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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



How To Organise Yourselves For A Group Project

October 4th, 2018 · No Comments

working in a groupAn awful lot of music courses these days have group-based practical projects as at least one module within the course. This is, I think, a positive trend, in that it encourages you situate your learning within the context of your own practice as creative professionals, but it definitely requires some thought regarding how to organise yourselves in a group. So here are a few thoughts on how to do that:

  • Firstly, you need to decide on a shared communication method – it could be email, a Facebook group chat (or group), Whatsapp group, Skype chat, Google Hangout… You’ll need both ongoing text chat and probably the option to have audio or video meetings, depending on how often you’re able to meet face to face. So, decide on this straight away, and make sure it’s one that everyone can access.
  • Secondly, you’ll need some kind of shared calendar into which you can put tasks and deadlines and assign roles. Google Calendar is as good as any for this, and is pretty widely supported on the web and via phone apps. It may be that your college or university has the option to create shared events via their web services, which is fine too. There are also a LOAD of great task-sharing apps – Wunderlist, Trello, etc… Some are paid, some are free. Do some research (assign someone the task) and settle on what you’re going to use within the first 24 hours of forming the group. Make a rule that you all check the calendar for that days tasks every day.
  • Along side this, you’ll need a space where you can all share documents, resources etc. Google Docs/Drive is good for this, and I think Microsoft Office 365 also has this option. Dropbox is great if everyone has an account. Google Docs makes it possible to collaborate on the same document in real time. That can be really handy if one of you is, for example, writing a press release, and someone else is proof reading it.
  • Establish a set of guidelines straight away that everyone agrees to regarding what you do when someone misses a deadline. Get it down in a document before you start so that you can deal with people who are unreliable without it having to get personal. If someone is missing deadlines as assigned in the calendar, have a protocol for reassigning that work, and for finding out what on earth is going on.
  • Set regular times to check in and report back on what you’ve done. If it’s a big project, you can do this at the end of every day – start the day with the to-do list, end it logging the tasks that have been accomplished. If you’ve got a little more time to work on it, you might decide you only need to do this every other day, or three times a week… But make sure it’s regular so you can keep a track of jobs that are missed. If it’s part of a 10 week module, you REALLY can’t afford to be waiting a week to find out that a whole load of the work that you’re all relying on has been missed.
    Keep your tutor in the loop. Make sure that each week you report back on what’s going on, where you’re up to and what you need help with. If they’re available for tutorials, book time with them. If they aren’t, but they are available via email, check that it’s OK, then contact them.
  • Find out where the other staff are in your institution that may be able to help you. Get all the support you can, and then apply your initiative and learning to get on with it.
  • Document EVERYTHING. Keep accurate notes of what you’re up to, and what you need to do, make sure that meetings are minuted (one person keeping a log of everything that is discussed and decided), use the camera on your phone to take pictures and video of all the stuff you get up to – sharing the story of your project can help make it interesting for your potential audience, so use the story of the project to support the project!
  • Sort out your own plan for time management – if you are prone to wasting endless hours online, or gaming, or watching TV or whatever, commit to finishing the tasks on your list daily before you reward yourself with your leisure pursuit of choice. Don’t let the group down because you’re too undisciplined to put the PS4 away for a few hours…

Project work can be an amazing chance to try things out, learn from your peers, and get valuable experience in your chosen field, as well as to develop skills you didn’t even know you might need. Enter into the task with enthusiasm and an open mind, get the work done, and enjoy it – it could end up helping you decide what you really want to do with your life!

Tags: Uncategorized

Making Time For Music

October 1st, 2018 · 2 Comments

From Danny Barnes’ “How To Make A Living Playing Music”:

v. if there’s no social context for the music you are making, don’t be mad if no one comes to the shows or buys the music. or if only very few people do. in that case the reward has to be the music. hey that’s a great deal. also you have lots of freedom to do different stuff. there’s no one to alienate. let’s face it, sometimes having no one at the show is a great indicator that you are onto something. i’m serious.

