Middle class life and hard work – lessons from Amanda Palmer

For our current H818 task we are being asked to review Amanda Palmer’s TED talk on trust and giving and her accompanying blog post. In a nutshell, her thesis is that if musicians and other creatives trust their fan base, they will be rewarded, helped and paid for what they do. I found the talk absorbing and interesting but ultimately unconvincing as a model to be widely copied. Clearly, she has found an approach that works for her – being supported with donations, help and equipment from her fan base. But I have extreme doubts about whether this model is really widely scaleable and will work for someone without her charisma, fan base or willingness to couch surf. So often in the last few months I have found myself coming back to the insights of Lanier (2013), who highlights the fact that the business models of the Web currently emerging do not look like they will be sufficient to support a middle class.

The donation model that Ms Palmer talks about is a case in point. No doubt a few top stars would still get very rich – the likes of Justin Bieber and Katy Perry could, I’m sure, make plenty of money from concerts and commercial endorsements even if they gave away all their music. It would also be fine for bohemians like Ms Palmer who can, perhaps, achieve the lifestyle they want by these means. But for the rest it would be a question of scraping a living from live performances as best you can, constant travelling and complete insecurity. Things like buying houses and bringing up children, the foundations of middle class life, would be impossible. To achieve that, you need boring things like contracts, royalties and payment systems. These mechanisms allow people to achieve financial security and dignity, yes even musicians.

So is this a model we want to import into education – a handful of wealthy “rock-star” professors or universities, some travelling gurus and the rest of us getting by as best we can? Perhaps the MOOCs are taking us in this direction (maybe that’s a discussion for another post), but it’s not an attractive prospect, as one famous musician recently noted.

What I did find really interesting and useful was Ms Palmer’s blog post to accompany her talk. I came away with the impression that Ms Palmer is a seriously high maintenance lady, but I respect her honesty in giving this account of the incredible lengths she went to in preparing, honing and practising her talk, and the help she received from many others. Something like a TED talk is generally very slick, polished and professional. I get the feeling many speakers would like us to believe that they can simply turn on a performance like that on demand. Of course, they can’t, no one can. A polished performance of any sort can appear spontaneous, because people like that, but it is invariably the result of hours of thought, preparation and rehearsal. Periodically, I have come across accounts of some of the great, enduring live music acts – Queen, Cliff Richard, Lady Gaga, people like that. Their style of music and fan base varies hugely but they have something in common. All of their shows are planned, choreographed and meticulously rehearsed down to the last detail, every move, look and note. A good performance is the result of hundreds of hours of work by the band and many others.

So this detailed case study illustrates a general, very important point. Creativity is a great thing, and humanity does not progress without it. But any successful artist, musician, writer or entrepreneur will tell you that turning creativity into results needs team input and hard work – lots of it.

References:

Lanier, J. (2013) Who owns the future? Penguin, London.

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