Jherek Bischoff

Amanda Palmer: The view from here

My name is Jherek Bischoff. I am a musician, producer, arranger and composer. I consider the latter title a particular honor because it means I have the privilege of working with wonderful musicians who perform my own musical ideas. I am currently on tour with Amanda Palmer as her bass player, and ad hoc musical director, organizing and rehearsing string quartets in cities where we can find them. Some folks had reached out to me, wondering what my position was on the “volunteer” band-member controversy. I am not a great speaker or writer, which is probably why I am so drawn to music, as it allows me to express myself in a way more suited to me. Anyone who knows me also knows that I am a pretty sensitive guy who would never hurt a fly. The situation has more or less been resolved by now, and in internet terms, is old news – but there were many issues brought up that are important to consider, so I wanted to share my experience anyway.

I want to start this by saying that I am super happy to be in a band that encourages its individual members to speak their minds and remain independent personalities. I have been a musician my whole life. And I have been a *struggling* musician my whole life. Living in my van, living in my friend’s closet, skipping meals, and refusing to work a 9-5 in hopes that I could reach a point in my life that I could make ends meet by doing what I love. This was a choice, and one I will never regret. Maybe for that reason, it warms my heart to see people standing up for musicians’ rights. I can’t recall musicians’ rights ever being such a major point of conversation and it has been extremely thought-provoking to see so many different views being expressed.

Moving along, eight months ago I first met with Amanda Palmer to talk about joining the Grand Theft Orchestra. I ended up doing some string arrangements for her record, and another member of her touring band, Chad Raines, did some horn arrangements. Before we recorded, before her Kickstarter, we had a long conversation about how the tour would work. I was excited to learn that Amanda also wanted to have strings and horns as part of her show. She also invited me to open her shows. Amanda was incredibly kind to invite me, in part because it’s rare to get a chance to open for someone with such an incredible fanbase, in part because my own music is orchestral.

For those who don’t know me or my work (which I imagine is the majority of you!), earlier this year, I released an album called Composed that was made after many years of painstaking work. This whole discussion has been very personal for me, because as a little-known composer, it is virtually impossible to have a traditional orchestral performance of your own music if you don’t have big bucks. As a result, I’ve had to constantly think of unconventional and innovative ways to make things happen. For my own record, I didn’t have the funds to hire an entire orchestra, so I had to improvise. Instead, I rode my bicycle around the Pacific Northwest, laptop in tow, and recorded a smaller number of classically-trained musician friends, layering their parts to literally orchestrate the sound of a large orchestra. Later, I was lucky to have some more well-known guests like David Byrne, Mirah Zeitlyn, Caetano Veloso, SoKo, Nels Cline and Greg Saunier contribute to the album. To this day I am amazed the record even exists!

You might imagine how difficult it would be to tour and bring an orchestral record to life, especially with no budget of my own. Your imagination is correct! However, I thought if I had access to a string quartet, it would at least make it possible for me to present a set of my own music. So Amanda presented the idea of reaching out to her fanbase, something she has done in various ways in the past to great success, in order to source local volunteer players for each night of her tour. We agreed that it would be my responsibility to organize them. I would get to present my music and she would get to use the quartet on a few songs.

This was all *before* the Kickstarter project and *before* making the record.

The volunteer arrangement had me worried from the beginning, because I have always done my absolute best to pay musicians in my own projects. I write grants, I have done a Kickstarter project, I save, and I often play gigs where all of the money goes to the players and I receive nothing. I do this happily, because as a composer, the opportunity to get the chance for my music to be played by awesome people is extremely fortunate! Sometimes I pay players a small amount of money and sometimes a larger amount, but the players know what to expect in advance.

Aside from the volunteer aspect, the logistics of organizing different string quartets for each city was really overwhelming. As someone who was not social media savvy, the whole prospect was completely mind-boggling and foreign to me, but the possibilities were also interesting. As an outsider, learning about Amanda’s history and success with crowdsourcing and her incredible connection with her fans, the volunteer musician scenario made some sense to me. It seemed yet another improvisational way to make performing orchestral music possible.

Boom, her Kickstarter happened, catapulting this whole project into the spotlight.

Part of the Kickstarter project included a promotional tour in which we played two shows in six different cities between June and August. I was happy to learn that there was a budget for string players on these shows. I was able to hire players, and I also did opening sets on all the gigs. It was really great and worked out well.

