Part 2 of the TED Radio Hour episode Giving It Away.
About Ron Finley's TEDTalk
Ron Finley plants vegetable gardens in South Central LA — in abandoned lots, traffic medians, along the curbs. Why? For fun, for defiance, for beauty and to offer some alternative to fast food in a community where "the drive-thrus are killing more people than the drive-bys."
About Ron Finley
Ron Finley grows a nourishing food culture in South Central LA's food desert by planting the seeds and tools for healthy eating. Finley's vision for a healthy, accessible "food forest" started with the curbside veggie garden he planted in the strip of dirt in front of his own house. When the city tried to shut it down, Finley's fight gave voice to a larger movement that provides nourishment, empowerment, education — and healthy, hopeful futures — one urban garden at a time.
GUY RAZ, HOST:
It's the TED Radio Hour, from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. So maybe the best way to describe musician Amanda Palmer, let me just play it for you.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "GIRL ANACHRONISM")
THE DRESDEN DOLLS: (Singing) One, two, three, four.
RAZ: This is what happens when you take punk music and you mash it together with cabaret. You get Amanda Palmer, or as she's formally known to her fans, Amanda [bleep] Palmer.
AMANDA PALMER: My real middle name is McKinnon, which is my Scottish family name.
RAZ: It's very different than the one you've adopted.
PALMER: Yeah, my mom's none too pleased. Thank God my grandmother's dead. She'd hate it. (Laughing)
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "GIRL ANACHRONISM")
THE DRESDEN DOLLS: (Singing) ... believe, it's not the way I'm meant to be. It's just the way the operation made me.
RAZ: Now long before she had millions of fans, long before she'd become a symbol of giving it all away, Amanda Palmer was a statue. Here's her TED Talk.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PALMER: I was a self-employed living statue, called the Eight-Foot Bride. And I love telling people I did this for a job because everybody always wants to know, who are these freaks in real life? Hello. I painted myself white one day, stood on a box, put a hat or a can at my feet, and when someone came by and dropped in money, I handed them a flower and some intense eye contact, and if they didn't take the flower, I threw in a gesture of sadness and longing as they walked away. So I had the most profound encounters with people, especially lonely people who looked like they hadn't talked to anyone in weeks. And we would get this beautiful moment of prolonged eye contact being allowed in a city street and we would sort of fall in love a little bit. And my eyes would say, thank you, I see you. And their eyes would say, nobody ever sees me, thank you.
And I would get harassed sometimes. People would yell at me from their passing cars, get a job. And I'd be like, this is my job. But it hurt because it made me fear that I was somehow doing something unjob-like and unfair, shameful. I had no idea how perfect a real education I was getting for the music business on this box.
When you're a street performer, your whole mentality is trained to give away your talent for free in exchange for, you know, hopeful support. And you spend your life with the hat out, having faith in strangers and watching it work. Watching it work is the important part. And I had so much experience, year, after year, after year, trusting passersby and having faith in people that I could make my living this way, that I really just started to take it for granted.
RAZ: And in Amanda's case, trust actually became a kind of business model. Not intentionally, but it just sort of worked out that way, even as her career in the music industry started to take off.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PALMER: So I couch-surf a lot. I also crowd-surf a lot. I maintain couch-surfing and crowd-surfing are basically the same thing. You're falling into the audience and you're trusting each other. I once tweeted, where in Melbourne can I buy a neti pot? And a nurse from a hospital drove one, right at that moment, to the cafe I was in. And I bought her a smoothie and we sat there talking about nursing and death. And I love this kind of random closeness, which is lucky because I do a lot of couch-surfing, in mansions where everyone in my crew gets their own room but there's no wireless, and in punk squats, everyone on the floor in one room with no toilets but with wireless, clearly making it the better option.
