At the time of the interview, the focus was on her Kickstarter campaign, and how one aspect of it could change the concert industry.
Your Kickstarter campaign got a lot of attention, but it was mostly about how it would help your recording endeavors. How does it apply to live performance?
Well, you’re asking me at just the right time. I’m about to go into two solid weeks of tour production and rehearsal, which I’ve never done before in my life. My old idea for preparing for a tour was hit the rehearsal space for at least a day before we hit the road. Now we’re going a super-ambitious spectacle. It’s really wonderful. In the days of The Dresden Dolls, we added a lot of extra energy to our shows but we did it very much on the fly, on no budget. A lot of what gave us our reputation for being a very theatrical band actually came from the local energy we would source and put onstage with us. It never cost us any money. We would and give people food and drink, but usually the local burlesque troops would be paid back by opening up for us or selling their CDs or, even, busking outside the venue and hoping to make a couple hundred dollars back. We were always on a tight budget. The most money we ever spent on tour production was, like, paying somebody $1,000 to paint the backdrop for the band. We never had fancy lights, we never had stage designers. We never had anything more than a drum set and a piano. And it works. In the Dresden Dolls we also had a minimal aesthetic and it worked. The focus was on the band.
It served our purposes. But I come from a theatre background and I’m always yearning to have a budget to do more and to build more, and to create more so the live experience is something surprising and amazing. I always feel as a performer it’s my job to deliver two things if someone buys a ticket. The first is I need to give them an emotional musical experience somewhere in the realm of what they’re expecting, if they know my music and love the songs. And the second thing I always want to do is surprise them. I always want people to have at least one moment, preferably more, where they can see or experience something they never anticipated.
That doesn’t have to cost money, but money can help. So, with this Kickstarter, I for the first time actually have a touring production budget. It’s not sky-high but it’s enough to be able to play and to build and create something a lot bigger than what I usually have onstage. I’m excited to be in the stage of my career where I’m able to do that.
Can you elaborate on what that might be?
The drummer in my band, who is the drummer for the Grand Theft Orchestra – Michael McQuilken – was originally going to collaborate with me not as a drummer but as a tour director, because he’s also from the theatre world. He actually considers himself more of a director than a drummer. He and I had been wanting to collaborate for years because we have a really similar theatrical aesthetic. He was just finishing up grad school – the Yale School of Drama – and we got together in my kitchen one day. I told him that I was finally going to go in and record Theatre is Evil and he asked me what I was doing for the tour. I said, “Well, the tour is probably not going to happen for a year-and-a-half but I know I want to do some larger-scale theatrical production. I want to do some really interactive things with the fans that nobody’s tried before.” He said, “I’ll take the job; I’d love to do it.”
We started talking about what we’d need to do on the road to manifest it and, within a couple hours, he decided it would be more convenient if he traveled with the band. That’s how my band started.
He roped in Chad Raines, who’s the guitarist, and Jherek Bischoff, who’s playing bass. But everyone in the band has this strange superpower. Michael’s the drummer but he’s also the tour director and coordinates all the stage designers, and helping to order the costumes and creating the aesthetic. Jherek is the bass player but he’s also an avant-garde composer and arranger. He’s also been helping crowd-source local string players and quartets to guest on stage and he’ll be conducting. Chad is a guitarist/synthesizer player who also plays trumpet and he’s also a fantastic arranger who wrote, arranged and conducted all the horn parts on the album and he’s crowd-sourcing all the local horn players.
So every night we’re going to have this circus of local musicians. We’re emailing all of the charts and they’re only going to have an hour to rehearse. Then that’s it. We’re going to throw them onstage with us and we’re going to mic them up.
We’re also working with a few different people from this magical place called the MIT Media Lab, which is kind of the birthplace of all this incredible technology. The MIT Media Lab invited me over to meet some of their top music people and get an idea of the tools people have been building. I’ve incorporated these bizarre new advances in technology, and MIDI technology, and we’re going to absorb it into the stage show.
One of the most beautiful moments of the stage show is where we take this technology and we bring volunteers onto the stage, hook them up to MIDI and actually play their bodies. We’re going to be doing some wack-ass shit. We’re also running a project right now where we reach out to the entire fan base. If they have tickets to a particular city, we ask them to upload seven images, with prompts from us. And the prompts are really simple. It’s, like, the room you grew up in, a person you’ve lost, so on and so forth. We’re not telling the fan base how we’re using these images but they’ll all be incorporated into the stage show, and every show is unique because, when you log into the page, you have to select which city you’re from. We’ll use Chicago images for the Chicago show, Berlin for Berlin. That’s going to be really beautiful and hopefully emotionally effective because maybe by that time they’ll have forgotten they uploaded the pictures back in July.
So the Kickstarter campaign has “ended” – but what do you see in the future?
