Doing it ninja style

The music industry is slow to change. Here's how four stars are speeding it up.
By CARLY CARIOLI  |  April 22, 2011

 Amanda Palmer, Neil Gaiman, Ben Folds, Damian Kulash

Take three notorious singer-songwriters and one famous author. Give them eight hours to write and record an eight-song album. Broadcast the session on the internet. Release the album online the next morning, and perform it live in front of an audience the following night.

Welcome to Amanda Palmer's version of music bootcamp; or as she calls it, "the Why-Fucking-Not school of thinking." Actually, this was Ben Folds' idea: to make "a superfast record" — or, as Palmer calls it, the world's first "Ninja Album." (On tour, Palmer makes a point of playing "ninja shows" — pop-up gigs in public spaces or private houses, announced on a moments' notice via Twitter. Ninja-style is, essentially, her mode of operation.) Palmer — along with her husband Neil Gaiman, Folds, OK Go's Damian Kulash, and superproducer Sean Slade — are using this methodology to make a point. And that point is simply this: why fucking not?

While the rest of the industry comes together this Monday and Tuesday to rethink music (in conjunction with Berklee and Harvard's Berkman Center), Amanda and friends will be making music — and more to the point, delivering it straight to their fans without the benefit of a label. From 4 pm to midnight on Monday, April 25, they'll record an album, broadcasting live at rethink-music.com and taking suggestions from the audience. On Tuesday morning, they'll release the album on Bandcamp and recap during a conference panel (hosted by yours truly). That night at 8 pm, they'll perform together at Berklee Performance Center. As Palmer sums it up: "Let's just do something creative that's actually innovative in itself, instead of talking about how innovative we are."

Even if that means stepping outside your comfort zone. I ask Kulash if condensing an album production cycle into 24 hours is meant to mock the interminably slow pace of big corporate record labels. "I take forever to make records," he admits. "So if it's mocking people, it's mocking myself. I've never written even one song in a day, much less eight."

One of the lessons of the Ninja Album is that speed kills. Palmer recalls the time she accidentally created a hashtag meme and, a few hours later, in the middle of the night, turned it into $20,000 in t-shirt sales. It helps that music is barely the half of what Palmer's up to these days. Since the fall she's starred in a musical, released a couple EPs, dodged two natural disasters, performed the best celebrity tweets of 2010 to the tune of Rebecca Black's "Friday," got married, and filmed a video for a dance jam about pubic-hair grooming. Describing what she has in common with Folds, Kulash, and Gaiman, Palmer says: "I have a name for it, which is that we're all Renaissance acts. We're all sorta good at a lot of things. We actually get off on doing a lot of things."

Palmer and Kulash are the first to point out that what has worked for them may not work for everyone: social media expertise, viral-video savvy, and direct-to-fan sales platforms aren't worth shit if your music sucks. But the ninja-album process mirrors some of the ideas that've helped these musical superfriends prosper. It's a kind of proof-of-concept about how to operate as a mid-career music artist in the 21st century: Collaborate. Make the speed of the internet work for you, not against you. Be transparent. Involve your audience.

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