Bartering, Crowd Sourcing and Lending a Hand

image by Grainne Rhuad

By: Grainne Rhuad

There’s no doubt about it.  Things are tough all over.  And in all fairness, this isn’t new people.  It may seem like the times they are a changing and maybe they are for the more recently upwardly mobile.  But let’s not forget, it wasn’t that long ago that a lot of people didn’t own their own homes, worked without union representation and had no “safety net” other than family and community support.

It’s an utter fallacy to think you are currently living the hardest of times.  Come on!

Anyway, as I said things are in a continuum of toughness.  I’d like to say nowhere is this more prevalent than in the artistic arena, but I can’t because really while artists aren’t getting paid, when were they ever?

But people seem to think they should be, paid and paid well. For every single little thing.  Even for fun stuff.  This to me seems to defeat the purpose of creating art anyway.  How can your emotions fully flow and get out when you are caught up in the dollars?  What you get then is a lot of Boy and Girl Bands and commercial art that copies the latest thing teens like.

I bring all this up because I have been following the controversy or “Kerfuffle”  brought on the vitriolic statements made by Steve Albini, recording studio owner, songwriter and musician, over the crowd sourcing Amanda Palmer and her current band Grand Theft Orchestra were practicing.

He was in a word angry that musicians were being asked to volunteer their talent in the form of things like horn and string accompaniment from town to town via the massive Twitter following Palmer has spend quite a while working with.

She at the time was entirely unrepentant and explained that art is a community effort anyway.  But this week she buckled posting a new blog stating:

“for better or for worse, this whole kerfuffle has meant i’ve spent the past week thinking hard about this, listening to what everyone was saying and discussing. i hear you. i see your points. me and my band have discussed it at length. and we have decided we should pay all of our guest musicians. we have the power to do it, and we’re going to do it. (in fact, we started doing it three shows ago.)

“my management team tweaked and reconfigured financials, pulling money from this and that other budget (mostly video) and moving it to the tour budget. 
all of the money we took out of those budgets is going to the crowd-sourced musicians fund. we are going to pay the volunteer musicians every night. even though they volunteered their time for beer, hugs, merch, free tickets, and love: we’ll now also hand them cash.”

She added, “We’re also retroactively sending a payment to the folks who’ve already played with us. SURPRISE!”  Read her explanation/thank you to fans/volunteers here.

Oh boy do these musicians look pissed that they aren’t being paid…

First off, P.S.-This isn’t new.  Amanda Palmer and a lot of other working musicians, who spend their lives travelling, crowd source.  It’s just now she’s the diva queen of Kickstarter and she’s in the public eye a bit more. Even non-self promoting musicians do this.  Katy Perry paid extras (translate actors) in beer and food for her video “The One That Got Away.”  Steve Albini clearly has his own issues about the music industry, he can’t get beyond the fact that these people WANT to do this and are happy and having fun.  And really, how much fun would you have if you could participate in your favorite concert rather than sitting sedately?  Would you then want payment?  Also conveniently left out is the fact that Palmer has spent a lot of her own time promoting artists and helping them get started when she finds them through crowd sourcing.

Non-embittered musicians and artists all over “get” this.  You play because you love it, not for the money or you would never ever choose to do it.  David Byrne spoke to this point.  On her blog she remarked on David Byrne’s NYT article which stated: “as an example of someone who creatively crowdsources things,” She goes on to say, “Plus: “when david byrne guested with the grand theft orchestra a few months ago at the music hall of williamsburg, we paid him…in beer.”

Okay but this is all about Artsy-Musician-y stuff and what does that have to do with me anyway?

What is has to do with you is it may be part of a growing trend to Make people adhere to cash for pay standards.  After all, nobody gets taxes when you barter do they?  And who are you, the person to set the price of your goods and services? How dare you peons?!

An example of this is Bernard Von Nothause who was recently convicted by the Federal government due to his bartering with gold and silver.  Kenneth Shortgen Jr. wrote an article about it Here.  Shoot, does that also mean no more Disney Dollars?  What about the Classroom Dollars our kids use to buy prizes for good behavior.  (That’s right; kids apparently need to be paid to be good.)

Lest you think it’s just about currency, Chad Gerondale of Alaska is currently being prosecuted for trading firewood for meat. After offering to trade Moose meat for firewood on a Fairbanks radio station he found out, it is in fact a misdemeanor charge.  Even more lovely he was arrested by an officer who called him and made a deal to make the trade.  While this is not technically entrapment, it comes pretty close.

I knew the Feds would find some way to come after me; do I now need to conduct garden seed exchanges like a drug deal?

In fact there are federal laws in place about business and individual bartering; you are supposed to report it as income.  So go home and see if you made anything or lost anything by trading babysitting for that canoe your neighbor had.  Oh and there’s also capital gain.  Say, you’re out at a garage sale and pick up a vase for $25. You then get it appraised and find out it is worth $5,000. Then you think, hey a motorcycle would be rad!.. Do you pay taxes on that trade?  You betcha.  Treating the trade just like cash you just had a $4,975 capital gain on which taxes are applicable.

