May 4th, 2012

In defense of Expensive Things

So after much preparation and planning and plotting, my friend and occasional co-conspirator Amanda Palmer launched a Kickstarter this week to fund her new album, Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra. She was asking for $100,000 to do this, press, mixing, promotion, etc. And we all knew that she'd get it. It's Amanda Freaking Palmer for crying out loud, she sold an empty wine bottle for $300 once. This isn't unusual.

There are a few things that are unusual though. One is that she raised half a million dollars in two days and another somewhat unusual thing is that one of the Kickstarter rewards is a book by Neil & myself featuring photos that illustrate one of the songs and that this book costs ... one thousand dollars a copy. That's a one with three zeros and it's not a joke. After this happened my inbox started filling up with mail that is on the cusp between "very angry" and "bewildered" - one person writes "I feel like you have sold out art by catering to people who can spend this kind of money," another says (somewhat cryptically) "artists I used to care about, meh," It's obvious that people feel very strongly about this and I wanted to address some of these questions because it bothers me when people are upset.

Firstly, in the name of full disclosure I should point out a few things: I had little to do with the pricing of the book, apart from saying "I think it will be very expensive to make a book like this" and providing some layouts, I'm not sure if they'll use mine or not; I don't get a cut of the book sales, but I will get paid for whatever photo work I do for the album, and it'll be better than I got paid when I did an album cover when Amanda was on a major label, so it's a general pool sort of thing and I have a vested interest, plus I genuinely do want to see Amanda make mad gobs for money as a reward for her incredible talent. If you ask me, she should be able to bask in luxury for the rest of her life for Delilah alone.

This is probably the biggest thing, so I'll say it first:

1) The album, the music, the thing that this is all about is a dollar I'll say that again you can download the album for a dollar. The goal of this project is to get music to people and people can get it for less than the price of a cup of coffee at Dunkin Donuts. One of the reasons that you can download the album for a dollar is because the people who are paying $1,000 for a limited edition book are subsidizing the cost of the album download.

2) I don't know if my photos are going to be in the $100 art book -- my guess is probably or at least some of thembut I don't know.

3) The buyers get to set the price of items sometimes. This is the way the free market works. Someone puts out a book for a thousand dollars, nobody buys it, the seller eats the production costs and learns a valuable lesson. Just because you want something priced in a particular way doesn't mean that it will be, or that it should be. Picketing Chevrolet and saying "I want a $3,000 Corvette" won't get you a $3,000 Corvette, though it will convince Pontiac to produce the Firebird. Vote with your wallet.

4) Some people have more money than you, they buy things too. Some people have less money than you; they think it's crazy that you'd spend $2.60 on a cup of coffee.

5) $1,000 isn't as obscene a price as you may think. $1,000 wouldn't get me a print from any of my favorite photographers -- Mary Ellen Mark, Anne Liebovitz, Sally Mann, their photos start at $1,200.

6) Don't you dare dare dare say "her husband is rich, she doesn't need to make money". Do I really need to say this?

7) If you don't want a $1,000 book, don't buy it. If you want to see the photos, they'll be at a number of exhibitions along the way. And on top of that:

8) Someone will probably bootleg this book. If you're dying to see it, you very likely will, the pages might be in the wrong order and the images may look fuzzy, but I suspect it'll get out.

9) I've got a ton of photos that you can buy for $10 and you probably haven't.

10) This album isn't worth half a million dollars. This kickstarter transaction isn't between you and the amount of money it's raised, it's between you and the reward you've chosen. Do you want the reward the kickstarter is offering? That's it. Kickstarter isn't a charity website where people ask for money to do nothing -- kickstarter provides tangable rewards for people funding art projects. You pay money, you get something back. If people want to pay a dollar and get an album, they do, if they want to pay a thousand dollars and get a limited edition book, they do. It's not an open guitar case on a street corner. Just because someone's made some amount of money doesn't make your reward for backing less valuable. The only question is is this reward worth the money they're asking for it?.

11) Amanda Palmer works harder than almost anyone I know. She keeps a relentless schedule, she's away from her family for months at a time, and she's almost single handedly re-formed the musician/fan relationship in the past eight years. I realized this long ago when I saw her at a concert say to the audience "take out your cell phones, right now, and text your email address to this number. That way I can get in touch with you directly, without the record company in between us." It was a simple thing, but it was extremely important. She's worked hard for your money.

12) Buy something rare and exclusive, it's wonderful. It doesn't have to be a $1,000 art book, it can be a $3 painting. Put it in a corner in your house that people have to stumble upon to see. When you throw a party and see someone standing in front of it tell them the story "I bought this three years ago at an art show in Pawtucket, the artists name was Eugene...." That's exactly what the person with the $1,000 limited edition art book is going to be doing, and it won't be any less wonderful for you when you do it. I promise that.

This is the story of someone doing something right, working hard for years, being clever, inventing a new way in an old world. I'm happy to be a part of it; thousand dollar book and all.

All the artist, writer, photographer friends I have always say "never read the comments" -- because invariably when there's some great article about something you're doing in the New York Times three comments in someone's calling you an idiot. It comes with the territory. For whatever percentage of people think you're doing great things, there's a percentage, fixed in space, who think you should be welded into a barrel and buried in a nuclear waste dump. I wish it wasn't like that, but if you pleased everyone you probably wouldn't be doing things right.

Sure she's got half a million dollars, but you can still get the album for a dollar, I'm going to.

If you have thoughts -- angry or not, I'd like to hear them; I am, despite the best advice of my friends, reading comments.

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