Punk-cabaret musician and incorrigible creative Amanda Palmer shared a powerful talk at this year's TED conference on "The Art of Asking." In her speech, Palmer talks about how simply asking fans for things that she needs has revolutionized her creative life. It's overhauled how she makes and profits from her music.
By replacing a hard transactional model of exchange (I give you an album, you give me 14.99) with a soft, participatory one (I give you all my albums, you give me whatever it's worth to you), she's recaptured the old, community-oriented dynamic of music. Like a street busker, a pub performer, a local act at open mike night, you give Amanda what her music is worth to you.
Though she's certainly not the first to implement a pay-what-you-want model (I think that was Radiohead's In Rainbows, and heck, now it's the entire point of Noisetrade), Palmer takes the strategy way farther than the checkout page. She asks for a piano to practice on while she's touring, and a Twitter follower opens up her house in London. Homemade food, opening bands, couches to sleep on, you name it, she's probably asked for it, taken someone up on it, shared and enjoyed it.
By doing this, she's brought her audience up onto the stage, humanized them by allowing them to assign value to her work. And in this relational exchange, she sees them. Like the eight-foot bride in the beginning of her talk, she looks them in the eyes, hands them a flower, and (even in the abstraction of digitized commerce) gives them the chance to choose her.
As a musician, Palmer's model threatens the foundation of the traditional record industry, which is built on outdated ways to create and distribute music. But it also cuts left, striking at the root of illegal downloading culture, by reorienting the relationship between artist and audience, between the "creators" and "consumers" of recordings. You don't need to lurk around on some Swedish filesharing site to get her back catalog. You can go to her website. And download all of it. For free, if you want, free and theft-free. Or for $10, $40, or whatever it's worth to you. She asks the central question—"how does a musician make a living?"—differently, and it is getting a powerful response.
"Ask and you shall…"
Of course, she's not alone in asking for things. At the first glance, ministry culture frequently faces the opposite problem to that faced by the record industry. Rather than demanding our 14.99 for the "album," we give our product away for free. But are we really that different?
No. I think that there's a largely unspoken dynamic that is constantly evaluating what we're able to get out of the people who walk through our doors.
In order to exist, we need funding, volunteer hours, philosophical engagement, and so on. We need a lot, and we usually have to ask for it.
Yes, church leaders live in a world based on asking. But in my experience, not the kind that Palmer describes. You know what I'm talking about. Functionally, we reduce the people who join us in our church communities either to assets to use or liabilities to limit or fix. This comes out unconsciously in our thinking, in our preaching and small-grouping, and worship leading. Once you recognize it, you begin to see it everywhere.
I talked with my friends Laura and Ashley about this. I wanted to hear if I was crazy or not. If I am, they are too. They (both mature Christians, and involved heavily in their local churches) described what it felt like to be seen as an asset rather than as a person.