Most music-savvy people have probably heard arguments spewed forth from big-name pop stars like Lily Allen and Joss Stone – and the cool, occasional remark from Thom Yorke – about file-sharing, staying relevant and the ‘state of the music industry’. What most people do not know, however, is that there is a far more articulate and experienced voice buried deep within the fray, and that voice belongs to Amanda Palmer.
Best known as half of cabaretpunk duo The Dresden Dolls, Palmer recently gave a performance at Stereolab while in town with boyfriend Neil Gaiman. The 33-year-old self-taught musician made a splash in her native Boston back in the day as the Eight Foot Bride, a colossal, veiled living statue. For those of you who’ve seen Hot Fuzz and recall the characters’ persecution of their hapless living statue, you may balk at the idea of street performance – typically associated with beggars – having anything to do with the legitimate business of music performance. It is, however, a particularly interesting topic in our local context that touches on selfcensorship and freedom of expression.
Planning to write this article, I assumed Palmer would vent forth with romantic rhapsodies about the beauty of busking, and eloquent rhetoric on the injustices faced by street musicians. However, I found that her roots have given her a much more timeless, grounded approach to the topic at hand – the business of making music.
I was really interested to hear your take on our busking culture here, as it’s heavily regulated. Here, street buskers need a licence and must audition for the authorities. What do you think of that?
It’s very interesting, to me – different cultures’ relationships with their street performers. I have an American friend who busked in Japan for a while, and he told me that in Japan, busking is basically only done by foreigners…if you were Japanese and seen busking, it’s basically the equivalent of begging. I have lots of feelings about street performance because I did it for years. As a performer I think it was one of the most formative experiences in my life. It definitely gave me performance balls of steel, because there’s nothing harder than street performing, just emotionally, in terms of putting yourself out in front of an audience and having to get over your insecurities.
Do you think a city’s street performance culture is directly tied to how creative the local scene is?
No. Buskers tend to simply flock to where there are people who will give them money, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with how creative the city is. Some of the most creative cities I know in the States don’t have any street performers because they’re small arts communities, and people walking around don’t have money to give to street performers. Street performers are also usually inherently transient. They will travel to where the money is. Vegas has street performers, and Vegas is one of the most soulless, unartistic cities in America but the street performers there will make money, because the tourists are there to be entertained and spend money.
What kind of advice can you give to fledgling musicians here?
Well, you know, it really depends how your city is structured and organised. Music is great because music can be the great equaliser. And all you need to play music is your instruments, a space, and amplification, if your instruments need to be amplified. You can do that in a lot of places. And if the structure here is not set up to be friendly, then looking at it as an exciting challenge – like, how can we get a bunch of people in one place to make music, and to play the music – is gonna be part of the adventure.
What about the value of internet presence?
The internet is not fundamentally real in the sense that it’s not the same as playing your music in front of people. The recorded music can be an end in itself, but if you want to be able to make a living, it cannot be. Your recorded music online needs to draw in your fans so that they can find you when you play live.
It can be difficult to have impromptu concerts here.
Then they need to be planned. I advocate doing whatever it takes to get your music in front of an audience. Music definitely can be and has been an incredible tool for bringing people together, who specifically have common sentiments, political feelings, emotional feelings. And it can be a very strong motivating force. I feel like a change without art is pretty rare, either as a by-product or a motivating force. There’s always a reason there’s music at political rallies. And music and cultural rebellion have always gone hand in hand.
Photos by Beth Hommel