Honestly, as I’m writing that I’m beginning to wonder what that means for all the things I give away or receive for free on Freecycle

You see, hard time they aren’t here just for us.  Those companies, they are “individuals” too!  They are having hard times folks and us not buying stuff is just like hurting a person… or something. Also the Federal Government is not going to want to miss the ten cents from my rose hip to jam trade.  Ten cents is after all, ten cents. Or what was that song from Mary Poppins?  “Tuppence, deposited safely in the bank will com-pound!”   Or not, but either way the bank wins.

I have this suspicion that the Amanda Palmer beer for music trade had less to do with paying musicians than figuring a way to tax people’s income.  Especially given all the large scale press it’s been given.  And we can’t forget the fact that she broke records in her 1.2-ish million Kickstarter campaign. Which by the way, cause Albini to call her a “millionaire”.  Again, anyone working knows funding a recording and a tour with 1.2 million does not make you a millionaire.  And it’s  gotta piss some people off who only have their parents contributing to their Kickstarter.

But, it’s hard to put a dollar price on beer and hugs after all.  Maybe Moose and Beer, but the hugs, that throws everything out of whack.

12 Comments on “Bartering, Crowd Sourcing and Lending a Hand”

  1. Very interesting point you make about Mr. Albini. Funny that he should be contributing to a “Kerfuffle” since he stated “I charge whatever the hell I feel like at the moment, based on the client’s ability to pay, how nice the band members are, the size and directly proportional gullibility of the record company, and whether or not they got the rock.” If the “client” is the tallented folks who just want to jam with AFP then they are accepting whatever she is willing to pay. Whether it is payment in beer, dollars or hugs. If musicians want to change AFP for their performance they certainly may. And Ms Palmer can decide to have them on stage or not. The sad part about all of this “kerfuffle” is that some people are missing the magic of what Ms Palmer is doing. Sharing and creating beautiful music and art. Grainne. Keep up the great work.

  2. As far as paying artists is concerned… yes, I think they should get paid, no matter how much fun they seem to be having. If they’ve maid the arts their career, hugs and beer won’t get them very far. It takes a lot of diligence, practice and study to perform, write or draw well, and if the results pleased you in some way, isn’t it fair to give something in return for their efforts?

    However, this article isn’t about paying artists so much as it is the right to barter and trade. The motivations of the government are obvious; when you don’t put a cash value on your transaction, the ability to tax it becomes null and void. These aren’t the worst of economic times, but they are some of the worst of political times; especially for a nation founded on the principles of liberty. What we have is treason, committed by judicial action. Our self-determination has been erased, i.e., our rights to the labor of our hands and to live privately. We have become obligated to a government that does not represent our wishes and uses force and coercion to keep us obedient to its laws.

  3. Karlsie- I will just say we disagree on the musicians and indeed all artist point. I do not see anything wrong with gigging with someone, jumping on stage and being seen. ALL musicians play for free, ALL artist create for free. ALL writers write for free. If it’s a choice, it shouldn’t even be argued. We aren’t talking about making them follow the tour or be on an album for free, this is a one-off.

    But you are correct. This article is more about our ability to sustain ourselves outside of traditional currency AND blocks being placed or already in place to prevent it. It is not okay to allow ourselves to be kept in the clutch of a system. For god’s sake,how many hours and papers did we all spend writing about the evils of peasantry from grade school to College and beyond? Yet now we willingly submit to it.

    If we are using the government’s money we “give unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s” if not, they should stay the hell out of it.

  4. It’s an interesting article. In my opinion everything is allowed to barter as long as it’s not against the law. I really like to barter and I do it on barterquest.com! I trade for goods, service and also real estate. It’s fun and it saves me money!

  5. @ johnb,

    “In my opinion everything is allowed to barter as long as it’s not against the law.”

    No – the “law” should have absolutely no say on what goods or services get traded because “law” is tyranny: what most people call “law” is nothing but the will of the entity with more cash and guns than everyone else – the will of this entity has no more validity than the will of a robber pointing a gun at your head…

  6. Actually, the whole “kerfuffle” didn’t start with Albini (who is a fairly easy target, as he says a lot if inflammatory things) but an open letter from a working musician. The problem is that it wasn’t just “jumping onstage”, the musicians had to audition and practise and in the case of the quartet appear as the backup band – playing someone else’s music.

    Musicians were frustrated because they have been constantly told that they shouldn’t be in it for the money, but do it for the “love” of music. It implies that if you’re unfortunate to need money you’re somehow inauthentic, and that sucks.

    There’s nothing wrong with barter, but it should involve a real community. In spite of her indie cred Palmer seems very much like the outsider swooping in for a day and then leaving. If the barter were meaningful, it would involve Palmer offering, say, dinner or something tangible to her volunteers. Beer usually comes free from the venue and merch costs Palmer next to nothing. Hugs are invaluable, but they’re not transferable, either. You can’t put food on the table with a hug from someone else.

    For me, this was crystallized by a comment from someone who said that Palmer’s offer was for “musicians like him.” His band was composed of a restaurant owner, a scientist and other professionals. In other words, if we all have great jobs and free time to play music, things will be fine! But we live in the real world where even “non-embittered” musicians need to eat.

  7. I agree Az- in this case “the law” is against those who would barter perfectly reasonable things like Moose meat from your own freezer. It’s fine to give it away, but not okay to trade it. This is intrusive and designed to put a cash value on moose meat, something that typically would not be making revenue for the state or federal government.

    The capital gains tax is unreasonable too. And everyone out there who ever “sold” their car to family or friends for $1.00 to avoid DMV fees could potentially be investigated for tax evasion. The tax collectors do not want you or I to price our own goods/services ourselves.

  8. @DP- Those are all good points. And indeed, I do believe that people should be paid when they are working towards that goal. This does not negate the fact that musicians volunteered to participate. They volunteered to audition, they volunteered to be a part of the show. In this case they were setting their own price which was hugs, beer, merch. and fun. Who is anyone else to get involved when a person sets their own price?

    Now if a musician is not down with that, they should just abstain, not demand changes. It’s not their gig/tour/etc.

    P.S. Amanda Palmer is not backed by a record company and has no contract for this album tour so the merch in this case does actually come out of the Kickstarter fundraised money. It is tangible.

    But I don’t want to just be harping on team Amanda. Nobody even did a double take at the fact that Katy Perry who is backed by a major record label found it acceptable to pay for extras with food and drink. Perry and her record label continue to make money every time the video is played although nobody else on it does.

    I agree absolutely that nobody should feel like they are “in-authentic” because they need to make money. However people have control over choices they make, don’t show up for the audition if you’re not down with doing it for trade or free.

    And yes you should really really love art if you are doing it, no matter what.

  9. Grainne, I should clarify on the subject of moose since you brought it up as an example. Alaska has very strict laws regarding hunting. One of these laws is, you cannot sell moose meat; which means there is no value price fixed on it. You can, however, sell firewood, and many people do. Up here, it sells from $130-$250 a cord, depending on type of wood, dryness and whether or not it has been split. By publicly agreeing to trade a product that has no value price for one that does, our hunter was effectively placing a price on his moose meat. I’m not saying the law is right or wrong, only that he would have been better off to seek a private transaction among the laboring community than to make a public statement that he was willing to trade.

  10. Grainne – I would argue that the volunteers didn’t set the price – Palmer did. If people saw that she was in a jam and offered to show up, that’s one thing, but putting people through an audition/rehearsal process

    T-shirts may be tangible, but they’re not worth very much. You can’t pay for a meal with an Amanda Palmer T shirt. (Nor, for that matter, can you get into an Amanda Palmer show with a T-shirt or beer, which brings me the the crux of the matter: Palmer is getting paid for appearing there.)

    The trouble with just saying “don’t show up for the audition” is that it sets a very bad precedent. There are always people who are willing to do work for less, and that undercuts everybody.

    As for Katy Perry, I have never heard of her doing this, and while it’s problematic, I would point out that nobody goes to school for many years and practises for decades to be an extra.

    The musicians I’ve heard talk about this are frustrated because they are often guilted into preforming for free and told that they should “do it for the love of it.” The Palmer “kerfuffle” didn’t occur in a vacuum, but at a time when more and more creative people are being asked to provide their work for free with the offer of exposure.

  11. Sorry, I didm’t finish a sentence there. I meant to say that asking for volunteers in the way she did gave Palmer all the power.

  12. @DP, Thank you for sharing this perspective. I think it’s a good argument and truly if people are feeling guilted or coerced into performing that is a problem. I see it as a problem on both sides of the table. Musicians need to be strong, and I know this is not easy when really you want to do shows like this, you want to be seen, you see a cost/benefit from free performances. I would say, if you can’t feel good walking away from a performance it is maybe something you shouldn’t do again. I have several working musicians in my family and I know the struggle to make even the cost of travel, so I do get that part of the arguement.

    It’s interesting that you stated Palmer has all the power in this situation because I don’t see it that way. People are never powerless, it’s about choices. And yes, that choice was made by more than some who complained about her crowd sourcing.

    It’s a good dialog. How can artists best support one another without middle men/women and without hard feelings.

    It flows over into other areas of life too as pointed out. How can we best trade goods and services in our communities without middle people and cash? Is it okay to pay for a doctor to stitch you up in exchange for a basket of food or a pig-as was done in older times? Even though the doctor no doubt spent years at school and owes tons of money themselves on student loans. Pigs feed you but don’t pay bills right?

    My thought is we should be making barter in all areas more meaningful and acceptable. Also that people should be able to set their own personal price on their goods and services.

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