Kickstopper: On Amanda Palmer and Cultural Labor, Part 1

Now safely out of the blog/twitter news cycle, the dustup surrounding Amanda Palmer’s call for musically-inclined fans to join her onstage as unpaid accompanists remains interesting.

Most intriguing to me was the fact that much of the coverage of the Palmer fiasco seemed curiously detached from the labor history of popular music. That’s puzzling, because Palmer’s PR disaster was, from one point of view, merely the most recent chapter in the story of the American Federation of Musicians’ many attempts to control the presentation of live music and prevent the technological unemployment threatened by new innovations: from player pianos and movie theater organs, to radios and phonographs, to jukeboxes, drum machines, and synthesizers and sequencers.  The AFM’s traditionalism fit comfortably into the “racket”-like regimes of rent-extraction that prevailed in big cities for much of the 20th century, whether in the form of ASCAP demands for tribute from club owners or the “cabaret cards” that New York City forced musicians to obtain and keep current (and the growth of a related, quite insane bureaucratic logic regulating which restaurants and bars could have what kinds of ensembles of varying sizes, always amended with inscrutable clauses concerning accordions).

I bring up this history to make a simple point: I was surprised by the widespread support for the musicians’ union, and the shared sense that Palmer (flush with cash from a kickstarter campaign) ought to pay her musicians. In general, I was pleased: I think such a response speaks to a growing pro-labor sensibility, a pushback against the individualism of the “diva” and “genius,” and a rejection of wishful thinking about “gift economies” and the cult of authenticity surrounding services rendered for free.

At the same time, I would have thought that more commentators on the Left would have mentioned the fact that there is a real contradiction between the values, practices, and realities of vanguard culture, and the world of skilled cultural workers’ unions. Jim Jarmusch’s commentary on the Down by Law DVD comes to mind: much of the conversation centers on the importance of having shot the film in the right-to-work Bayou, as a way of circumventing the massive additional costs that making a film in union towns like New York and Hollywood adds to the final budget.

Historically speaking, we should recall that punk, hip-hop, and indie film could never have gotten off the ground had their creators not spurned and flouted cultural workers’ unions. And while some African American musicians’ union locals served as sites of community-building and mentoring, the integration of the AFM tended to erode such practices and weaken the power of African American cultural workers as labor leaders. To remind ourselves of this history is not to be anti-union, but rather to note that the commodification of art and music (and, indeed, of labor power) under capitalism always creates contradictions.

So we return to the question: what accounts for the fact that, by and large, people seemed not particularly aware of, or at least not especially hung up on, these contradictions between cultural worker unionism and the pursuit of new aesthetic practices? Much of the answer surely must lie in the specifics of who Amanda Palmer is: I can’t imagine such an outrage in response to, say, Glenn Branca’s calls for performers for his massed guitar orchestra pieces, or The Boredoms’s similar invitations for dozens of drummers to materialize in a given city. Knowing nothing about Palmer’s music, I can only speculate that there is something about her artistic project that registers as too commercial to qualify for the Branca or Boredoms exemption. Or it could be that she’s a woman. Or that she’s married to a very famous and wealthy writer. Or that the nature of her kickstarter success altered the general perception of the ethical stakes of seeking out fan accompanists to join her onstage, making such a gesture seem not like an incursion against pop music’s insufficient openness to participation, but rather like a sleazy attempt to seize upon a pool of exploitable free labor. It seems to me that we will be encountering these kinds of ethical distinctions—and cultural contradictions––with increasing frequency in coming years.

2 Comments on “Kickstopper: On Amanda Palmer and Cultural Labor, Part 1

  1. Remember that scene from The Blues Brothers where Jake impersonates an AFM rep by the name of Jacob Stein demanding to see the union cards of the Good Ol’ Boys before a gig at Bob’s Country Bunker? And the lead singer threatens to smash Jake’s teeth? All before a high-speed chase ensues?

    That scene never made much sense to me in the film’s plot other than to set up the conflict between the Jake and Elwood and an angry country band, but it says alot about the ethnic-spatial-historical spaces cultural workers unions inhabit(ed). It’s a weirdly anti-Semitic and classist interaction, but, like the rest of the film, it underscores the unique cultural history of Chicago as a center of musicians unionism.

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