an open letter in response to amy, re: musicians, volunteering, and the freedom to choose.

hola comrades!

i am so happy that many of you are deeply loving the record, the response has been absolutely out of control….just amazing. glad that everyone’s getting their kickstarter stuff.
more on that later. for now….

this is my response to a letter that was posted a few days ago from a musician named amy, who was upset that i’ve put the call out for volunteer horns and strings for my upcoming tour.
you can read her entire letter here:
please weigh in with your own comments. as always: discuss, discuss, discuss. please be kind to one another. there’s a million issues at play here, and per usual, i’m loving hearing everybody’s opinion.


dear amy,

first of all: thank you so much for writing your letter. it’s definitely got me (and a lot of other people) thinking and talking about what it means to ask a musician to volunteer their time.

if my years working as as street performer taught me anything, they taught me to accept help in every way, to never be too proud or afraid to ask for it. i never got pissed at a passerby for not throwing change in my hat. i stood there knowing that maybe 15 people later, maybe 20, maybe 100…someone would. it’s literally an opposite strategy from someone deciding that they, on principle, won’t gig for free.

i’ve built my life as a musician, like many many people in rock and roll, playing for free….a LOT.

or playing for beer.

playing for exposure.

playing for fun.

playing just to be able to sell merch.

playing to do somebody a favor.

playing a benefit to help a cause.

sometimes even paying for my own travel for the privilege of playing with my idols. (the dresden dolls lost a lot of money in order to travel around opening up for nine inch nails. and good lord, were we grateful to lose that money…it won us a huge bunch of fans).

i’ve passed the hat for myself at shows and events where i wasn’t officially paid, and a lot of times i’ve encouraged my openers to pass the hat to supplement a small or non-existent opener budget.
in 2008, i took the danger ensemble – four australian performance artists/actors and a violinist (lyndon chester) – on tour with me for no salary. i made sure they had places to sleep (usually with fans) and food to eat (usually brought by fans). they passed the hat every night at the gig. it worked really well. they were happy to take the risk.

i’ve played a ukulele to hundreds of people on a beach for hours, for free. and i’ve been paid thousands of dollars for a one-hour show at boston symphony hall. i don’t consider one more legitimate than the other. in fact, i believe that the two experiences feed, inform, and compliment one other. pretty much every seasoned rock musician i know has a pretty locked-in sense of what their time and talent is worth, and it changes day to day, moment to moment. david byrne came and sang with my band a few months ago. we never had a formal arrangement…we paid him in thanks and beer which i’m not sure he even drank. a few nights ago we played at bard college and the opening student band, dr. skinnybones, asked if i would sing a song with them during their set. i drove over to their house and practiced it with them the night before and hopped up with them for five minutes the next night, before my own band went on.

i didn’t ask them to pay me, and everybody knew that wasn’t what it was about. it was about me thinking that it was going to be fun, and them having the guts to ask me to do it. i could have said no and spent that extra time in my dressing room, getting ready and hanging out with my band. i don’t think they would have been pissed at me if i’d declined. but i played for free. i was happy to do it.

now: YOU don’t have to play for free. but i hope you won’t criticize me for wanting to. and hope you would try not to criticize or shame other musicians for making their own decisions about how to share their talent and their time.

there’s also been a general misunderstanding that i need to put to rest: every person on my stage gets paid differently – and not EVERY musician up there, even in the string and horn corps, is a strict volunteer. when we mapped out this tour a few months ago, i sat down with jherek bischoff, my touring and recording bassist (along with being the string arranger AND my opening act). jherek is, like the other permanent touring members of my band, on a salary. part of his job is that he’s in charge of email-organizing the string section, as he’d also be using them as his quartet (as an opening act), and he wanted to make sure we got the best we could get for what we could afford given our tour budget.

there were cities like new york where jherek – and everyone in the band – really wanted to make sure we had a 100% tried-and-true string corps. he didn’t want to bank on possibly risky volunteers that night. chad raines, my guitarist, who’s also in charge of wrangling the horns, agreed on that front as well. so we called our more professional horns and strings friends in new york, and we freed up the budget to pay them. we’re doing that in some cities, and in some cities it’s a total grab-bag of strangers on stage.