This was such a wake up call to me the first time I read it. Danny’s linking of ‘success’ and social context/utility is an enormously important one, both for live and recorded music. It’s why cover bands get more work than new/unknown original bands. The social context for nostalgia is way more widespread, and so many of the venues where live music happens are built around that. I don’t really make great beer-drinking music. The dynamic range of what I do is way too wide for people to comfortably talk while I do it without ruining it for everyone, so the ideal social context for my music is a house concert or a provincial theatre. I haven’t reached the provincial theatre level of success (yet) so house concerts it is… 

steve lawson and daniel berkman in concert

But for recorded music, the issue is similar. Whether or not people think what you do is amazing is not really the number one measure of whether they’ll listen to it. The bigger question is ‘what does this music do for me within the context of my life? What do I need music to be right now, and is this music that thing?’ – it’s why a whole bunch of music that sounds like wallpaper can be so successful. Everyone needs wallpaper! The contexts within which people can carve out space and time to listen to difficult music are surprisingly small in so many parts of contemporary western society.

This is absolutely borne out in the sales/popularity of my solo work. The weirder/harsher the sounds, the lower the sales. Often the responses from the people who love it are more effusive if I get more experimental, but if it’s harder to use, people engage with it a different way, and it becomes a thing that needs its own space and time, rather than an accompaniment. So my new album has done well for a number of reasons, but one of them is evidently that it works as social music – it’s great to put on while chatting to friends or hanging out in a way that PS, You Are Brilliant isn’t. That’s a weird, gnarly, twisted record and ends with the sound of the world exploding. Not exactly dinner party stuff…

And as a listener, I experience this on a daily basis – we have a pair of really nice BlueTooth HK Speakers in our living room. They just sound lovely, so I greatly enjoy listening to music through them. But because of where they are, the choice to listen through them means that most of the time the rest of the family are going to be listening too, and it means whoever wants to watch TV has to stop. So what are the kinds of music that work in that setting? I experiment with this a lot. Some of the things that work are surprising – we’ve had 80s Thrash parties on a Saturday morning while playing Lego. Anthrax was a particular winner. For Lo and I it was deeply nostalgic, so we were chatting about buying Metallica and Anthrax and Megadeth albums, swapping stories. For Flapjack, he got to rock out to something fairly melodic and with a ton of energy while we were playing.

But that’s a set up that doesn’t work at all with a lot of more modern – or heavier – metal. Even if it’s really diverse, it’s tough to get the family past an intro that’s all chugging Djent guitars are guttural roars… The context isn’t there. Now, extreme metal is one of my big musical loves, so in order to spend time with it I have to MAKE time. The social context is absent, so it becomes music for commuting, or solo driving, music to listen to on headphones while I’m working (if it’s the kind of work that isn’t impeded by music)

It’s the same with some kinds of free/complex jazz. There are jazz records that really work in a family space – a lot of Miles’ 70s stuff is cool, Dinosaur, Phronesis. We’re a pretty musical household, and occasionally I get away with something a bit freer – Flapjack and I have been known to listen to Cecil Taylor in the car – But I’d be unlikely to put on John Zorn as an alternative to watching Sam And Cat.

And then there’s lyrics. Alongside jazz and metal, hip hop is one of the mainstays of my musical loves, but I have to vet the lyrics fairly carefully for family listening. I’m less concerned about swearing that I am about things that carry deeply negative messages that it’d be tricky for an 8 year old to decode, but I end up playing is safe, and keeping a lot of hip hop for myself.

But I do make time for it. Because otherwise I cut myself from all this music that I need to be able to make the music I make. If you’re a musician, music is food. You can go on a diet of only listening to your own ideas, and there are certainly examples of musicians who manage to make amazing music in relative isolation (though there are also numerous examples of musicians self-inflating the auteur nature of their own practice), but for the rest of us, what we choose to listen to will shape our musical adventures in often dramatic ways. It will shape our understanding of production and arranging, and even lets us learn what our particular speakers and room are SUPPOSED to sound like – a vital aspect in learning how to mix/master is learning your system.

So, think about the social context, and carve out time for the music that matters to you, but may not necessarily fit the social spaces you occupy. Your musical journey will thank you.

