Does Amanda Palmer’s model of asking scale?

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?

4 thoughts on “Does Amanda Palmer’s model of asking scale?

  1. I think it’s maybe less a question of whether it scales or not as “it depends on what you’re doing.” Palmer is the “brand”, which fosters a pretty strong personal relationship. The Oatmeal guy basically drove an $8M Kickstarter campaign for Exploding Kittens – which was basically a bunch of people saying, “make more awesome stuff, Oatmeal-guy.” And yes, I’m saying it had almost nothing to do with “Elan Lee”, and it probably had very little to do with the cleverness of the actual game mechanics. (and yeah, I backed it)

    I think the other thing is that this is the kind of model, because of the up-front investment that’s required in generating a bunch of stuff for free, that inherently is easier the more privileged you are (just like most of the startup community). You can’t do this if you’re not making ends meet, or you don’t have a safety net. You can’t do it if you need consistency and have a family to support.

    For us, for instance, one question I get sometimes is, “Why can’t you just bootstrap Wonderspark?” and the answer is that we want to pay people a livable wage, and in the Bay Area, that’s just really fucking expensive at a *baseline*, and a wage that’s tolerable given the opportunity cost of passing up other software engineering jobs is a LOT of money. And game development is a weird thing. It costs *much* more, even for a very small game, than most people expect. So asking people for money is hard, because you say, “I’d like to raise half a million to make a game” and they expect Call of Duty. Half a million dollars would fund the development of a modern, AAA-quality console game (at a point when the entire team is cranking on it at full capacity) for FOUR DAYS. (700 people x 100K salary, maybe a little on the high end, so you can be generous and maybe say it’ll cover a whole week.)

    So when the consumer’s expectation of how much something costs to do and the amount it actually costs to do are wildly out of whack, asking people for money is a really tricky and sometimes dangerous (see Peter Molyneaux + Godus) issue.

  2. I think there’s a level of unexamined privilege which worries me here. It’s not that it means it’s not valid for some people in some circumstances, but I think the assumption that it’s probably the right way for many people really concerns me. If you’ve got the opportunity, then great, and I agree it is a model that may work for some people in ways that others don’t. But not everyone has the talent – and that’s fine. What’s more worrying to me is that not everyone has enough of their own (or others’) money or the time or the resources or the connections. There’s an asymmetry here in the power relations I don’t really like: if someone’s coming to clean my house, then I don’t like the assumption that it makes sense for them to do it for free the first time. Ditto unpaid interns: that’s exploitative and I’m not at all convinced in most industries that it’s even slightly ethical to do so. And yes, I’m able to say that from a position of privilege where interns are paid in my industry.

    I don’t think you’re unaware of this, but please don’t underestimate how much privilege there is embodied in the sentence “do what you love for free outside of your day job”. I’d love that to be possible for more people — but I think that’s exactly why we should have universal healthcare, and arguably a minimum stipend, and less vituperative (and broken) unemployment. That would go a long way to making that possible.

  3. Good points. Thanks for sharing.

    Jofish, good criticism on the privilege embodied in this post, and that universal healthcare and a minimum stipend would change the game in a great way. I had actually already planned a follow-up post on what an artist-driven future could look like (as we need less workers due to automation for manufacturing and services (similar to how agriculture got much labor-intensive in the 20th century), what should everybody else do – I’d like to believe in a future where we create art for each other), and I will make sure to mention those both as key components.

    Seppo, true enough. Another post I’ve been meaning to do is on the power of managing expectations, and this is a good example of what happens when wildly divergent expectations conflict over how much it costs to make a game (even when one set of expectations is based in fantasy).

    I will say that I think personal “brand” is the future. I think we will each have to think about how we can foster “strong personal relationships” that will support the direction we want our careers or activities to go in. I’m pretty pleased with how the salons are developing – people trust me to bring interesting people and perspectives together, and I hope to build on that. Seth Godin likes to ask “What is your superpower?” and I think that is just another way of asking “What is your brand?” So we’re going to move in that direction, at least at the high end of people who can direct their own future. I don’t know how that scales to the rest of society, though.

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