it’s very important to me that we clarify that – not everything you see on stage is black and white, and those specific musicians in new york (and in some other cities) who got paid shouldn’t be put in the same category as the volunteers. WE called THEM personally because we had lots of experience with them and knew what we were gonna get.

so you know (and because a photo of them has been circulating), in NYC, they were: sam kulik (who i know from our co-touring days with nervous cabaret), matt nelson (who’s also in tUnE-yArDs), kenny warren, phil rodriguez, and “moist” paula henderson (aka Secretary). as many people saw, they ripped it UP on the webcast. sam and paula also showed up to play our kickstarter celebration (and were paid in money…AND beer).

in new york and in DC, three of the eight or nine horn and string players were actually from our opening bands: kelly and alec from the band Ronald Reagan hopped in on sax duty, and jessie from The Simple Pleasure volunteered to play viola at any gig she was at. in DC, we had a combination of people from the opening bands, a couple of horn players who were strict volunteers, and three string players from Classical Revolution who also volunteered their time.

the upshoot? every single city is totally different. sometimes paid. sometimes not.
it’s sometimes messy. sometimes not. sometimes slightly risky. and therefore, in my opinion, fun.

and sometimes there’s a grey area. Ronald Reagan is getting paid to be our opener, but they also happily volunteered to join our horn corps on top of their opener duty…plus they’re making money selling merch, and we donated two bunks on our tour bus so they could travel with the band and not have to follow us in a van. does the math all work out? who knows. but we’re all happy with the situation. we feel blessed to be on tour with people like Ronald Reagan who are willing to make it up as we all go along and play this many-hats game on stage. those are the people i love playing with.


your concern reminds me of the complaints i’ve seen from musicians who insist that i’m “devaluing” their own recordings by giving my music away for free and encouraging people to pay what they want for it (which is how i just released my new record). i get the impression that they see me as a force of evil who is miseducating the public to think that “music should be free.”

here’s what i think about all that, and it also applies to this paid/non-paid musician kerfuffle:


especially in this day and age, it’s becoming more and more essential that artists allow each other space to figure out their own systems.

the minute YOU make black and white rules about how other artists should value their own art and time, you disempower them.

anyone is allowed to crowdfund a record.
and anyone is allowed to crowdsource a musician.
or a pair of socks. or a place to crash. or a meal. anyone.
the band at the local pub can do it, i can do it, tom waits can do it, and justin bieber can do it (his fans would FLIP to be up on that stage making music with him. i’m imagining a crowdsourced belieber playing violin on “boyfriend” right now and loving the image, truly. it’s also fun to think of tom waits wearing fan-knit-socks.)

i could ramble on about my million-dollar Kickstarter and where that million dollars actually went (actually, i already did that, in a blog over here)…and i could tell you that i wish i had enough money to hire a second tour bus and put eight full-time musicians on salaries. but the funny thing is: i actually don’t. i don’t wish that. not right now.

because this isn’t about money. for me, this is about freedom. and about choices.

you see, with this tour, i originally fantasized that we’d write super-easy-to-learn parts, and then musician volunteers – of varying backgrounds and skill level – would join us to play them, in every city. as an experiment, as the concept behind the grand theft orchestra. we are the media. we are the orchestra. it sounded like a really FUN way of doing a tour, and so far, it really has been. it has worked out great for all involved. it’s pretty much worked out the way we envisioned, with some changes here and there (using paid pros in some markets, using our openers, etc).

here’s another good way of thinking about it: we constantly crowdsource food. across the world, our fans volunteer to spend a whole day, sometimes more, cooking and arranging to get warm food to the venue: it’s a truly magical feast sometimes. and it’s a simple exchange: we ask them to volunteer, they volunteer joyfully.

these people (some of whom are real-life professional chefs) have to actually lay down money, sometimes hundreds of dollars, for all the food they cook and bring us. they choose to spend their talent, time, (and money) cooking for the band. then they come eat with us. our gratitude is huge. we don’t have to order take-out from the falafel joint next to the venue, we get to meet cool people instead. i’ve made some great new friends like that. it all works out pretty great.

is it always perfect? hell no. do we sometimes end up with a five-course gourmet feast one night, and a sad/bland potato salad the next? hell yeah. is it worth it, and do we eat our sad potato salad with a smile? you bet we fucking do.