Tags: Uncategorized

Tips for Music Students

September 27th, 2018 · 1 Comment

beyond bass camp picture

Serious about studying music? Here’s some tips. Take or leave them as you find them useful. Your college years are both very limited and very expensive. Don’t waste them:

  • Take extensive notes on everything, (but maybe try and work out a system for sorting through them)
  • Record every time you play – video if possible. Review it, learn from it, put the best bits online if that feels useful to you.
  • Collaborate as much as possible – stepping outside your comfort zone can be an amazing learning experience.
  • Get your course work done early – focus on the learning outcomes and marking criteria, hit all of those, then think about the things that your own practice needs to get out of the module.
  • Learn how to write essays – google for advice, there are tons of great articles giving tips on this.
  • Ask questions – never let any teacher make you feel bad about needing more information.
  • Keep a blog
  • If you play an electric instrument, get a headphone amp, carry it with you.
  • Go to gigs – big and small. Support your local scene, get to know who runs the venues and books the shows.
  • Play live as often as possible – gigs, open mics, jam sessions – get out and play.
  • Spend as much time in the studio as possible. If your college has a studio, book any spare time you can in there.
  • Start recording at home, and work on measurable week to week improvement. if all you’ve got to record on is your phone, get better at positioning it in relation to your instrument to get the best sounds you can. Learning to maximise the possible quality of lo-tech recordings will pay MASSIVE dividends down the line.
  • Watch as many tutorials about how to work in the studio as you can.
  • Invest in your music life. Booze and cigarettes are not an investment in your music life. Records, gear, strings, gig tickets, travel to go and play with new people are.
  • Listen to at least one new album (released in the last two years) a week.
  • History matters more than nostalgia – use YouTube to fill in the history of your instrument – look up at least three new-to-you important players a week. It really is the greatest learning resource humanity has yet invented, if only all that genius content wasn’t hidden behind towering mountains of bullshit.
  • Read books. Lots and lots of books. Use the college library, find out about journal access through your course. 
  • Monitor your social media time, but work on your online presence as an artist/professional.
  • Spend precisely no time worrying about music you don’t like. Learn what you need to learn for the course, but cultivate your relationship with the music you’re passionate about. Keep your ears open to new sounds – weird doesn’t necessarily mean bad, often it means unfamiliar…
  • Remember, your peers are not competition, they’re comrades. Learn from everyone, be generous in sharing your own learning. Swap skills with everyone, trade lessons for guitar repairs, studio time for web skills.

Tags: Kidderminster College Stuff · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

Making music sustainably in the Internet age

September 4th, 2018 · 3 Comments

Have a listen to my new album while you read (it’s a long post): 



2008-2012 was the tiny window in which the Internet looked like it really might be some kind of utopian amazing thing for independent artists trying to find a likeminded audience. With Twitter and Facebook in the ascendency, and neither of them messing with what you saw in your feed, there was a genuine meritocracy and an amazing space for indie artists to help spread the word about each other’s work without it impinging on their ability to reach their own audience. I put out a couple of records in that time, and they’re still my biggest selling digital albums. That’s no coincidence.

Then it all changed (in case you’re writing about this for college, the music economy can not reliably be divided into pre and post napster. The changes happened way more often than that, and as above, there were moments when it looked really good for us…) – Spotify came along. Initially without a mobile version or caching, it mostly replaced radio and a lot of people used it to find music to buy elsewhere! (some people still do, just fewer of them). But they pulled enough people into the streaming idea, and the prevailing industry wisdom was a really un-nuanced view that saw ‘legal streaming’ as the answer to torrenting stuff, rather than as a real and present challenge to buying stuff. Soon Spotify started ramping up the frequency of ads to make it really unpleasant without a paid account. (imagine being an advertiser who paid for an ad that purely existed to annoy people into getting rid of those ads? What a world…!)

And alongside that, first FB and then Twitter started to close off unfettered access to audiences. FB were blatant. On a given date, they introduced an algorithm that meant not everyone who was signed up to your artist page would see your stuff. Bands were literally having to cancel tours after having thrown their lot in with FB instead of a relatively costly email list, only to find that instead of 50K people a day reading their posts, it was less than a couple of hundred. Yup, it was that severe. No real warning, no room to manoeuvre, just ‘pay up, or no-one sees your tour dates’. And as most bands haven’t budgeted for that kind of contingency, there were tours booked on the assumption that 50K people would be engaged in knowing about and talking about them to help build an audience that crashed and burned.