I think my specialty is never looking for the future. I really am not looking beyond this tour because I’m putting every ounce of energy into. If I was thinking a step beyond that, I think I could be distracted.
You had some concerts exclusively for Kickstarter investors. Any more coming up?
No. That was about it, unless you bought one of the 35 house parties. Otherwise, our business relationship comes to a close.
Actually, Pollstar is the place to talk about this. I think here is hidden story, and possibly the biggest story of Kickstarter – which nobody has fucking noticed. Do the math: 35 times $5,000. It’s a lot ($175,000). That money, which was spent on the house parties, is actually, in terms of a profit margin, one of the most profitable parts of the campaign. And the fact is, when I put these $5,000 packages on sale, I didn’t know how they were going to sell. And I experimented with it last year in Australia and found people were really excited to pay $5,000, or to gather a bunch of people to collect $5,000.
I was really amazed. There was a small handful of people who laid down $5,000, saying “I’ve got the money and I want you to come play at a party at my house.” But the vast majority of packages that were sold were sold to a collective of people in a city where one person had taken on a leadership role, started a Facebook page and you just saw this beautiful community at work in way that was astonishing, and pointing a giant finger at what the future of touring is going to look like. What you had here was a group of 50 people in South Africa saying, “We want Amanda to come here.” One person would put a hand up, say, “OK, I’ll organize it. We can use my house. You can put your money into my Paypal account. I’ll keep track of the list. Everybody come over here to this little pocket of the internet and communicate.”
Within a week, they had it. They sent us their $5,000 check and my expense – and this happened in South Africa, and Israel, and in Australia, and Europe, and Puerto Rico – my expense, to me, for doing these shows, is whatever it costs for me to get there to that person’s house. That’s it. Everything else is profit. There’s no promoter fee, no agent commission, no nuthin’. It is money that goes directly from the audience to the artist.
Now, clearly, I can’t bring my whole band and a lighting designer. But, as a template, I think you’re looking at the future of the touring industry. The major labels’ stronghold, chokehold and monopoly on the live touring circuit is going to be the next to go.
So it was like 35 different promoters.
Yes! Absolutely. It was the fans taking on that role in a volunteer position. But, how much more exciting is it to get on the phone with a fan that wants to make sure you have everything you need instead of a promoter who doesn’t give a fuck about you or your band? It’s day and night.
What surprises did they have in store for you?
This brings up a bigger question, when you’re talking about doing it at this level, which is a super-intimate level. I mean you’re literally coming into somebody’s home and co-hosting a party. You have to have a certain set of skills that not every musician possesses, which is you have to be super-social. And you have to be the kind of person who enjoys talking to strangers and enjoys hosting a party. That’s definitely not every musician out there. I wouldn’t say outliner. I think a lot of people do possess that skill. But it’s a more challenging job – showing up at somebody’s house, having been paid $5,000 for your time and being there from 6 p.m. to midnight is a six-hour marathon of social, musical and artistic activity. Whereas, going to play the Enorma-dome, you’re in the safety of your dressing room, then you’re on the safety of the stage, you clock in your two hours and you don’t have to deal with any surprises. Certainly not from the fans if you built up a wall of security around you. You really have to be willing and ready to put yourself out there and be ready to deal with whatever comes at you. Not everybody wants that level of intimacy with their fans.
And, also, not every musician is built to do it. That’s kind of the problem. If you’re a pop artist and you offer to do this, you might wind up in situations that actually are totally foreign. I’m lucky enough to have kind of a fundamental trust in my fan base that they’re going to create an amazing situation for me and they’re all going to be really intelligent, funny people. I don’t take that for granted. I go and look at other shows, look at others’ fan bases, and I feel blessed. I can take for granted that I can walk into any random fan party and I’m probably going to have a good time. I don’t know if that would be true of Justin Bieber (laughs).
So, in a certain sense, you have to figure out where it’s scalable, but once you’re at the point of being Justin Bieber, and you’re at that level, I think that’s when you can start four-walling your own gigs and calling the shots and saying, “Wait a second! The power here is with me and my fans, not in the promoters.”
You just have to be willing to run a business that will mobilize and organize your fan base so that you and them can take advantage of your connection and collective power, so that the fans aren’t paying fucking $12 ticketing fees and you aren’t getting screwed on the back end and paying more than 50 percent of your door to people who don’t give a shit about you artistically.
Totally. And why not? The tools are already here. I think we’re just figuring out how to organize it. It’s just happening so fast.
We’re running out of time but this topic can definitely be mined.
I find all of it incredibly inspiring, and fascinating. And to watch what Louis C.K. just did with his touring show, it’s like, “Here we go.” The dominos are already starting to topple, and the artist are already starting to figure out they don’t have to be beholding to larger powers who are not benevolent.