palmer – So I’m Using Patreon, shot and edited by Jim Batt)
Deep, introspective contemplation and creative inspiration (the kind necessary to write Walden) requires sustenance, which is why even Thoreau took the donuts. For Thoreau, the donuts were literally donuts, freshly baked and brought to him in a basket every Sunday by his mother and sister. In her debut book, The Art of Asking: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Let People Help, musician, performance artist, and all-around provocateur Amanda Palmer shares her personal journey, how artists can ask for help effectively and what it means to “take the donuts.”
At once deeply personal and broadly appealing, The Art of Asking is a mashup of autobiography, song lyrics, photos, internal dialog and self-help advice for artists. Think of it as an expansion of her famous 2013 TED talk, with a bit of Burning Man meets therapy session to boot. Within a few weeks of its release last November, the book made the New York Times Best Sellers list and since then has garnered largely positive reviews. Evocative and emotionally revealing, it provides a fascinating glimpse into Palmer’s world and advice that all artists can use to cultivate and engage with their online and face-to-face communities.
What Are Donuts and why is It So Hard to Ask for Them?
If you’re an artist, think of donuts simply as gifts from others that help sustain your work. Examples from Palmer’s world include online donations (and often, actual cash handed to her), home-cooked meals, crash couches, and pianos to practice on. Many artists (and non-artists) find it hard to ask for things, however. As Palmer states in The Art of Asking, “American culture in particular has installed in us the bizarre notion that to ask for help amounts to an admission of failure.”
The Evolution Toward Direct to Fan and Pay What You Want
Solveig Whittle, musician, indie music marketer and social media educator, explains how it can sometimes be difficult for musicians and other artists not only to ask, but also to be compensated. This difficulty is due in part to the way in which some online payment systems work, introducing friction into the process by requiring artists to determine set prices. “We have this commodity idea and we apply it to music, but the reality is that music doesn’t fit so well into that commodity model from an economic perspective … A unit of music, a song, can vary in appeal to a broad variety of people,” Whittle says. Further, in part due to the music industry practice of windowing, music can have temporal value, such that the same piece of music might have different value at different times.
When it comes to asking and being compensated, Palmer has achieved phenomenal success. After breaking with her record label, she asked for $100,000 and received more than $1.2 million from almost 25,0000 backers in her initial Kickstarter campaign in 2012 (also generating controversy in the process). She and other artists have also helped the industry evolve to make it easier for artists to ask, and for fans to give what they want. “Amanda and Zoe [Keating] … really pioneered that idea of going direct to fan and pay what you want,” explains Whittle.
A New Patreon Campaign
Most recently, Palmer launched a campaign on Patreon. As of March 10, she’s raised around $27,000 from more than 3,400 fans to fund each piece of content (or “thing,” in Palmer’s parlance) that she produces.
The Key to Online Community Building: Constant, Authentic Connection
Palmer’s runaway success on Kickstarter and her strong Patreon launch were clearly not built in a day, but rather the result of years of authentic, organic interaction with her fan base. Whittle began following Palmer’s conversations on Twitter and Facebook when Palmer was launching her famous initial Kickstarter. As Whittle explains, “I didn’t care really so much whether I liked her music or I didn’t like her music, I liked the way she was interacting with her fans and I saw that community.”
As with any celebrity who has a large following, Palmer engages on a one-to-many basis through multiple social media platforms, as well as through her performances. However, she also invests significant time in one-on-one interactions and relationship building. As she states in her book: “The platform is irrelevant. I’ll go wherever the people are. What’s important is that I absorb, listen, talk, connect, help, and share.”
Palmer’s ability to connect was in clear evidence last November at Town Hall in Seattle, one of her book tour stops for The Art of Asking. Decked out colorfully in what she called her “crowd-sourced kimono,” Palmer read passages from the book, cracked jokes, drank red wine, played the piano and ukulele with gusto, and bantered with friend Jason Webley and fantasy writer Ksenia Anske. In other words, it was a typical Palmer evening, a cross between a musical performance and salon.
The Evolution of Amanda Palmer
The title of The Art of Asking belies its broad scope, for it’s not really just a how-to about asking for things. As Whittle states, “The title says it’s ‘The Art of Asking,’ but to me … it’s a mix of issues related to money and intimacy and creative expression and how do you nurture community and how do you build a community … All of these things that she kind of learned by doing and took everybody along for the ride.” The ride that The Art of Asking takes readers on is bumpy at times, deeply poignant and sometimes painful, reflecting the arc of Palmer’s life and her personal evolution. It’s a ride well worth taking.