Twitter was more subtle. First there was the shift of their ‘recommended’ users away from friends of the people that worked there that they thought were interesting (remember when brilliant and fascinating indie artists like Zoe Keating and Imogen Heap were on the recommended people to follow? The good old days…) Instead it was corporate accounts and reality TV stars. We were all being encouraged and subtly engineered away from forming meaningful open conversations with our friends and instead following celeb accounts, who in turn were paying for ‘promoted’ tweets, faked trending hashtags and the like. I still hold that the biggest enemies to conversation on Twitter are us all following way too many people, and the entirely bogus thought that our time is best spent trying to sum up how shit politics is in pithy Tweets that will salve the nagging feeling that we’re all going to burn. Seeing endless retweets and now seeing people’s faves in our timeline further ruins the experience…

And iTunes, once the supposed shining crown jewel of digital music shopping online (if you ignore all the BS with 128k files and DRM at the start), acquired Beats Music and morphed it into Apple Music. Their own streaming service, in direct competition to iTunes. They clearly give no shits about iTunes store, and would rather have the residual payments for people re-listening to old stuff than help current artists fund their work (TL:DR of streaming economics – it makes perfect sense IF 99% of the value in your body of work has already been released and sold in the past. If you’re a major label who also owns a publisher, then making money (and scraping metadata) from all the people who listen to The Beatles and Michael Jackson and Abba and The Eagles and the thousands of hit songs from yesteryear is WAY, WAY more profitable to you than those same people listening to vinyl or CDs that they bought in the last century. So you throw all new artists under the bus for that publishing money, and then pretend that the fight over higher royalty rates is one you even care about so the new artists don’t all leave. And if you can grandfather streaming into a record deal that still gives the label and publisher most of the money despite nothing being released, then you can make even more money and the artist gets basically nothing (see Peter Frampton’s viral complaints for evidence). Some indies are doing OK from streaming (if you keep all your rights and get some good promo elsewhere) but there’s no solid model for it as yet… In a nutshell)

But, through all of this, one only music entity kept growing, kept getting bigger, and better, adding music journalism, subscriptions, discovery… While Spotify was posting millions in annual losses and faking artists so they could stack their own playlists with shitty music that was published in-house dishonestly, Bandcamp grew and grew. $317 Million dollars to artists as I write this, and no losses. Also, no billionaire owners…

For me, as that fleeting utopian window faded, Bandcamp came up with the subscription idea. Offer people more music, more video, more interaction for an annual fee. The subscribers still get albums to download and keep (it’s still the bit of this that matters to me the most – nothing that anyone gets from me on Bandcamp is rented. It’s theirs. You aren’t paying for annual access to a thing that can be taken away. It’s yours (and in my case, it’s all Creative Commons licensed, so you can share it with your friends too – it makes no sense to me to criminalise people helping to spread the word). If Spotify goes down, all those curated playlists and all that data you’ve built up is gone for good. If Bandcamp goes down, all the music is yours (and equally valuably, my listeners are on my email list, so we don’t lose touch like we did on Myspace or MP3.com)

So what of releasing an individual album like I did yesterday? For me it has a number of functions. It’s good for me to stick a flag in the ground once a year – here’s what I’m up to, y’all – for those who aren’t already into what I’m doing, it’s a chance to explore it at album length. And for those who like some of what I do and not other bits, it’s a chance to buy an album at a sensible price and not have to subscribe to a bunch of music you don’t like just to get it!

YouTube for instrumentalists has developed a culture of wowing people with super clever tricks and monster technique. All fine except when it stops people from making any other kind of music. I’m acutely aware that my stuff on YouTube is never going to go viral. But I’ve also no plans to start making circus videos as adverts for something else. Great if your art leans in that direction already, but I’m more concerned about a diverse ecosystem for the arts, than forcing everyone into a particular mould to go viral.