After the promotional tour ended, I was happy to learn that there would be a small budget available to me to hire some extra players. Uncertain I would be able to organize quartets in every city, I started by approaching musicians in cities in which I already had contacts and friends – namely larger cities which I had played in before, and some of the musicians who had played with us during the promotional tour. A major help to this effort was Classical Revolution, whom I had collaborated with a few times in the past for my own projects. For those of you who don’t know, Classical Revolution is an international organization of classical musicians looking to bring classical music to new audiences and venues (AWESOME! — and more about that at the end of this letter). In July, we worked with CR on the San Francisco stop of Amanda’s promo tour, and at that time the head of their SF chapter expressed interest in being involved during the fall tour that’s happening right now. We fantasized about creating AP/CR merch that could benefit CR and other ways to bring more attention to the organization. Unfortunately time was not on our side, so we couldn’t realize the merch ideas. When it was certain there would not be a budget to hire musicians in all cities during the fall tour, the head of CR SF decided he would no longer be able to help, a decision which I fully respect. However, he did say it would be okay for me to reach out personally to the heads of other CR groups.

Part of the reason there was such confusion surrounding crowdsourcing musicians is because it wasn’t happening in every city. From the beginning, Amanda and I were approaching assembling extra players in different ways. For her, it really *was* all about engaging her fanbase, and her belief that it would be an exciting and unique way to involve her fans, that would add yet another element of intimacy to each show. I, on the other hand, approached it like every other project I have done. Having to organize, rehearse and play with a completely new group every single night was a crazy amount of work and somewhat of a crap-shoot. The easiest way I saw to manage all of that work was to  contact the very best players, hope I could lock in one or two ringers each night, and build the ensembles from there. So the first thing I did was reach out to friends, friends of friends, and to the CR network, some of whom were outside the AP fanbase, some of whom had been paid to play during the promo tour, all before the open call was even made. This is how some of the cities ended up having paid players, such as in New York.

When the plan to crowdsource volunteers for the rest of the shows was brought up again, we discussed the things we could offer the volunteers, settling on the now infamous “beer, hi-fives and hugs”, as well as guest list spots, merch and food. During the promo tour, we had also invited the guest musicians to sell their own merch at the shows, and some expressed interest in playing before the show, which was something we were very happy to try and accommodate. Since the string players would be playing for my opening set as well, it was important for me to have some way of making sure the selected players could actually play their instruments, hence the call for samples of their work. Not having any idea what the response would be, it was basically some sort of filter to help me sort through all of the possible submissions.

Finally, the open call was made, via AP’s website and through her twitter.

We were inundated with offers from all types of musicians from many different cities. We found players who are talented and extremely excited to be there to play music with us. (Some of them were even from CR, for instance we had an all-CR band in Washington D.C. Lovely folks!) In some cities we weren’t able to organize players, and that was okay too, for example in Atlanta where instead I opened for Amanda with a solo set.

It wasn’t until the tour actually started, some weeks after the open call was made, that the comments against the call began to mushroom on the internet. When the feedback started rolling in, you can bet everyone involved began reassessing the entire situation. Both Amanda and I definitely have some regrets. For one thing, I’m sorry it wasn’t clear that there was a budget for some cities, and that I had approached players on my own outside of AP’s fanbase before the open call was made. This, in particular, seemed a big contradiction to the original intent of crowdsourcing volunteer players from AP’s fanbase as a unique approach to touring. The whirlwind of activity and attention that surrounds an “overnight sensation” like Amanda’s Kickstarter can really mix up plans and intentions and execution in ways that are hard for the public to discern, especially when so many different people are involved. It certainly wasn’t anyone’s intention to take advantage of or exploit anyone. And for what it’s worth, once the feedback started rolling in at the start of tour, I was glad to forgo profits from the nightly sales of my own merch in order to compensate the volunteers. And of course, Amanda announced later that all of the volunteer musicians would be paid, retroactively as well, which I am very happy about.

Having spent a lot of time now with AP, I am continually inspired by her passion, innovation, and genuine support and love for her fanbase and everyone that works for and with her. She is a pioneer, navigating through an evolving music industry in which paradigms are shifting. There is definitely some trial-and-error along the way, but I absolutely know that her heart is in the right place.

** A quick postscript about bringing composed music and classical instruments to new audiences. I teased this point above — how important it is to reach new audiences — and I think it’s worth stating at  length: Most folks in smaller towns (and by that I mean any city under a half million people) lack the chance to hear *any* classical music, much less the new, dynamic composed music happening in major cities like New York, London, and Los Angeles. One of my life goals, therefore, is to bring my own music to cities outside of normal classical music capitals. I’ve spent a long time building relationships with classical musicans/groups everywhere to help make this happen. And it’s always a  pleasure to work with groups like Classical Revolution for this reason, as they have groups around the whole world. The Portland chapter just played some of my music a few nights ago at the Time-Based Arts Festival, and they also assembled an amazing chamber orchestra for me a couple years ago for a concert. In return, I am volunteering my services to play a big benefit for them in S.F. later this month. Point being, the world they and I are operating within is not one to which normal pop music economics always apply. It’s not ideal — but it is okay — and, more importantly, it’s a reality we need to deal with to keep this music alive. Maybe it doesn’t compete with EDM in the minds of the traditional music business promoters but, hey, if we keep breathing new life into it, maybe, just maybe, one day it will.

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