Times are tough for the music industry, but many artists have managed to utilize the digital revolution to their advantage while finding their musical destinies. One such artist is Amanda Palmer, frontwoman/pianist for The Dresden Dolls, solo artist and actor. Currently finishing up the American Repertory Theater’s production of Cabaret in Boston, and preparing for the Dolls’ Halloween show with her favorite group The Legendary Pink Dots at Irving Plaza in NYC, she firmly believes in the power of the Internet. The provocative performer has used it to reach out and bond with her fans, even spurring a revolt against the Dolls’ former label Roadrunner Records when she charged that they had wanted to remove certain shots that showed her belly from the video for her 2008 solo song “Leeds United” because they thought she looked fat. (She didn’t.) Fans reportedly sent in pictures of their stomachs to the label, and a book collecting said photos called “The ReBellyon” emerged from the controversy. Palmer campaigned to be dropped from Roadrunner, which eventually happened.
I recently spoke with Palmer for a cover story in Stage Directions, and at the end of our chat I contended that mainstream music was withering because the last ten years was a decade of karaoke, from American Idol to Guitar Hero, and the era of the wannabe. She offered a positive perspective on the topic. “Because the mainstream is getting pushed further and further into a box, it has to get so watered down in order to appeal what’s left of blockbuster culture, which is really kind of a dying format,” Palmer said. “Meanwhile there are thousands of niches springing up [and] some really creative things going on out there. It’s just not being pushed in everybody’s face all the time. It’s cool. Most of this is happening through the Internet, and hopefully it is a return to smaller, stranger things. I also think it’s a really exciting time as musicians and artists in general are so empowered through the Internet and how they’re able to promote their own shows and their own music. They just connect directly with their audiences. The mainstream may be toppling, but the thing that’s growing up in its place is beautiful and inspiring.”
I do hope that is the silver lining for what has become a dire scenario for the music business. Since I began my career as a music journalist I have always championed underground artists in genres ranging from Goth to experimental music. (I certainly learned about the Legendary Pink Dots when I began writing professionally fifteen years ago.) However, these days it is harder to get indie artists recognition in major magazines because of page cuts, advertising issues and the continued dilution of the mainstream. Another problem that arises is that, while indie artists have more ways to promote and expose their music than ever before, it is uncertain how will they make money at it. When I brought this up, Palmer made a parallel to the situation that currently exists for writers because so many websites and blogs have sprouted up as competition for mass media and each other. (Many writers’ incomes have certainly taken hits lately.)
“I think [it’s] the combination of the economy in general but also the broad democratization of the fact that you’re now combating millions of bloggers who have writing skills and opinions about music,” the singer observed. “It’s going to be really interesting to see how the world deals with the filtration system — who will be your trusted source to get on the phone with Amanda Palmer and talk about Cabaret? Who decides?”
And in the age of free downloads and a time when few artists will be able to obtain the broader, international exposure she was initially able to obtain through an indie label with major distribution, who will have the chance to become the next Amanda Palmer? A music revolution is upon us. Let’s hope the fans respond.