There are a number of ways in which you might know/have come across Amanda Palmer: as a musician – half of The Dresden Dolls, half of Evelyn Evelyn, a solo artist; as the woman on Twitter with over a million followers who asks for places for her and her band to stay while they’re touring, to borrow items for that evening’s show, to organise gorilla gigs during the afternoon in the town she’s playing in that evening; as the first musician to raise over a million dollars from crowdfunding via Kickstarter; as the woman who gave the TED talk The Art of Asking which has had over nine million views on the TED website and YouTube; as the woman who’s married to Neil Gaiman. If you know her in any of those capacities, and even if you don’t, her memoir/guide is for you.
Asking is, in itself, the fundamental building block of any relationship. Constantly and usually indirectly, often wordlessly, we ask each other – our bosses, our spouses, our friends, our employees – in order to build and maintain our relationships with each other.
Will you help me?
Can I trust you?
Are you going to screw me over?
Are you suuuure I can trust you?
And so often, underneath it all, these questions originate in our basic, human longing to know:
Do you love me?
Palmer’s book comes off the back of her successful TED talk, a talk which she was asked to give following the funding of her Kickstarter project. It is about musicians asking their fanbase – their ‘crowd’ – to support them but it’s also about how we ask our friends and family for support too.
She tells a story near at the start of the book about needing a bridging loan between the launch of the Kickstarter and its end date when the money would be available to pay her staff, band, road crew and her own expenses. She’s done this before, borrowing money from family and friends, always paying it back promptly.
Only this time there was a different problem. The problem was Neil wanted to loan me the money.
And I wouldn’t take the help.
We were married.
And I still couldn’t take it.
Everybody thought I was weird not to take it.
But I still couldn’t take it.
I’d been earning my own salary as a working musician for over a decade, had my own dedicated employees and office, paid my own bills, could get out of any bind on my own, and had always been financially independent from any person I was sleeping with. Not only that, I was celebrated for being an unshaven feminist icon, a DIY queen, the one who loudly left her label and started her own business. The idea of people seeing me take help from my husband was…cringe-y.
You don’t need to be a successful musician to understand that sentiment, it’s something women have to struggle with when they have children or choose to pursue a career change that means starting at the bottom again.
From what I’ve seen, it isn’t so much the art of asking that paralyzes us – it’s what lies beneath: the fear of being vulnerable, the fear of rejection, the fear of looking needy or weak. The fear of being seen as a burdensome member of the community instead of a productive one.
The book’s structured so Palmer moves between telling us about her career and the building of her fanbase, her relationship with Neil, and her friendship with Anthony, who lived next door to her family when she was younger.
In terms of her professional life, she begins by telling us about her time as a living statue in Harvard Square, Boston. Each person who puts money in her hat is given a flower and eye contact. It’s the eye contact that proves important, an acknowledgement that the person giving has been seen by the receiver. Really seen.
What I loved as much as, possibly even more than, being seen was sharing the gaze. Feeling connected.
Palmer goes on to link this love of feeling connected to the way she behaves with her fan base, reaching out to them and them to her, something she maintains through the gigs she does in the Cloud Club house through to the present day. This, she explains later, is the reason she believes her Kickstarter was so successful.
The Art of Asking is about what we can gain – in art, in friendship, in love – if we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. It’s about the way in which artists can build their crowd – through exchanges of time, money, art and more – and ask them for help to fund their creations. It considers some important questions at a time when the music industry, as well as other areas of the arts, are going through significant change.
There’s much here of interest to anyone who knows anything of Amanda Palmer or to anyone who’s interested in how modern versions of patronage might work. Palmer’s writing is engaging, moving smoothly between the personal and the professional, offering anecdotes and opinions with support from other sources. She’s unafraid to respond to her critics or to lay herself bare, knowing that people will judge her approach to her life and work. The Art of Asking is interesting, engaging and – I can’t help feeling – important, much like Palmer herself.
Thanks to Little, Brown for the review copy.