A friend asked in response to my last post whether I thought Amanda Palmer’s model of asking could scale. Could everybody find success that way? Do you have to be a rock star public figure to make it work? Does the “doing your work for free and then asking people to give you money” model generalize to housecleaners or programmers?
I think her approach does scale to many artists, and it’s getting easier with companies like Patreon allowing artists to make a livable wage from a relatively small number of supporters. It’s certainly much more scalable and democratic than the previous system of record labels for musicians and publishers for books – there are so many more ways for artists to get known and build their following now than there were 20 years ago. At that time, Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content wouldn’t have been able to support himself doing comics unless he gets a newspaper syndicate deal. Yes, it is very much the “do your work for free and then asking people to give you money” approach that he did, but it is more and more possible for artists to support themselves that way, which I think is a positive trend.
And I think it does scale, because we all have different tastes. I support Questionable Content, Pomplamoose, Amanda Palmer, Zoe Keating, etc. via these various crowdfunding platforms like Patreon and Kickstarter. Somebody else would support different artists. There are lots of dollars out there being spent on entertainment, and I think more artists have a brighter future in a world of democratized access, since now they can find fans who like their specific art anywhere in the world via the Internet. Again, Amanda Palmer’s label dropped her because her album “only” sold 25,000 copies, but that’s enough for her to be a massive success as an artist from her perspective, and we can support a lot of artists if that’s the necessary scale.
Does this model work outside of art? In some ways. “Do your work for free and then ask people to give you money” describes entrepreneurs starting a company. Or interns. Or programmers – the canonical advice for programmers trying to break in these days is to do good work on an open source project in github so that companies can see your work and then decide to hire you. Or even house cleaning – many services offer a discount on the first cleaning to get people to try them, in the hopes that they will stick around and be a recurring customer going forward. When breaking into a new field, the best way to get experience is to offer to do it for free and then parlay that experience into a job. It’s a little different than the artist model as it’s more about trying to get a job than to create a job, but I think similar principles apply.
Now, that doesn’t scale to everybody because you have to be in a situation where you can afford to work for free until you do find customers and/or investment, so it helps to have well-off parents or an understanding spouse to support you while you make that transition. But what most artists do is have a day job, and do their art (music, comics, sculpture) on nights and weekends, and try to build enough of an audience so that they can quit the day job. And that doesn’t happen for everybody, but I feel like it is happening more and more, and I see that as a positive trend.
I think one distinction that I didn’t mention in my previous post is that people can’t just ask without doing the work. She has a discussion in the book about the difference between asking and begging. But if one has found an audience that is getting value from one’s work, then asking for them to pay for that value is a reasonable step. And it doesn’t have to be in the flamboyant public way that Amanda does it. I am seeking out opportunities to mentor startups on strategy and business modeling these days. At some point, I will convince myself that I’m “good enough” to charge people for that advice and potentially start a strategy consulting business. That’s very different from what Amanda is doing as a rock star musician, but I see the processes as being similar – do what you love for free outside of your day job, but look for ways to turn it into something where people will pay you money (admittedly, as my friend pointed out, it helps to have a high paying day job). At some point, you have to take the leap of faith and trust that the people with whom you have built a connection will catch you. And that doesn’t require a huge audience – just a dedicated one (c.f. Kevin Kelly’s discussion on 1000 True Fans).
And part of asking in this model is figuring out who your audience is. Amanda decided she cared more about staying true to her artistic vision and to her eclectic fans than sticking with the label, writing pop songs and trying to make it big in a more traditional way. And she found success that way. In my own career, I spent years trying to be something I wasn’t (first, a specialist in physics or programming, and more recently, an operations/process guy in finance), because I thought that’s what I had to do to “be successful”. And it turns out I’m more successful (both professionally and socially) when I stick to the quirky generalist traits that differentiate me. I should also note that I’m inspired by Seth Godin’s work in Linchpin and his latest book “What to do when it’s your turn (and it’s always your turn)” (as an aside, I just ordered a 3-pack of Seth’s book, so if you want a free copy, let me know).
Anyway, lots of interesting thoughts inspired by my friend’s questions, so I thought I’d share. What do you think?