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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



A Skype Chat with Brad McCarty of TheNextWeb – Musicians And Money

September 4th, 2011 | 2 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies |

A few weeks back, I was interviewed by Brad McCarty of TheNextWeb, for this article on how musicians are making money online. Brad asked a lot of excellent questions, and naturally, there was no room for it all in his article. So with his permission, I’m making a (slightly edited) version of our conversation available here. We range through quite a few bits of the new music economy, so I hope it’s useful to you:

Brad ::
I’m trying to piece together a story about how both large and indie artists are finding ways to make money in the age of somewhat rampant piracy.
I’ve seen you talk, at length at times, about your thoughts on the subject. I wondered if you could tell me what you’re doing to grow your audience and career.

Steve ::
What am I doing? making music and inviting people to listen to it, then pay what they think it’s worth. I’m also asking those who are listening to tell their friends. I still send out some info to magazines/radio, but rarely bother. And I focus on making sure that the rest of the stuff I do is interesting, so people who are drawn in by the conversation or the commentary have a reason to investigate the music, cos ‘hey, check out my shit!’ isn’t interesting when 500,000 people are saying it.

Brad ::
What venues have you found to be the most successful for selling your music? Personal site, Bandcamp?

Steve ::
Bandcamp is remarkable. I still get some sales via iTunes, Amazon, and a lot of plays on Spotify, though I suspect many of those are people checking it out in a try-before-you-buy scenario.
At gigs, we still sell CDs, but also a 4Gb USB stick that has everything I and my wife have ever done on it 20 albums and a 45 min live video for $30/£25

Brad ::
In the US, Spotify is a bit crippled because we can’t use it to buy music. I would assume that a buy pays you way more than a stream of a track, no?

Steve ::
Definitely, though I’ve no idea how many people here are shopping through Spotify. When they had the deal with 7Digital, there were a few. No idea now that they have their own credit-based system – we’ll see…. I’m not sure how far in advance they report, so I may not see any sales figures for a few months via CDBaby.

Bandcamp is WAY out in front of the others and I get an email address for every one of them, and the sharing possbilities that come with it.

Brad ::
Sadly, Spotify won’t talk sales numbers to me, either. It seems, from what I’m hearing from a lot of artists, that it’s the return of the live gig that’s really keeping them moving forward. Do you find that to be the truth, or did we ever really move away from the live gig during the CD era?

Steve ::
Gigs and recorded music have always been symbiotic. Some artists lean more heavily towards one end, and there’s always been a transatlantic split, as gigging constantly has NEVER been an option in the UK, for an originals band, whereas in the US you can play 300 shows a year, and never repeat the same town. Here, if you do 30 shows, you’re pretty much done with the UK for the year

Brad ::
Ah, very good point. I’d never thought about that. driving 4 hours here puts you in the same state, often times. 4 hours there can put you in Scotland.

Steve ::
So, UK bands have always had to be more imaginative in the studio – they just don’t have the training-ground of playing 300 shows before they get into the studio. But likewise, US Bands often struggle to replicate their live energy on record, but also don’t have the time to experiment with studio techniques to make something distinct.

Brad ::
That’s an incredible insight.

Steve ::
…so you take someone like Dave Matthews, who was playing to thousands of people a night before he had a Major deal, vs Coldplay who did about 6 gigs before they sold a million records – Chris Martin could hardly sing when that first album came out. His voice was entirely shaped in the studio.

Brad ::
What about the way of life there versus here? Is there anything about the UK that makes it easier or harder, financially, to be a professional musician? Taxes, etc?

Steve ::
Here we have no worries about health care. none. That’s the most enourmous thing hanging over a US musician – that you could fall ill and be half a million in debt without even trying – that’s insane. So the temptation to be a job with benefits is massive

Brad ::
Yeah. I work for a European company, so I don’t have insurance. And it would cost me $600/month to get it. As a long-time DJ, I dealt with that same fear when it was my “full time” job.

Steve ::
That’s nuts – it’s one of the main reasons my wife and I won’t move to the US (she’s from WV). Here, it’s much safer to do part time work and make music part time, cos the National Health Service has us covered.

Brad ::
Yeah. And that $600 isn’t good insurance. It’s just passable. 1 doc visit per year, plus coverage of anything major that would require hospitalization.

Steve ::
Scary stuff. But a lot of the differences for musicians are urban vs rural. You live in a city, you got the cost of being in a city. You don’t live in a city, you got to hustle for shows a lot harder.

Brad ::
Yeah. Starving artist in the city is still more than just a story.

Steve ::
The web has made it possible to live in Boonville, Misourri and still sell music online. That’s remarkable.

We’re moving out of London soon – the fact that we can is brilliant. We can market, promote, book shows etc. from anywhere, and I can get speaking and writing work from anywhere.

Brad ::
Do you think you’ll see a negative impact from that, as far as live shows go?

Steve ::
No idea – we’ll find out! We’ll suddenly be bigger fish in a much smaller pond, so will, I suspect, get way more local shows that we ever did in london.

Brad ::
Yeah, very true. Could have a great impact.

Steve ::
I’m a solo bassist, it’s a pretty niche thing to do, unless you can make it mean something else – for a lot of the people who listen to us, it’s a film-style soundtrack to all the online stuff. so it makes sense.

Brad ::
Right

Steve ::
it’s like Twitter, Facebook and my blog have their own soundtrack, so people who think Radiohead are avantgarde, suddenly find themselves listening to ambient electronica and wanting to like it. That’s pretty amazing.

