Amanda Palmer brouhaha exposes the dark side of crowdsourcing

Is it right to ask for (and use) free labor? That’s the question that erupted after Amanda Palmer, former lead singer of the Dresden Dolls and a fixture on the Boston music scene,  posted a request for musicians to back up her band on its new tour.

Palmer wrote that she needs “professional-ish horns and strings for EVERY CITY to hop up on stage with us for a couple of tunes.”The pay for  a “quickie rehearsal” and performance?  “Beer, hug/high-five you up and down (pick your poison), give you merch, and thank you mightily for adding to the big noise we are planning to make,” she wrote.

The post sparked a firestorm, as The Boston Globe reported Thursday, as several commenters accused Palmer of trying to get something for nothing. What made her request especially galling to some was that she recently raised $1.2 million from Kickstarter to fund her music.

The post and the blowback from it renews a debate over how ethical (moral?) it is to get free or near-free work out of people especially in these hard times.

One of the commenters on Palmer’s site, Chris Siebert, who described himself as a professional musician,  was clearly not amused:

With all due respect, your request for free labor sounds like a promotional gimmick dreamed up by a corporate republican who has no concept of the history of working people in this country …  you raised a million dollars through [K]ickstarter. That’s a lot of money. And the best you can do is come up with a scheme to take advantage of desperate musicians by reinforcing everything that’s wrong with the music business and the modern American economy?

Some said her request was so tone-deaf she must have written it on purpose to provoke the controversy.

Palmer did have her defenders among the commenters, one of whom pointed out that the Kickstarter campaign funded her new CD, not the tour per se. Others praised her for playing free concerts including for the Occupy Movement.

But the issue of wangling free or really cheap labor goes way beyond music. Unpaid internships in businesses of all types; the rise of user-generated content in media; and crowdsourcing across the board are all part of the same bigger picture.

And pushback as evidenced by the Palmer comments is likewise growing. For example,  Ryan Carson, founder and CEO Of Treehouse, assailed hackathon promoters for treating programmers as trained monkeys. If you doubt that this is a touchy subject just try asking an artist what she thinks about  99designs or a reporter about Journatic. Then duck.

As GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram pointed out in his post about Journatic, it’s important to maintain professional standards — including pay — but it’s also important to face facts — and the facts are that crowdsourcing, in some form, is a now a reality.

Feature photo courtesy of  Flickr user Zawezome