The European: A crucial question facing every artist today is: “How will I finance my next project?” How much space does that question take up in your head?
Palmer: Way too much. Every artist faces this exhaustion of simultaneously having to run a business and creating artwork. But this is not a new problem. Every artist since the dawn of time has had to deal with this.
The European: In the traditional music business, the record companies took care of business…
Palmer: I don’t think “traditional” is the right word…
The European: Why not?
Palmer: You call it “traditional” – referring to the 1930s or the dawn of recorded music. But what about the rest of human history?
The European: Mozart didn’t have a record company.
Palmer: Exactly. But many of those guys had the church, wealthy patrons or were traveling musicians, living from meal to meal. It’s important to bear all of that in mind because it is becoming increasingly important to look at the long trajectory of artists and how they had to find the right balance between creating art and feeding their families. Even if there has been this blip with the recorded music industry that created some strange utopia where artist got to focus only on their craft, we shouldn’t take it for granted. The music industry of the 20th century wasn’t a sustainable system.
The European: Why not?
Palmer: It was a superficial, engorged system. Even extremely successful artists were not happy because of the pressures and bizarreness of superstardom. It may just be a natural progression for all of that to die down a little bit so that being a working-class musician is becoming more of a standard reality. According to the weird 1980s mentality that we all grew up with, it was all about producing superstars like Prince or Michael Jackson – but that didn’t lead to happiness.
“The system has become weirdly Darwinian”
The European: You chose crowdfunding to finance your latest album “Theatre is Evil”. What drove you to this decision?
Palmer: I wanted to experiment and I was very aware that I have the right kind of fan-base for such an undertaking. I have a very open and intense dialogue with my fans and I knew they would support me in this.
The European: Not every artist can count on that support.
Palmer: Definitely not. I’m blessed to have such a devoted fan-base. Many other artists also have loyal fans but not necessarily such an intense dialogue with them. PJ Harvey has a lot of die-hard fans but she’s not constantly chatting with them on Twitter. Still: if she would crowdfund a record, she would probably find that she has an enormous amount of support. The ecosystem of the music world is a very complex one and much of it depends on how well educated the fans are about the realities of the artist’s life.
The European: How do you mean that?
Palmer: There is a generally overblown myth that artists are a lot more financially successful than they really are. There’s this unfortunate fiction that a musician on a poster in a venue must be rich. But many artists I know are in fact so much closer to the poverty line than the general public thinks.
The European: I was shocked to find out that an artist like Cat Power can go broke.
Palmer: It happens more often than you would think and it is sometimes extremely frustrating to be an artist in the digital age when people just download your music for free, assuming that you are driving around in a limousine when you are actually in need of that money to pay your rent. A lot of it is also a marketing problem because artists don’t want to market themselves as desperate and needy; they want to market themselves as powerful, strong and beautiful. That causes some of that friction.
The European: The artist is no longer just an artist but also marketer. In a New York Times op-ed, your close friend Alina Simone expressed her fear that the “reclusive artists will be replaced by one offering you a hoodie with her face on it” – especially in the crowdfunding era.
Palmer: I agree, it’s becoming much more difficult to be a reclusive artist and make a living. The system has become weirdly Darwinian. But you need to look at the larger picture: the record industry did create a safe space for shy artists like PJ Harvey or Cat Power, but artists always had to market themselves. It was just this bubble industry of the past decades that allowed artist to isolate themselves in a cabin in the woods and just slip their new record under the door.
The European: You’ve said that you spend way more time engaging with fans than actually working on new material. That’s a rather unorthodox way of working.
Palmer: No it isn’t. There is no traditional or orthodox way of working – that’s bullshit. Even Mozart had to get up, do some errand; meet his patron, give fucking piano lessons before he could spend some time composing and then go out and get drunk. Being an artist is fucking messy in that way. Hugging my fans and chatting with them is part of my job and that’s great. Even my morning coffee is part of my job – it fuels me to go on stage.
The European: Artists and fans are having a hard time coming to grips with this new environment. It is extremely difficult to even define concepts such as “popularity” or to value a product of art in monetary terms.