Brad ::
Hahahah, good point

Steve ::
I can see pretty much no downside to where things are heading, unless you’re trying to hold onto the old way of doing things.

Brad ::
It seems to me that it’s pushing artists to use their creative nature for business matters, too. Which is a net positive in my opinion.

Steve ::
Yes, that’s VERY positive.
If you think that music *should* be a macro-industrial model, with 3rd party distribution and the trappings of fame, you’re basically fucked.

All the nonsense about ‘taking time away from music’ is just that. Nonsense. Get friendly, get creative, use the downtime. It’s brilliant. Look at what someone like Rosanne Cash does. Or Vernon Reid, or Questlove. It’s hardly like they’ve had social media dent their creativity!

Brad ::
If I had to draw a “tech spin” from this, I think it draws a parallel to business who start fast, raise a load of cash and then exit (signing with major labels) versus those who take slow, meticulous steps to eventual prosperity (indie). Sound about right?

Steve ::
except that it’s often ‘borrow loads of cash’… ‘raise’ is nebulous as it doesn’t imply that it needs to be paid back.

Brad ::
So very true.

Steve ::
The problem is that few people seem to acknowledge that we’re escaping from an utterly broken business model, not ruining one that worked for musicians. The recording industry was, historically, a sweatshop.

Brad ::
Man, so very true.

Steve ::
That harvested people’s creativity like some alien race sucking lymph from our systems to power their money-printing-presses

Brad ::
Hahahah…can I quote you on that one? That’s brilliant.

Steve ::
Feel free. :) There were some amazing records made – only an idiot would question that – and a handful of massive careers, but most of it was utterly wedded to the unfulfilment of the hyper-modernity of the latter half of the 20thC. Bigger. Better. Faster. More. Sustainability wasn’t even a word, creative freedom was for hippies.

Brad ::
What about studios and recording expense? It seems that studio time was falsely inflated because labels would pay big money for it. How can an indie artist afford those prices?

Steve ::
No-one needs to pay that now. The big studios are struggling and are learning to negotiate on time, but very few things require a studio these days. Drums do, but even they can be done at home if you’ve got skillz.

Brad ::
Do they? Even electronic kits used as an alternative?

Steve ::
Recording costs have dropped by a factor of 10. At least. You can use VDrums, or triggers, or replace badly recorded live drums with drumagogue. There are loads of ways to do this shit. Put out live records to fund the studio album, do an acoustic album to get people into the songs and make the money for the band version

Brad ::
Yeah. I play a set of Yamaha vdrums and they sound stellar.
Steve ::
VDrums are fantastic – but there are places they don’t fit. But, fuck it, just make it fit!

Brad ::
Yeah. Post processing, I think, is becoming really important in order to make things ‘fit’.

Steve ::
If your musical vision is too expensive, do something else, wait til you can afford it.

Brad ::
Making sure that your sound is right is getting easier, with great resources that are available to producers sitting in front of a macbook.

Steve ::
I’d love to write for orchestra, but the 3+ years of study and $100,000 I’d need to do it properly is a little beyond me, so I’ll stick with solo bass

Brad ::
Jesus. yeah…can’t say i blame you.

Steve ::
Almost all of my favourite records these days are made better by their limitations. People get creative when they are paying out of their own pockets, when they can’t spend 5 years making the next Hysteria. No-one thinks the 2nd Spindoctors record was their best work.

Brad ::
Hahahah, not at all.

OK, one final question – If someone wants to start playing bass, what’s the cheapest way to do that? How can they find out if they love it, without breaking the bank?

Steve ::
There are VERY few bad basses being made now, by companies you’ve heard of. They can’t afford to, the competition’s too strong. So buy or borrow a cheap Fender, Yamaha, Peavey etc… get a headphone amp, or a convertor to plug it into your hifi. If your computer’s got gaming speakers on it, that’ll sound great for bass. Plug it in, make a noise, get a few lessons, you’re away!

Brad ::
Well man, thank you. I’m trying to finish this up today and I realized that I hadn’t covered many of the indie artists. There’s some great insight to be had from what you’ve just put out there.

Thanks a lot for your time, Steve. Really appreciate it.

Steve ::
my pleasure

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • Jennifer

    I’d love to write for orchestra, but the 3+ years of study and $100,000 I’d need to do it properly is a little beyond me

    !

    Is that for real or was it more of a “random thought nice idea throwaway comment to make a point”?

    I grew up on the classical stuff, have done loads of orchestral playing and written one thing for an amateur orchestra (and had it played), and I think you are much closer to being able to do that already than you seem to be estimating there. So yeah, tell me if you want my 2p on that subject (actually worth more than 2p, possibly as much as $100,000 ::haha::)

    • Steve

      Hi Jennifer,

      the key point is the ‘properly’ bit – I’m sure there are ways I could do an orchestral project for much less – I could probably assemble a pretty good chamber orchestra from friends and acquaintances – but if I were to do it, I’d want to do it with the same level of focus that I do with my solo stuff, where it’s pretty much as it should be – there’s very little about what I do as a solo artist that isn’t how I want it to be, and the orchestral equivalent would require a level of training in orchestration and harmony that would take me quite a while… :)

      As it is, I’m really happy with what I’m doing, and the kind of projects I get where I get to do my thing with other people. I’d actually place doing more ‘normal’ bass gigs in a band on my wish-list above the orchestral project, but that’s on my bucket-list :)