Independent music in the 21st Century…

Posted: 24 July 2009 in music

Not my words but those of my great friend Anthea Neads

The power of music and the importance of reciprocity…

Ok, it’s not often that I feel moved to blog about something – but the other night, as I lay awake in bed surfing the net on my phone, I felt inspired.

I was reading an interview with Amanda Palmer, singer from the Dresden Dolls and solo artist

Amanda has been a huge influence on me as a performer and songwriter for the last few years, as a fellow pianist, and I’ve always found her personality and creativity interesting and easy to relate to.

I was already aware that Amanda’s use of the internet – blogging, and particularly Twitter recently – was creating media buzz and demonstrating the power and immediacy of the internet in enabling artists and fans to connect directly. As a fan myself, I’ve often read her blogs and posts (although not all of them because if I did I’d never get anything else done due to sheer volume!) and really valued that insight they’ve given me into her inner world. Amanda’s very personal way of sharing her experiences and perspective on events has been entertaining, thought-provoking and inspiring to me on a number of levels – artist to fan, artist to artist, woman to woman, and mainly just human being to human being.

That last point is the thing that really struck me the other night – that art, especially performance of art such as music – is all about connection in my mind. I’m always fascinated by why we musicians feel the need to write and perform songs, and I often ask my musician friends this question. For me, the reasons have evolved over time, as I’ve grown and matured. Initially the primary reason was that I had some thoughts and feelings to express and I just HAD to express them, whether or not anyone heard. It was therapy, pure and simple, all for my own good – akin to why many people keep a journal, or – in this day & age – write a blog even if they don’t think people will read it.

But as I’ve become a more experienced and confident performer, I’ve developed a much greater understanding of the role of the audience in art such as music. It’s a cliche to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but I’ve realised increasingly that there are so many dimensions to the value and significance of any work of art – song, poem, painting, photo – that transcend that which the artist originally intended. A painting that is never viewed or a song that is never heard is so tragically wasted as its power to change the lives of audience members is denied.

Art – and particularly for me, music – is such an incredible force in our lives. So many songs have had a hugely significant influence on how I think, feel or view a situation. As a lyricist, I’m always listening carefully to the words and trying to interpret them (just as my husband the guitarist is always focusing on the guitar parts!) – particularly listening out for any words or phrases which I can grasp hold of and say “yes, I know that feeling! I experience that too!” I’m sure you’ve all experienced it – when a song seems to fit so aptly with your life that it becomes your theme tune for a while.

And so, my own understanding of how audiences receive my songs has developed as I’ve realised – in an almost metaphysical way – that a song never played to anyone is only half finished. Only half the story is told, the rest is yet to be formed as people relate their own experiences and emotions to the artist’s offerings. I hope my songs will move people just as many other artists’ music has moved me. The gigs which have been the least satisfying to perform are those when I’m not feeling the sentiment of the song I’m singing, and the audience isn’t either. But if the audience is with me, feeling it, then my own emotions can be re-ignited too and the performance is enhanced – and vice versa, if I’m re-living the situation of the song in my mind and feeling it as I sing, the audience most often get swept along with me and once again I feed off them. It’s like a circle of enhancement.

So what’s this all got to do with Amanda Palmer and her entrepreneurial use of the internet? Well, as I said, I believe music is all about connection. But a musician’s work isn’t finished when the song is recorded or the gig is over – that’s only half the story. I see every interaction I have with someone – stranger or friend – as part of my job as a musician, to represent who I am. Because whether or not they become a fan is not only dependent on whether they like my songs – it’s also dependent on what they think about me as a person. I know this from experience as an audience member as well as a musician – the performers who endear themselves to me immediately are the ones with good stage presence, rapport with the crowd, a likeable personality. Being at ease in themselves and having a sense of humour, especially about themselves, definitely contribute to this – as well as putting passion into their performance. And musicians who are accessible, easy-going and happy to chat with people after the gig always win me as a fan if their music is half decent and they’ve ticked those other boxes. The audience aren’t just paying for the music, but for the whole experience – and I feel it’s my duty as a performer to give them value for money even if in fact the gig was free!

It’s that kind of integrity, and commitment to going that extra mile for her fans, that draws me so strongly to Amanda Palmer. She’s opened her life up in a way that many “celebrities” are reluctant to do, and instead of public attention being a negative force in her life (as it is for many paparazzi-hounded people) she’s taken the many opportunities available to harness that attention for the enjoyment of the masses. That’s why Amanda has attracted such a die-hard following of fans who would stick with her loyally if she managed to break free of the record-label shackles she’s currently trapped in. She fully understands and appreciates the huge contribution that fans make to art – embraces that by gratefully receiving and celebrating questions, artwork, photographs – and pays back by sharing her life and giving experiences away, whether VIP passes or “ninja gigs”.

The real secret to Amanda’s success is that she makes all of her fans feel like part of a movement – a revolutionary way of thinking and living that starts with grass-roots people-power and gives the masses what they want, flying in the face of corporate bullshit. She strives to keep her artistic integrity within an industry that’s traditionally been controlled by major corporations holding the purse-strings, but is now being turned on its head by the immediacy and accessibility of internet communication and file-sharing. She’s not ashamed to say she needs her fans – whether to drop a few coins in a hat or lend her a piano to practice on between gigs – and somebody always comes through for her.

I’ve always tried to demonstrate the same sort of reciprocity in my artistic career. One example is that I will openly put a hat down at free gigs and encourage voluntary contributions to support my running costs – which has always been successful, with audiences’ generosity often exceeding my hopes. And in return I play the best set I can for them, chat with people, give away occasional free CDs and downloads, and try to make each person feel valued. I never want to lose that sense of connection and desire to be part of a mutually beneficial, two-way relationship with my audience.

The same goes for reciprocity amongst artists. I have been hugely grateful for the support and feedback from fellow artists, as well as gig opportunities, information, tips and contacts that people have sent my way – not to mention the many hours of free session work musicians have donated me in the studio and on stage. And so I endeavour to do the same for other musicians as I know I wouldn’t be so satisfied in my artistic and personal life without their help.

There is so much more I could say on these subjects, but will leave that for another time. I openly invite comments and feedback, even if you think what I’ve said is total bullshit, because dialogue is a productive tool – my thesis and your antithesis may well create a better synthesis than either of us could imagine. E-mail me, twitter me, facebook me, myspace me etc. and I will do my best to reply to each and every person who does.

And finally, if you’ve been inspired in any way by the above, I strongly urge you to read the interview with Amanda Palmer at the link above and watch a video interview here –

Punk Cabaret is, indeed, freedom.


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