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Lost in the Dollhouse

I never payed much attention to the Dresden Dolls, thinking the world didn’t need one more gaudy, Weimar-influenced group and all that goes along with it. I think I need to be a little less of a jerk about these things.

The money end of the group, Amanda Palmer, has a solo album (Who Killed Amanda Palmer) that is beyond outrageous, and lately she’s been making waves by declaring war on her record label, Universal imprint Roadrunner Records. Roadrunner is the home of, uh, Nickleback and a whole bunch of commercial metal bands.

Some of the problem is the classic artist/label creative differences stuff: Roadrunner wants mainstream “hits” (whatever that means these days), Palmer wants to follow her muse and build on her already considerable fanbase. She thinks her album is a fine representation of her, and that means complex, intellectual and rowdy. The label wants something it understands, like, oh, say, Nickleback.

Things went totally south when the label’s promo department told her they wanted to photoshop or edit out some shots of her bare midriff in a video promoting the album because they said she looked flabby. She, understandably, went ballistic, and fans have launched a Belly Solidarity Campaign with tribute sites on the web featuring and celebrating photos of bare midriffs of every shape and size. Roadrunner, pathetically, tried to capitalize on this with their own “show us you belly button” campaign with Palmer-related prizes, which didn’t exactly help relations with Palmer or her fans.

Then she reported that, while touring Australia a few weeks ago, Roadrunner’s Australian head of digital marketing had no idea what Twitter was, saying dismissively that Australians are sometimes slow to catch on to things. Incredulous, Palmer sent out a Tweet and a few hours later hosted a party in a nearby park for 150 fans.

It all got so bad that Palmer’s now written a song directed at the label entitled “Please Drop Me,” has been playing it live, and is encouraging fans to record it and post it on YouTube. All this and she’s been hilariously feeding her fans the drama in real time on her blog and on Twitter to a thunderous response. Her fans helped finance her elaborate tour when the label wouldn’t, and she’s now got the kind of intimate, rabid, and lifelong fans most artists can only dream about.

She rocks. She’s my hero. Which Dresden Dolls album do I start with?

Meanwhile, you may have heard that the iTunes store this week began selling tracks with variable prices: current chart-toppers priced at $1.29, selected older catalog stuff at $.69, and everything else at $.99. Amazon jumped in a few days later with a similar pricing scheme.

As we’ve mentioned here before, there’s no reason that all music ought to be the same price. Hits are worth more to people than non-hits, right? But then, this may just be so many deck chairs on the Titanic. People aren’t buying and they’re are getting music for free, one way or the other, more than ever before. That’s why the labels are looking at an alternative that they derided as lunacy for years: the “celestial jukebox”, where all music is available all the time over the Internet and in the air for a modest subscription fee. The labels have hired Internet guru Jim Griffin, the guy who coined the phrase “celestial jukebox” back when the Internet was in its infancy, to set it up. He’s calling this new and as yet un-launched service “Choruss.” Look for Choruss to be rolled out at selected colleges fairly soon, and available though Internet service providers after that.

Will it work? It’s doubtful. Similar things (Ruckus, Napster) have failed on campuses before; kids are now so used to free that any payment seems draconian. And at this point, almost anything associated with the major labels is poison for many people. They just won’t play.

The second problem is tracking use. The money collected will theoretically be spread around to labels and publishers and artists and songwriters pursuant to some sort of mechanism that keeps track of what music is being downloaded, listened to, and shared. And there is no really satisfying way to do this without some measure of snooping into what individuals are listening to.

Maybe that’s not such a big deal. I dunno. Few people care that their ISP and Google keep track of their internet activity, so maybe it’s not a huge leap to accept a reasonably limited intrusion on listening habits. We’ve already surrendered out privacy. So pay up.

—Paul Rapp

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