i’ve never come under fire for crowdsourcing food…but can you see the parallel? you could call us out for not putting our money to the local falafel joint, or for not hiring a cook for the tour. but that’s not the way we see it. we just see the joy around the table backstage as the rider wine flows and everybody involved has a good hang.

it’s an inexact, unpredictable science. and that’s part of why it’s great.

the volunteer musicians have been the same. we’ve been doing this for over a year now.
sometimes we get seasoned pros, sometimes we get people who barely play at a high school level.
sometimes it’s a lot of work. and every night, we work with who and what we’ve got.

and it’s a risk, a game we love playing. it isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it. and i wouldn’t have it any other way. i’ve met some fantastic people through it.

and honestly: i’d take a less experienced horn player who was overjoyed to be on stage for the fun and experience over the pro who’s clocking in to get paid and doesn’t care about me or my band any night of the week.

i talked with jherek about this a lot yesterday, and he noted that there HAVE been a handful of people who he’s reached out to – friends of friends – who’ve responded in the vein of “love to do it if it was a paid gig…but here’s the email of someone who might be game!”
jherek always invites those helpful folks to be on the guest list anyway.

and prompted by your letter (and the following avalanche of comments on my blog) i did what i always try to do: go to the source.
i had a great talk backstage at the 9:30 club last night with the three string players from Classical Revolution DC who’d volunteered their time.

jherek and i asked them point blank what they made of this whole issue. they said they firmly stood by their decision to come play the gig. they knew what they were responding to, and they didn’t feel at all violated. one of them told me he often plays violin for heavy metal gigs, for free. they were happy to be playing with us. and we were really happy to have them. and YOU’LL be happy to know we gave Classical Revolution (along with the players) a big shout-out from stage. we’re grateful.

as the musician in charge of the show, the reality – not the theory – is always more important to me.

this has been the onstage checklist since i first started touring, and it’ll probably never change: is everyone on stage happy – both the salaried musicians and the volunteers? does everyone feel welcome? appreciated? respected? is everyone enjoying themselves? and most importantly: does everybody have a drink????

the reality of the players and the feeling in the room is more important to me than anything.

i have close friends who are selling their albums on bandcamp for $10, whereas i keep my stuff at $0 or $1, and it doesn’t get in the way of our friendships: in fact, we compare notes about how business is going. we share, we muse, we know that there’s no correct solution, only a collection of thousands of paths.

this collection of paths, not a singular truth, is where the future of music and art is headed, i think. and the biggest service we can do for each other, as artists, is to respect the differing path of our fellow artists, because believe me…it’s going to start happening a HELL of a lot.

jherek and i (and my whole band and management team) are going to keep trying to figure out how to pay people how and where we can, as we have been already, and your letter will help kick our asses further in that direction. for that, i thank you.

and as my touring budget changes, i’m sure so will the onstage configurations, and every night will continue to be a work-in-progress. jherek has done GREAT on merch the past few nights (his new record is HERE and is incredible) has decided to give part of his road-merch profits towards the musicians each night until we are at a point that we can consistently pay, since he feels like he’s getting a lot of mileage out of the players. and i’ll keep looking at my own budget and paying people as much as i can, where and when i can. we may talk to the bands about hat-passing. and we’ll figure it out as we go. we’ll grow.

so, in closing:

i would never criticize or judge you for drawing your own lines and deciding how to value your talent and time.
more power to you, for real. it takes a strong commitment to do that, and i wish you luck.

in exchange, i’d ask that you not criticize us because we belong to a different culture, where we’re playing a different game, with different rules.

and we’re making a pretty joyful noise, and we’re happy to welcome those, with no judgement, who want to hop on stage and make it louder.

from one musician to another
with loads of love and respect,


p.s. cello-fiend and friend zoë keating wrote “I would not be where I am today if not for years of playing concerts & opening slots, for free or for expenses” (and a lot more) on her twitter (follow her at @zoecello) AND Unwoman‘s guest editorial HERE for SF Weekly was a lovely musing about all these shenanigans.

p.p.s. if you want a perspective from someone else from the classical music world explaining why they were happy to volunteer, this just came in and is a good read:

p.p.p.s. amy, if you’d like to come watch our show in portland on september 28th, we’d love to have you. drop us a line if you would, and we’ll put you on the list.

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