PALMER: My crew once pulled our van up to a really poor Miami neighborhood and we found out that our couch-surfing host for the night was an 18-year-old girl still living at home and her family were all undocumented immigrants from Honduras. And that night, her whole family took the couches and she slept together with her mom so that we could take their beds. And I lay there thinking, these people have so little, is this fair? And in the morning, her mom taught us how to try to make tortillas and wanted to give me a Bible. And she took me aside and she said to me in her broken English, your music has helped my daughter so much, thank you for staying here, we're all so grateful. And I thought, this is fair. I once asked an opening band of mine if they wanted to go out into the crowd and pass the hat to get themselves some extra money, something that I did a lot. And as usual, the band was psyched, but there was this one guy in the band who told me he just couldn't bring himself to go out there. It felt too much like begging to stand there with the hat. And I recognized his fear of, is this fair? And, get a job. And meanwhile, my band is becoming bigger and bigger. We sign with a major label, and there's all this hype leading up to our next record. It comes out and it sells about 25,000 copies in the first few weeks, and the label considers this failure. And I was like, 25,000, isn't that a lot? They were like, nope, the sales are going down, it's a failure, and they walk off. Right at this same time, I'm signing and hugging after a gig, and a guy comes up to me and hands me a $10 bill and he says, I'm sorry, I burned your CD from a friend.
PALMER: But I read your blog, I know you hate your label, I just want you to have this money. And this starts happening all the time. I become the hat after my own gigs, but I have to physically stand there and take the help from people. And unlike the guy in the opening band, I've actually had a lot of practice standing there, and this is the moment I decide I'm just going to give away my music for free.
RAZ: You decided to just give it away.
PALMER: Well, the decision was kind of made for me because once music was burnable and e-mail-able, it seemed to me music simply was free, and I could charge for it but, you know, sort of like charging for rain falling from the sky. I mean, it just seemed like this inevitable shift that had happened in culture, where digital music was freely shareable between any two people who had a phone or a computer. So those who appreciate it and are into it will be moved to contribute to it.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PALMER: And I'm going to encourage torrenting, downloading, sharing, but I'm going to ask for help because I saw it work on the street. So I fought my way off my label and for my next project with my new band, The Grand Theft Orchestra, I turned to crowd funding. And I fell into those thousands of connections that I had made and I asked my crowd to catch me, and the goal was $100,000. My fans backed me at nearly 1.2 million, which was the biggest music crowd-funding project to date.
PALMER: And you can see how many people it is. It's about 25,000 people. And the media asked, Amanda, the music business is tanking and you encourage piracy, how did you make all these people pay for music? And the real answer is, I didn't make them. I asked them.
RAZ: Did it work right away?
PALMER: Yeah, absolutely. And I also - I didn't do it as an anonymous entity. I went out as Amanda Palmer, the human being, and asked my fans, the audience, the human beings, hey, this is how I want to do it. This is how we're all doing it, clearly. Can I count on you guys to help me so that I can pay my rent? And their answer was, of course, we'll help you as much as we can. And at their varying levels, I mean, a lot of fans, you know, wrote back to me or commented on blogs or tweeted very sheepishly, well, I'm going to take your music for free because I'm broke, but can I pay you back later? And I would write back enthusiastically, yeah, that's the point. I'd rather you have my music than you didn't, so go ahead and take it. Someone else will cover you or you'll cover me down the line or, you know, it'll all sort of all karmically, cosmically work out.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PALMER: 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. And I got a lot of criticism online, after my Kickstarter went big, for continuing my crazy crowd-sourcing practices, specifically for asking musicians who are fans if they wanted to join us on stage for a few songs in exchange for love and tickets and beer. And people saying, you're not allowed anymore to ask for that kind of help, really reminded me of the people in their cars yelling, get a job, because they weren't with us on the sidewalk, and they couldn't see the exchange that was happening between me and my crowd, an exchange that was very fair to us but alien to them.
RAZ: At times, do you second-guess it?
PALMER: You know, not much. The joy of asking my fans for things like places to sleep and food and rides and all of it is that I see the joy they take in helping me and helping each other. You know, it's sort of like - this happens on tour. Six people will come to a show and bring us cookies. (Laughing) And I'm sitting there with my crew who are, like, trying to be really healthy and one of them is vegan. And we're just, like, surrounded by this bounty of food that we can't possibly eat. And I actually find this wonderful, weird, karmic circle, where we get to the next city and we share all the leftover food in the signing line the next night. And I know that for the girl who spent the afternoon of the show making a bunch of brownies and then being able to give them to me and my band, that made her feel wonderful.
