Tonight I’ll again be leading a Zen Meditation class at 7:15 pm at Yogavidala 4640 Franklin Avenue LA 90027 corner of Vermont & Franklin in Los Feliz (behind 7-11). This will happen every Wednesday! Be there and be Zen!
I saw Amanda Palmer last night. It was the most amazing rock and roll show I have ever seen. And I have seen KISS up close a few times. What made it most interesting to me was that it had both theatricality and depth. KISS has got lots of theatricality. But even I, one of their most loyal fans, have to admit their music is pretty shallow. There are loads of other bands on the indie circuit whose music has tremendous depth. But they have no idea how to — or perhaps simply no means to be able to — put on an interesting show. Amanda Palmer’s stuff is just fucking epic. I love me some epic stuff.
There has been a lot of controversy about the way Ms. Palmer is financing her latest tour and album. She has chosen to forgo the traditional route of working with a record label and is asking her fans to directly support her efforts. It’s working out very well. She has apparently raised over a million dollars with a Kickstarter campaign.
Steve Albini, producer of Nirvana and leader of the band Big Black, has been critical of some of the ways Ms. Palmer has been spending her money. And Ms. Palmer has responded to these criticisms. I’ve read both sides and I tend to agree with Amanda Palmer. It’s her money, and that’s her business. If people agree to play with her for free, that’s their business. Even though I tend to think she ought to pay them something, it’s not my place to say.
The whole matter of how art gets paid for is very interesting to me personally for a load of reasons. For one, I am a working independent author and meditation teacher. That means nobody hands me a paycheck every two weeks based on the number of hours logged on my time card. And I’ve had more time card related jobs than you’ve had hot dinners, son! I’ve gone back and forth with this all my life. I’ve been a destitute indie-label musician scrounging for enough money to pay for a room in a punk rock house and some Kraft Macaroni-n-Cheese. And I’ve worked as a minor executive in a well-established film production company where I was actually paid a decent salary.
Having done both, I feel like working for “The Man” has some distinct advantages. For starters, you only have to do one interview to get the job. Whereas working independently sometimes feels like going on a new job interview almost every day. You constantly have to sell yourself and that is stressful. Then there’s the comfort of knowing how much you’re going to get in your check each payday. I had a contract with Tsuburaya Productions that stipulated what my compensation would be. These days whenever I get a check from a publisher I have no idea if it’s going to cover my rent or not. Usually it covers some of it and I have to figure out how to get the rest. Plus those checks come once a year, not twice a month. Also, as part of a company, you have other employees sharing your lot. If management starts to do funny stuff with your salary, you have people around who have a vested interest in helping set that straight since management is probably doing that to them too. I’ve got nobody but me to make sure I get paid.
But there are also advantages to working independently. I set my own hours these days. And even though I work a lot harder now than I did when I was with Tsuburaya, I am my own boss, which makes a tremendous difference. I am not at the mercy of a company that could, at any minute, get bought out or go under or otherwise find some reason to sever ties with me. You get the idea. The list could go on and on.
For me, there is also the Buddhist angle. Dogen warns us again and again not to work for fame and profit. He doesn’t say this because he wants us to avoid the pleasures associated with being rich and famous. He says it because he understands deeply how working for fame and profit makes a human being miserable. When I was on the verge of publishing Hardcore Zen, I had a talk with my teacher Gudo Nishijima. I said that by publishing a book I might get famous and I might even get rich (Ha! Such wishful thinking!). Nishijima said that it wasn’t fame and money that were the real problem, it was the pursuit of fame and money for the sake of fame and money. He said that sometimes people get fame and money because they pursue it, but that other times people do something that others appreciate and fame and money follow.
Yet I find myself in a bind these days because I’ve come to understand that the only way an author makes any money at all is by being famous. And when I say “makes money” I’m not referring to making a whole lot of money. I’m talking about even making enough to pay your car insurance bills. You can’t even get that much unless you’re famous. So these days I find myself quite openly pursuing fame. I either have to do that or I have to go out and get a “real job.”
But where does the money come from for folks who do “real jobs?” You get your paycheck from the company you work for. But where do they get that money? In the case of my job at Tsuburaya, the money came largely from working moms and dads who bought their children Ultraman toys and Ultraman DVDs and Ultraman pencils and maybe bought themselves some Ultraman shot glasses or even some Ultraman condoms so that they wouldn’t have more kids demanding more Ultraman toys. In other words, these people paid my salary just as much as they would have if I’d started a Kickstarter campaign and asked them to support me directly. It all comes from somewhere.
If you enter a temple, you depend on the temple for your support. Your temple has got to get money from somewhere. If they’re a big place like San Francisco Zen Center, they put out fliers and throw big parties. It all comes from somewhere.
Buddhist teachers, too, need a certain degree of fame to survive. Even our man Dogen did fund raising activities for his temple, one of which is recorded in Shobogenzo. He worked to make his temple more visible so it would attract the donations necessary to keep it running. He hung out with rich people to try and get their support. And you don’t write something like Shobogenzo unless you intend for someone to read it.
I’ve been critical of some of the excesses I’ve seen in this kind of pursuit, but only when it’s tied to dishonesty. Take Genpo Roshi. Please! I don’t care so much that he managed to buy three houses (one in Hawaii!) with donor money. I only pick on him because he raised that money by pretending he could magically get people enlightened in a single day and that time spent in his enlightened presence was worth $50,000. If he could raise that much money through actual Zen teaching I’d support him and ask how he did it so I could do it myself. Not that I want three houses. That’s just ridiculous. But I wouldn’t mind being able to afford an apartment of my own someday.
As for Amanda Palmer, she puts on a hell of a show and that costs a lot. The singing idols out there who put on similar shows do so by appealing to the lowest common denominator so that they can get the truckloads of money necessary for there to be enough left over for the show after the dipshits at the record label get done stuffing their pockets. But it all comes from the fans anyway. If fans pay Amanda directly, then she is able to put on a show that has some actual depth to it rather than just appealing to people’s most base instincts and thereby attracting a huge crowd. I think what Amanda Palmer is doing could pave the way for real improvement in the quality of art and performance people are able to produce.
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