Palmer: It’s demanding a lot of sophistication from a generally dumbed down public that is used to having all things laid out. The whole idea of “popularity” was fostered by a mass-media conglomerate and its fictitious accounts. I’m not sad to see it dying a little death.
“Miley Cyrus knows exactly what she’s doing”
The European: When you started your crowdfunding campaign, you posted a picture of yourself, holding a placard that read: “This is the Future of Music”. Do you still see it that way?
Palmer: It is not a perfect system for every artist. It’s probably not even perfect for most artists. The problem is that everyone is trying to find the one solution that will work. But there is not one solution. There is a huge variety of options and it depends on what the artist wants. To answer your question: the future of music is about direct connection, and crowdfunding is just a mere tool for that. I don’t need a record label; I don’t need MTV; I don’t need the “Rolling Stone”; I don’t need fucking any of this – I have direct communication with my fans, that’s plenty.
The European: In a way, the digitalization of the music industry has also led to the democratization of the latter. People get the chance to influence an art project rather than just buying the final product.
Palmer: It depends. My fans didn’t try to interfere with the making of my record just because they funded it. I make my own decisions and that’s partly why they like and trust me. You have to surprise your fans and not just turn out a product. Some people will be disappointed by it, but I don’t make records to get a 100% approval rating. They fund the artist; not the piece of plastic that has the music on it.
The European: Wouldn’t it be interesting to go one step further and to voluntarily incorporate your fans in the making? From crowdfunding to crowdmaking so to speak.
Palmer: I thought about it and it would be a fun experiment to write a record on Twitter for example. But I would remain in control. I control very happily where I let people get involved and where I want total control. But those lines change over time.
The European: You published an open-letter supporting Miley Cyrus when she was harshly criticized for her “twerking”. You wrote: “let’s give our young women the right weapons to fight with”. What are they?
Palmer: The education to make an empowered choice in any given situation. I don’t think it’s wise to scold women for gaming a fucked up system. Miley Cyrus knows exactly what she’s doing.
The European: But for commercial gains rather than emancipation.
Palmer: Even if – she can do whatever she wants.
The European: But it could push future artists to do the same – willingly or unwillingly – in order to sell records.
Palmer: I am a maximalist. You have to show teenage girls all the possible options and Miley Cyrus is one of them. Being stuck naked on a wrecking ball is just one path but it has to be kept open.
“There is no off-the-shelf solution for female popstars”
The European: Do you see any progress with regards to female emancipation and de-stereotypization in the music business? Megastars like Lady Gaga are no longer the All-American girl someone like Madonna used to be.
Palmer: Madonna was never the all-American girl.
The European: Mariah Carey
Palmer: Céline Dion
The European: She’s Canadian
Palmer: True. She’s the all-Canadian girl then. But the point is that there is no off-the-shelf solution for female pop stars: some want to be Adele and some want to be Céline Dion. That’s ok, as long as they are not forced into a category.
The European: Do you think that male artists face the same problems?
Palmer: Not as much but they also have to deal with the projection of the persona they are supposed to have. They’re trapped in their own box.
The European: Forced to be the wild rock star, getting all the girls.
Palmer: There are definitely man rock star rules. They are not as hyper-sexualized as the female rock star rules, but they are definitively there. People might also feel offended if Bruno Mars made a bumping-and-grinding kind of video clip.
The European: You’ve had your fair share of media-stigmatization. Notably last June when the “Daily Mail” reduced your Glastonbury-gig to a nip-slip. I found your reaction – stripping completely naked – quite impressive.
Palmer: Nudity and playing around with social taboos is a very effective way of reacting to such idiocy. But it can backfire. I got a lot of support for my reaction to this whole story but there were of course people who accused me of using it as an excuse to just take off my clothes because they think that I am an attention-whore.
The European: Haters gonna hate.
Palmer: Absolutely, what can you do? The challenge is to game the system instead of being gamed by the system.
The European: One last question: Why are so many musicians leaving their band to go solo – like you did – while practically no solo-artist ever joins a band?
Palmer: [pauses] That’s a good question. It’s probably because of the increased artistic freedom you enjoy as solo artist. Once you taste the freedom of total artistic control, you won’t go back to making lots of compromises.
Did you like the conversation? Read one with Simon Reynolds: "We have replaced innovation with perfection"