RAZ: And you, too?
PALMER: And me, too. And then the people on the other end that we got to share the brownies with the next night. I mean, you could put a full stop on it, or you could just kind of do what we do, which is, we let it all fly. And we know that the whole thing's going to be chaotic. But life is never boring and there's a lot of love, even if it's a little unorganized. (Laughing)
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
RAZ: It sounds like the giving and the asking stuff is just a small part of what's really about just connection, just connecting.
PALMER: Yeah, well, that's what it always comes down to, isn't it? And that's what music and going to shows and supporting art, I think, really fundamentally is for people. People crave connection with art, with artists, with each other. I mean, these things are as old as the hills. If you remember that fundamentally, part of why we love art is that it connects us in an inexplicable way, all these things sort of start to come into focus and make more sense, I think.
RAZ: But asking is - can be terrifying. I mean, it can be really scary.
PALMER: (Laughing) For sure.
RAZ: And a lot of us don't feel comfortable doing it for that reason.
PALMER: Yeah, well, asking goes hand-in-hand with the possibility of being rejected. You know, the act of asking for something when someone might say no can be so terrifying and so paralyzing to some that they figure it's just safer not to ask. We're all so geared to be independent and self-reliant and, you know, you should be able to figure this out yourself. You should be able to do it yourself. And in the culture we live in, I wonder if the fact that this talk has resonated so hard with people actually just says something really profound about who we've become and how we've turned away from asking each other for help because there's so much fear.
RAZ: But fear because we think we're on the hook, like we'll owe someone something?
PALMER: Yeah, these are like the core issues of what the talk hit on with people. There's a really fantastic book by Lewis Hyde called "The Gift," and he tells a wonderful anecdote in the beginning of the book about how in Native American culture, gifts were sort of circulated. So if you went over to another chief's house, you'd bring a pipe, you'd smoke it, and you'd leave it there. And then the next time he went over to someone's place, he would bring the pipe along and it would sort of be this circulating gift. And the term "Indian giver" comes from the cultural clashing phenomenon of a Pilgrim going over to, you know, to an Indian chief's joint and smoking this beautiful pipe, and the Indian chief gives him the pipe and the Pilgrim thinks he's scored this beautiful pipe that he can keep. And then a few months later, another Indian chief comes over and sees the pipe and sort of expectantly assumes that this pipe is going to come back to him. And thus, the term "Indian giver," of someone who wants their gift back, that Lewis Hyde says it very cleverly, that maybe the term for this should actually be "white man keeper." (Laughing) You know, it really is how we think of giving and receiving and asking and sharing.
(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)
PALMER: The things I've done, the Kickstarter, the street, I don't see these things as risk. I see them as trust. Now the online tools to make the exchange as easy and as instinctive as the street, they're getting there. Celebrity is about a lot of people loving you from a distance, but the Internet and the content that we're freely able to share on it are taking us back. It's about a few people loving you up close and about those people being enough. But the perfect tools aren't going to help us if we can't face each other and give and receive fearlessly, but more important, to ask without shame. My music career has been spent trying to encounter people on the Internet the way I could on the box. So blogging and tweeting, not just about my tour dates and my new video, but about our work and our art and our fears and our hangovers, our mistakes. And we see each other, and I think when we really see each other, we want to help each other. 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? Thank you.
RAZ: Musician Amanda Palmer. Her TED Talk has been viewed by more than 2 million people. Check out her full talk at TED.com and check out our interview with Amanda about the process of writing her TED Talk. You can hear that at TED.NPR.org or through our podcast page on iTunes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "WANT IT BACK")
PALMER: (Singing) It doesn't matter if you want it back. You've given it away. You've given it away. It doesn't matter if you want it back. You've given it away, away, away, away, away, away ...
RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to the show this week. If you missed any of it or if you want to hear more, you want to find out more about who was on it, you can visit TED.NPR.org. You can also find many more TED Talks at TED.com. You can download the show through iTunes or through the NPR smartphone app. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.