Bandcamp doesn’t have that. I’m not trying to get a specific number of listens/views/clicks to make it meaningful. It is what they describe as ‘high friction’. It’s not designed for 20 seconds of wow before clicking out to somewhere else. The attention is on the art. And the invitation is to pay for it and help make more of it possible. If someone buys my new album, they aren’t paying off a budget for making or promoting it, they’re helping to make the next one possible. That’s why the monthly income from subscribers is so amazing. I worked out that I’d have needed somewhere north of 11 million Spotify plays to make what I’ve made on Bandcamp. That’s never going to happen making the music I make. I’d have to be thinking of ambient playlists as my target audience to try and make any money on Spotify at all. And that’s not what I do, it’s not what’s interesting about what I do, and it’s not why the people who subscribe to me are there.

My thinking on how music works online evolves a lot over time (dig back into my blog and you’ll see many posts where I was v much pro-Spotify at one point, and earlier than that where I had a really regressive and insane view of file sharing) but the knowledge that there’s no better environment for the sustainability of independent music online than Bandcamp has remained solid since 2009.

Thanks to everyone who made the defiant step of buying my new album. It would’ve taken me many, many thousands of Spotify plays to get the same level of income, and the ad campaign to get those plays would’ve eaten up all the money I made from it. Instead, a small group of people have made this record viable, by helping me to cover with download sales the money I’ve lost in the last week or so through illness-induced canceled teaching. That’s pretty amazing, and I’m grateful.

I’m not going to get rich, I’m not aiming to be famous, or to go viral. I just want to make more interesting art that reflects the world it exists in, and finds the people who care about that. Bandcamp is making that possible. Join the quiet revolution 🙂

Tags: Uncategorized

Brand New Video – Beauty And Desolation Album Title Track

August 6th, 2018 · No Comments

The second video from my forthcoming solo album, Beauty And Desolation, is the title – and opening – track. Starting the album with this track is an invitation – an invitation to slow down, to step off the treadmill, away from the obsession with clickbait and scrolling and getting an endorphin rush from continual updates, and instead to take 8 minutes out to go on a journey. The album’s theme centres around things that are beautiful but which can ultimately cause immeasurable harm, inspired by this summer of record heat and sun in the UK (yay warmth!), but it being evidence of pretty catastrophic climate change. The cost of getting a tan in your back garden just got significantly higher… So there’s beauty in the music, but also tension, there’s a searching, questioning, mysterious quality to much of the harmony, as it explores that interplay between beauty, warmth, light, and the scorched earth we’re seeing elsewhere… 

Musically, the track features my fretless Elrick SLC signature bass, processed through my MOD Devices Duo. The album features a mix of ambient/electronic tracks and more hip hop, wonky groove-based tracks. The contrast is exemplified by the contrast between this track and the first track posted from the album, Transcendence And Decay, which follows Beauty And Desolation on the album : 

Beauty And Desolation is out on September 3rd 2018, but early access is available to Bandcamp subscribers at http://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe – along with 40 other solo and collaborative albums from the last 18 years of my career.

Tags: Uncategorized

First Track from Beauty And Desolation by Steve Lawson

July 27th, 2018 · No Comments

If you’ve been following my social media ramblings for the last couple of months, you’ll know that I’ve just finished a new solo album, titled Beauty And Desolation. I’m really happy with how it’s turned out, and I’m really looking forward to it being out there in the world. So here’s the first video from it. The album was all recorded live in the studio, and I’ve got footage of five of the 7 tracks – so this is the actual studio footage of the track being recorded, rather than some kind of elaborate recreation of what’s actually an entirely improvised performance.

Here’s the press release for the album, which has already been re-blogged by the good people of Bass Player Magazine.

