Musician Amanda Palmer has worked as a living statue on the street, couchsurfed with fans, and asked for meals, equipment, and medicine over Twitter. She’s put her music online for free and asked for donations, and she’s used Kickstarter to raise over $1 million. In short, her entire career is built on asking. In this book summary of The Art of Asking, you’ll learn Palmer’s philosophy on asking and giving, as well as how vulnerability and trust are vital for human connection.
Forming human connections through exchange and vulnerability.
READ THIS BOOK SUMMARY IF YOU:
- Want to truly connect with others
- Want to be a better asker and a better giver
- Are afraid to ask for help
Amanda Palmer spent her early adulthood standing stock-still on a milk crate, her face painted white and a hat at her feet. She was a living statue dressed as a bride, waiting for strangers to drop a dollar or two into the hat in exchange for a moment of uninterrupted human connection. Making a living as a human statue taught Palmer how to be vulnerable. Even more, it taught her how to ask.
Years later, Palmer and her record label fell out, and she turned to crowdfunding to finance her music. Collectively, 25,000 fans gave over one million dollars to the campaign, all because Palmer asked.
We ask for things every day. Some asks are little: an elevator held, a quarter for the meter, or an empty chair in a restaurant. Some are quite a bit bigger: a loan, an important introduction, or even a kidney. No matter what it is, everyone struggles with asking. Why is it so hard to ask when lots of people like to help?
Underneath it all is fear — fear of being vulnerable, being rejected, looking weak, or hearing “no.” We are often taught that needing help means we’re failures. But none of us can succeed without asking. Human exchange is the essence of human connection.
Do you remember when, as a child, you first started connecting the dots and finding connections you’d never seen before? Maybe the cracks of the sidewalk matched the lines of a fallen leaf, or the puffy clouds looked like a tree, a dog, or a face. Did you tell your friends? Did you ask if they saw it, too?
Seeing the dots, connecting them, and sharing them are all parts of human creativity. No matter the medium, all artists are connecting and sharing. And it’s always scary: It’s asking, “Do you see it? Will you even look? Will you connect the dots, too, or will you laugh at me?”
When Palmer graduated from college, she had no desire to join the “real” workforce. She didn’t want to wear a suit, go to an office, or plan for retirement. In truth, she wanted to be a rock star. She wanted to live her art and share it. But she had no idea how that looked in real life. And, of course, there was rent to pay.
So, she bought an antique bridal gown at a charity shop. She put on white face paint, a veil, white gloves, and a black wig. She gathered some flowers, dragged an old milk crate to the middle of Harvard Square in Cambridge, and stood on it, statue-still. It was terrifying at first. Palmer felt stupid and vulnerable. And then, a small crowd formed to watch. When a young boy approached and put a dollar in her hat, Palmer jerked to life, selected a flower, and gave it to him. She stared into his eyes.
And that’s how it went. Most people walked right by and ignored her, but some didn’t. Those that didn’t were enough because they saw her, and she saw them. And people want so badly to be seen. But more than being looked at, Palmer was sharing in the exchange. There was a connection.
When Palmer was The Bride, she was asking for help. This isn’t begging; it’s collaborating. Begging is telling someone they have power over you, and it offers nothing in return. There is no exchange in begging. Asking with gratitude communicates the opportunity to help one another. It is intimate, and it requires trust. Palmer asked for money in exchange for real connections with real people.
Of course, not everyone understood that. Some people looked from the outside and yelled insults: “Loser!” “Freak!” “Get a job!” When people believe the myth that vulnerability is weakness, they push everyone away and close in on themselves. They also begin to despise anyone willing to be open. Hate equals fear. It’s possible that, “Get a job,” actually meant, “I’m afraid to stand on my own milk crate.”
Some days, Palmer felt guilty for daring to want something different. Who was she to try to make a living through art? Other days she felt like an impostor, like everyone would eventually realize she had no idea what she was doing, and she didn’t deserve to call herself an artist. But there is no correct way to be an artist or to make art. You’re an artist when you make people feel things they weren’t feeling before.
Still, being a statue felt incomplete. Palmer loved connecting with people, but she wanted to connect as herself. The Bride was silent and anonymous, she was anyone onlookers wanted her to be. Palmer didn’t want to be anyone: She wanted to be herself, and she wanted to share herself.
The Dresden Dolls
So, Palmer started a band.
She lived in the Cloud Club, an eclectic commune in Boston that artist Lee Barron started in the 1970s. One night when the house was in full costume-party swing, Palmer played a few of her songs on the piano. Afterward, Brian Viglione took her aside and announced that he was born to be her drummer.
It was just the two of them — a piano and a drumset —and they were loud. They called themselves The Dresden Dolls. They wore funky costumes and stage makeup and shouted about their feelings in a raw, honest way that spoke to some but scared others. From the very beginning, the band was built on asking, exchange, and trust. The Dresden Dolls played anywhere people would have them, from thrift shops to art galleries to bars to friends’ houses.
Viglione was the techie — buying, troubleshooting, and setting up the gear — and Palmer was the manager and press agent. Email was new and exciting at the time, so Palmer collected everyone’s addresses and created a newsletter to let people know about gigs. Eventually, the email list grew from a small circle of Cloud Club friends to separate lists for each surrounding city.
The Dresden Dolls made friends everywhere they went. Fans let them couchsurf, other musicians shared their stage, and artists decorated their venues. Helpers were paid in tickets, food, beer, and hugs. Whenever other people needed something in Boston, Palmer and Viglione returned the favor. They burned their own CDs in the kitchen of the Cloud Club. Fans sent cash and checks straight to Palmer’s home address, and she mailed the jewel-cased discs right back.
Some people said the band was “DIY”, but the truth was that they weren’t doing it themselves: They were asking everyone to help them. There’s no reward for shouldering every burden by yourself — except, perhaps, loneliness.
The Dresden Dolls got more popular and started traveling farther from Boston, but they still maintained close connections with fans. They spent time talking to people after every show, signing autographs and sharing stories. In fact, they often spent longer on the signing line than on the stage.
Their popularity was scary at first because it meant the band was finally getting big enough to be criticized online. Palmer would look out from the stage and wonder if some of the people watching her perform were the same critics calling her too goth, too weird, or too screamy. But when she met everyone after the shows and looked them in the eyes, she realized they weren’t scary: They were just people with their own dots, connections, and stories. Palmer realized you can’t connect with people when you’re afraid of being judged. You simply have to trust them.
The Dresden Dolls made their first music video in the Cloud Club. They asked other artists to film, decorate, and make costumes, and they even asked fans to work behind the scenes. When the video finally went up online, it was due to countless helping hands. The art of asking created the community that the Dresden Dolls was built upon. When they decided to record a legitimate studio album, they asked people they knew to loan them the money to make it happen. People gave, and Palmer promised to pay them back, saying, “Thank you,” and, “I see you.”
After a few years of running everything themselves, they finally signed to a record label. Palmer officially stepped down from the milk crate and retired The Bride once and for all. They paid back their generous investors and kept performing. With their label’s help, they built up an even bigger fan base across the globe. But Palmer continued fostering the personal connections with her fans.
But the label didn’t understand why Palmer needed to keep her website active when she wasn’t promoting an upcoming album. They didn’t understand why she needed to spend time with fans after shows. They didn’t understand why she blogged and started conversations about art and love and need. They didn’t understand that the whole foundation of The Dresden Dolls was community, built slowly, fan by fan, connection by connection. All they cared about was more: more fans, more gigs, more money.
After Palmer and Viglione recorded their second album, things got worse with the label. Yes, Virginia sold 25,000 copies in the first week, which elated the band but disappointed the label, who decided to pull the album from production. Palmer and Viglione knew that what they had — fans who loved them and connected with their music — was enough. They wanted off the label, but the label was determined to keep them, positive that The Dresden Dolls would one day make it in the mainstream once they wrote the “hit” that would make everyone at the label rich.
Palmer started blogging openly about their label. The band even wrote a song called “Please Drop Me.” None of it worked. Fans saw how much Palmer and Viglione hated their label and began burning their music and paying the band in cash after shows. Finally, Palmer resorted to lying. She met with a rep from the label and pretended she wanted to start a family. She cried a few fake tears and made him promise the label wouldn’t drop her if she got pregnant.
And that was all it took. Within a month, the label had dropped The Dresden Dolls.
Who Killed Amanda Palmer
The moment The Dresden Dolls were free of their record label, Palmer uploaded a new song to their website. The download was free, but she asked fans to pay whatever they wanted — if they wanted. Some paid nothing, some paid a dollar, and some paid $100. Palmer decided from then on to make her music as accessible as possible, encouraging fans to share, download, and torrent. But she left her proverbial hat out and kept asking. It worked. Just like on the street, it was about an exchange, and her fans understood that.
Palmer and Viglione had traveled, toured, and recorded together nearly nonstop for four years. They were both burned out and needed a break, so Palmer started working on a solo album called Who Killed Amanda Palmer. But being a solo artist didn’t mean that Palmer wanted solitude. She joined Twitter and discovered how social media can be an important tool for making connections, communicating with fans, and, of course, asking.
Palmer tweeted at other artists to invite them to join her shows and at fans when she was putting on free, impromptu gigs. She tweeted whenever she and other musicians needed something, and people gave in droves, offering places to sleep, food to eat, and equipment to use. In exchange, they got merch, tickets, and lots of gratitude. Twitter also helped Palmer spread the word about her music. She continued releasing music straight to the fans and asking them to pay what they wanted, and she advertised every new release on Twitter.
But eventually, she wanted to produce a full-length studio album. For someone like Palmer, who is willing to ask and loves the idea of exchange, crowdfunding was the perfect way to do it.
Crowd-surfing and Crowdsourcing
When a musician turns their back on the audience and falls, there is an unspoken question in the air: “Will you catch me?”
Palmer loves crowd-surfing at shows because it is the perfect physical embodiment of trust. She falls, knowing that her fans will catch her and keep her safe, and she floats over the crowd, hundreds of cooperative hands holding her up. It’s fun for everyone as long as the surfer keeps moving. If she stops — if the load falls to one person instead of several — she becomes a burden instead of a joy. Crowdfunding is very similar. It’s an act of trust, and it requires cooperation from a group to gather any momentum.
Palmer set her Kickstarter goal toward her new album at $100,000 in May 2012. It was scary to put her need out there so blatantly and to ask so much of her fans. But true to their nature, her fans showed up. Within a day, Palmer’s campaign had cleared the $100,000 goal, and the money was continuing to grow. Roughly three weeks after launching, Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign crossed the million-dollar threshold. It was the first time a musician had ever raised seven figures through crowdfunding.
Even more than the dollar amount, Palmer was blown away by the number of people who had shown their support: Nearly 25,000 backers had pledged their money. Ironically, this was the same number of people who had bought The Dresden Dolls’ record a few years earlier — the number their record label had dismissed.
The backlash and criticism started almost immediately. Some said Palmer was begging, and others said she didn’t have a right to crowdfund because she’d already been successful. Many people misunderstood crowdfunding altogether, thinking that people were donating money without getting something in return. But the backers were buying things. Again, there was an exchange. Palmer intentionally created a campaign that allowed anyone, regardless of budget, to get involved. A single dollar bought a digital download of the album, and $25 bought the CD. From there, packages got more involved, including art books, vinyl records, and even house parties hosted by Palmer herself. Backers weren’t giving their money up for nothing.
What critics failed to understand was why Palmer’s campaign was so successful. It had nothing to do with fame; there are plenty of famous artists whose crowdfunding attempts have been less successful. The reality is that crowdfunding is like gardening: If you haven’t tended the soil and fertilized the ground, you won’t be able to harvest anything. Palmer didn’t just make art; she made connections. She talked to fans in person and online. She asked, and she gave; she shared, and she listened. She tended the soil for years before she ever crowdfunded, and that’s why her harvest was so plentiful.
Crowdfunding is not free money. It’s not asking for charity. It’s not about needing the kindness of strangers. When you crowdfund, you’re asking your crowd for help. The people who give are the ones on the inside — the ones who understand the connection and feel the mutual exchange occurring.
Standing on a milk crate, sleeping on a stranger’s couch, crowd-surfing, crowdfunding: To some, these are risks. But to Amanda Palmer, they’re acts of trust. When she gave her music away for free, she trusted that her fans would see its value and want to give in exchange. And they did.
Asking requires vulnerability. It is believing that you’re worthy of asking in the first place, and it’s understanding that the other party can say no. It’s scary and it can be painful, but it’s not as painful as shutting yourself away from everyone.
Take the gifts you’re given, use them to make something great, and share your results with the world. Accept the process, regardless of which stage you’re in. Sometimes, you’ll be the asker, and sometimes, you’ll be the giver. Both are essential, and both are beautiful.
About the author
Amanda Palmer is a musician, activist, and writer who rose to fame through her punk cabaret band The Dresden Dolls. Her solo albums include Who Killed Amanda Palmer, Theatre is Evil, and There Will Be No Intermission. Palmer gave a TED Talk in 2013 called “The Art of Asking” that has been viewed over 10 million times across the globe. Palmer is married to author Neil Gaiman.