In defense of Amanda Palmer.

Amanda Palmer (she’s a musician and used to front the Dresden Dolls) has recently come under fire for asking volunteers to play horns and strings at her shows on her Grand Theft Orchestra Tour.

This is one of a series of unconventional tactics she’s undertaken recently. She used Kickstarter to great effect this year, raising $1.2 million from fans to independently create an album that was dropped this week.

She’s looking for fans who are “professionalish” horn and string players to join her onstage for each night of her tour. The volunteers are asked to commit to a rehearsal, one performance and will be paid in beer and love.

Professional session musicians are outraged. There are posts about their anger in Spin and The New York Times and the Boston Globe. Last time I checked Palmer’s blog, there were 290 comments on that blog post, many of them angry, and from musicians, some claiming that she’s exploiting musicians.  Writes one:

“I’ve been a professional touring musician for 23 years, and I’ve never heard of you until today. With all due respect, your request for free labor sounds like a promotional gimmick dreamed up by a corporate republican who has no concept of the history of working people in this country.”

Here’s my question, though: What’s the big deal?

Palmer is asking for volunteers and is presumably asking her fan base for volunteers. She’s asking the people who will be at the concert anyhow, not professional session musicians who’ve never heard of her.  People ask for volunteers all the time. Churches and schools are always asking for volunteers. Politicians ask for volunteers to run many aspects of their campaigns. Artists are asked to volunteer their skills for many organizations, for-profit and non-profit. Surely, there is no harm in asking people to volunteer. And surely, asking for volunteers is much different than exploitation.

One commenter felt that it was insulting to ask musicians to play for free simply because it’s wrong to assume that working musicians will play just for the love of music. I can kind of relate to that. A while back, I wrote a post about the writing equivalent of that feeling; that I get sick of having to provide copy for birthday cards, poems for anniversaries or whatever simply because I’m a writer.

I think Palmer’s request is different, though. For one thing, she’s not targeting specific musicians and asking them to play for free. Secondly, I think some of her fans will want to jam with her.

Why? Let’s look at a slightly different situation. Say her husband, Neil Gaiman, put out a call on his site for “professionalish” writers to collaborate on a book project for free. I’m a writer. I make my living off my art. But would I do it for free?

Hell yes, I would. I would get right in line. I would do it because I could then say I’d been published with Neil Gaiman. I would do it because I was once a huge fan of his work. Even if he were getting paid for the collaboration and I wasn’t, I don’t think I’d complain, because I would have known, up front, that I’d volunteered.

I should probably mention at this point that I’m not a fan of Palmer’s music; I’ve never given any of it – from the Dresden Dolls to today’s solo projects – a try. But I do feel some affinity with her.

Maybe it’s because when I worked at the Boston Herald, I spent a lot of time in Cambridge, and I think I saw her when she was busking there as the Eight-Foot Bride. Maybe it’s because, at the same time, I grabbed a review copy of American Gods (by Gaiman, who wasn’t married to her at that time) off the features desk’s Free Stuff Shelf and later became obsessed with it. Maybe it’s because I knew a lot of people from Lexington, where she grew up, or maybe it’s because her alma mater was the rival of mine. We didn’t exactly roll in the same circles, but we’ve had a lot of places in common, and probably more than a few people in common. Or maybe, because, as a small author with a small press, I admire her for using the Internet to connect and collaborate with her fans. It’s something I try to do on a very small scale and it’s nice to see her crowdsourcing with such success.

So I’m coming to her defense because I feel like a member of my tribe is under attack, and I don’t feel the attack is just.