Amanda Palmer Talks ‘The Art of Asking’ at TED2013 Conference

The alt-rocker from Lexington gave a moving speech that explained how busking as a living statue in Harvard Square inspired her Kickstarter success in 2012, a campaign that raised $1.2 million.

amanda palmer ted talk


This week, some of the greatest minds in science and technology gathered for the annual TED2013 conference in Long Beach, Calif. Among the cold-hard-data-driven presentations that took place stood out one TED talk by alt-rock musician Amanda Palmer. The Lexington, Mass., native gave a moving speech about “The Art of Asking” that—depending on who you talk to—is either A) a trust-driven proposal to change how the music industry works, or B) promotion of music piracy and death to music as a profitable career path.

Critical to Amanda Palmer’s argument is her past job as a living statue. Palmer was once “The Eight-Foot Bride” in Harvard Square who passed out flowers to passersby. In her TED talk, she demonstrates the way she would stand on a crate, all dolled up, and connect with people with her eyes as she exchanged flowers and “beautiful moments of prolonged eye contact” for money.

These experiences are compared to an incident that took place after Palmer’s music career took off, when a fan approached her after a concert and handed her $10, saying he had burned her CD from a friend, but wanted her to have the money.

This inspired Palmer to launch a Kickstarter campaign for her 2012 album Theatre Is Evil. Hoping to raise $100,000, the project ended up raising almost $1.2 million from 25,000 backers.

Palmer’s efforts to make digital content free have been criticized by people in the industry and those who cover it. She says in her presentation:

And the media asked, “Amanda, the music business is tanking and you encourage piracy. How do you make all these people pay for music?” And the real answer is: I didn’t make them, I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I connected with them. And when you connect with them, people want to help you.

It’s kind of counterintuitive for a lot of artists—they don’t want to ask for things. But it’s not easy—it’s not easy to ask, and a lot of artists have a problem with this. Asking makes you vulnerable.

Palmer argues that there is nothing wrong with asking—whether it’s for a few dollars on the street in Harvard Square, a couch to sleep on via Twitter (which she proudly claims to have done many times on tour), or an undetermined amount on the Internet for her album. Nor is there shame in crowdfunding (or crowdsurfing).

An important point to note is that Palmer says her platform is neither for music piracy nor to hurt the income of hardworking musicians. She says, “I think people have been obsessed with the wrong question, which is ‘How do we make people pay for music?’ What if we started asking, ‘How do we let people pay for music?'”

There are certainly two sides to the story, with the ultimate question being: If you ask, will people pay? In Palmer’s case last year, the answer was yes. And we’ve also seen asking succeed in other industries. The first day it was open in January, the pay-what-you-can Panera Cares cafe near Government Center took in 109 percent. Panera asked Boston residents, “If we feed you, will you pay?” and customers responded yes.

Now that Palmer has shared her adventures with the entire TED community (and received a standing ovation from the live audience), perhaps we’ll be seeing more “artful asking” in the near future.

Watch Palmer’s full TED talk below: