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Fans kick in a million to let Palmer make music her way

Amanda Palmer said her Kickstarter fund’s success will expand her tour’s ambition. Amanda Palmer performed with members of Grand Theft Orchestra last month at a show in Brooklyn for backers who pledged at least $300 to her Kickstarter campaign. Amanda Palmer said her Kickstarter fund’s success will expand her tour’s ambition. Amanda Palmer performed with members of Grand Theft Orchestra last month at a show in Brooklyn for backers who pledged at least $300 to her Kickstarter campaign. (Jennifer Taylor for the Boston Globe Jennifer Taylor for the Boston Globe)
By James Reed
Globe Staff / July 26, 2012
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NEW YORK — Last month Amanda Palmer was the center of attention at a Brooklyn gallery.

The rock singer-songwriter from Lexington, who rose to stardom with the cabaret-punk band the Dresden Dolls, was featured in artists’ images spread across the walls. One painting showed her nude, draped with jewels, with outstretched arms — a pose she would bring to life at the end of her performance at the gallery, peeling off her dress and inviting the audience to write on her with colored markers.

Fans thronged to her, covering her naked body with their tributes. After all, they had a connection: Each had given at least $300 to her recent record-breaking campaign on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website that finances projects by letting supporters buy various rewards.

Palmer raised nearly $1.2 million — 10 times her goal, and a record for Kickstarter music projects. It is also the most raised on Kickstarter in Massachusetts and one of only eight campaigns to break the $1 million mark.

Palmer is a pioneer in a growing trend. As the music industry’s financial resources continue to crumble, more independent musicians are turning to fans to directly finance work that might not otherwise get done.

Her $100,000 Kickstarter goal “was the most simple, absolutely conservative number I could pull out of a hat,” Palmer, 36, said earlier this month at her colorful apartment in the South End, a communal three-story townhouse called the Cloud Club.

Palmer reached that goal in just seven hours on April 30. Over the next month, nearly 25,000 backers contributed to the campaign, with the bulk of the money coming for a $25 package that offered fans a limited-edition compact disc. Other packages ranged from $1 for a digital download of her new solo album, “Theatre Is Evil,” which she will self-release in September, to $10,000 for a private afternoon and dinner with Palmer, who would paint the subject on canvas and maybe even serenade him or her on the ukulele.

Palmer’s Kickstarter campaign was designed to fund an album, art book, and six-city summer tour in the United States and Europe with her Grand Theft Orchestra. In each city, Palmer and her band are playing a rock concert and staging an acoustic performance as part of an art exhibit featuring original pieces inspired by Palmer’s work by artists including Shepard Fairey, Kristin Hersh, Cynthia von Buhler, and Palmer’s husband, the writer Neil Gaiman.

The tour comes to the Middle East in Cambridge for sold-out rock shows on Tuesday and Aug. 2, plus an acoustic set there on Wednesday for Kickstarter backers.

Palmer gets the same question a lot these days: Where is all that money going?

“The vast majority goes into paying record expenses, most of which we fattened up once the Kickstarter did well,” Palmer said, adding that she can now accommodate scenarios she never would have entertained. She gave her band a pay raise and increased the set design and lighting budgets for an upcoming fall tour that will keep her on the road through November. (Tickets for her three-night stand at the Paradise Rock Club, Nov. 15-17, are now on sale.)

“All those little things multiplied over a year,” she said, before suddenly wondering aloud if $1.2 million is enough.

“No, actually, it’s not,” she decided. “It’s not sustainable. I now need to hit the road and start making some dough to keep it sustainable. But also I’m playing a very large game. I’m not going out onstage with a piano and singing into a microphone with a crew of two. I’m taking a circus on the road, and it’s an expensive circus.”

For her recent shows in Brooklyn, Palmer’s signature intensity was on display. At the rock concert, she debuted new songs and pounded at full throttle on her piano, backed by a supporting trio.

They turned down the volume for the next night’s gallery show, with Palmer digging deeper into the new songs’ wounded sentiments. She later said the fall tour will be a bigger production that hews closer to the synth-pop sound of her new album.

The Kickstarter money ensures Palmer can also expand her ambitions.

“I just did a video shoot in London and got an emergency call that we needed to go $10,000 over budget, and I said, ‘Great! We can take that out of another pile.’ We wouldn’t have been able to say that six months ago.”

Palmer’s rise has been remarkable, particularly considering how much mileage she has gotten from the most basic tenets of success: talent, drive, and charisma that can border on a cult of personality.

She pushed to leave her record label a few years ago. (To the tune of “Moon River,” she wrote and performed a song called “Please Drop Me,” which Roadrunner Records did in 2010.)

Tastemaking music blogs like Pitchfork give her considerable exposure, but Palmer was no overnight sensation. Instead, she has nurtured an intimate relationship with fans. They follow her incessant updates on social-media sites and her blog. They come to her shows dressed like the goth-rock goddess Palmer presents herself as onstage.

Her admirers are part of her story as much as the work Palmer has created over the past decade. Palmer does not give fans just new music, books, or theater productions. She provides an experience: the notion that they are an essential component of her artistic vision.

“That’s one of the reasons I’m here,” said Andrew Janke, a 34-year old from Stamford, Conn., who was at Palmer’s Brooklyn gallery show. “No other pop star is going to make that much of a connection with their audience. I follow her on Twitter, I’m on her e-mail list, I follow her website. She gives you a real window into what she’s doing. It feels like you’re part of the artistic process rather than just waiting for the next album to come out.”

The line between Palmer and her boosters is thin, and they like it that way.

“I mean, I just drew an eye on her [breast],” said Genevieve Cerri, referring to the finale of Palmer’s gallery show.

Cerri, who’s 23 and lives in New York, appreciates the feeling that there is no wall between artist and audience.

“I think that’s what it should be. It shows me that Amanda’s ego isn’t in the way,” she said. “A lot of artists have a hierarchical view: I’m onstage, and you’re not. But Amanda isn’t like that. It’s very much, ‘I have this gift, and I want to share it with you.’ That’s it, and we all do it together.”

Palmer has been tireless in her mission, but points out the compromises she has made.

“I made a lifestyle choice. I am 36 years old. I’m a woman,” she said. “I have spent the last 12 years of my life living and breathing music-making, touring, and a career on the road being with my fans to the point where I could cash in on something like this Kickstarter.”

“But I didn’t have a family,” she added. “I didn’t have a relationship for most of the time because I couldn’t. I’ve spent the last 13 years being Amanda Palmer of the Dresden Dolls, and it’s beyond a full-time occupation. That is what it takes.”

James Reed can be reached at

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