STEVE LAWSON: BEAUTY AND DESOLATION

BIRMINGHAM, UK—It doesn’t take much to get Steve Lawson talking about improv, and on the eve of the release of his 27th solo album, Beauty And Desolation, he’s eager to riff on the relationship between improv and the studio. [Read more →]

Tags: Music News · New releases · Subscription news

Launching the Steve Lawson Listening Club

May 16th, 2018 · No Comments

I’ve just started a new thing as part of my Bandcamp subscription. I’m calling it the Steve Lawson Listening Club, for want of a better name (alternate suggestions welcome!) and it’ll work a bit like a book club but for the music in the subscriber back catalogue offering. Every other week, we’ll take one album from the back catalogue that everyone has, listen to it, I’ll contribute the back story, some context, a bit of extra info about how and why it sounds the way it does, will see if I can dig up photos and video if it was a live gig, and everyone else can pile in with comments, reviews, questions and discussion about that particular album.

This stems from an oft-repeated comment on the subscription which is that there’s more than enough for a subscriber to listen to with the new music that comes out each year (normally somewhere between 8-10 albums, plus a bunch of extra exclusive video content between releases!) that the volume of music that just comes as a bundle with your first year’s subscription is overwhelming in its vastness. I get this for sure, so here’s a way to delve into it.

The discussion will happen via the message feed on the subscription page (as soon as you sign up you get access to all the past messages, exclusive videos and other discussions) and you’re all invited to sign up and join in. Maybe the results will one day get compiled into a book of extended essays and commentary on my body of work 🙂

Anyway, head to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe to join the fun!

Tags: Music News · Subscription news

Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 8 – Lobelia

May 13th, 2018 · No Comments

After a break, Vol 8 of this lil’ exploration of the collaborators who changed my music life, and today I’m going to tell you about Lobelia.

In 2006, I made a conscious choice to move away from playing to rooms full of bass players. No shade to the bass-monkeys, I just needed to get away at that point from the perceived expectations that a room a whole bunch of people who play the same instrument as me brought to any gig, and the weird/meaningless stylistic comparisons to what other people are doing with the bass. So I started to look at house concerts as an alternative. I’d done them before (my second ever solo gig was a house concert, hosted by the parents of one of my students), but it hadn’t been a focus in the interim.

So when Lo and I met at the beginning of 2007, and started to plan some shows together, they were a mix of venue shows and a few house concerts. Some of the venue shows were fabulous, but many of them were far from ideal. The template for our initial collaboration was a combination of some of things I’d been experimenting with with Cleveland Watkiss and Julie McKee in bass/voice duos beforehand, coupled to Lo’s songs and our shared love of doing unusual cover tunes (it’s worth noting that the interim years have made quirky covers the de facto novelty currency of the music-Internets, but that was far less the case in 2007 🙂 ) – we found that the very specific setting that worked best for what we had as a duo wasn’t really compatible with the standard bar/cafe/rock club options (for the most part – we did have some great gigs on that first tour, but many were really tricky) and that the best shows we played were the house concerts. They were also WAY more viable financially. Clearly no-one was going to get rich doing them, but on a tour when we came away from a couple of the venue gigs having made less than $10, house concert economics were a godsend.

So what was – and is – so great about working with Lo? I think what amazed me from the start, and still does, is how naturally she adapts to the intersection of improv and songs – whether it’s covers or her own songs, we have always been pretty loose with how arrangements would work, and her ability to turn whatever I threw at the song in question into an amazing performance was really inspiring. It freed me up to experiment with songs the way I would an improv, or one of the skeleton compositions of my own that I was playing at the time – to minimise the amount of material that constituted ‘the song’ and allow us both to create something new, unique and specific to the setting we’re in (which is, after all, my most basic of reasons for improvising) – that project of working out how to bring the best of improv’s localisation to a set of songs that people might recognise is one that has made me a better improvisor, and allowed me to explore what makes a song work in a much more nuanced way. Being able to adapt tempo, arrangement, sounds – and for Lo, even lyrics (!) to the situation makes for a hugely compelling music-making experience (and also allowed us to think about how some things that are perfect for the moment don’t work as recordings…)

So thanks to Lo, I was able to bring together my love of songs and my love of improv in ways that I could only have hoped for. Long may it continue!

Tags: 10 Collaborators

Who Has The Right To Critique Your Work?

May 11th, 2018 · No Comments

…This is a question that comes up for young artists all the time. The mechanisms for getting your work out there, in an economic setting where there’s a particular level of audience size that one needs to be able to make enough money to keep doing what you do, bring with them an avalanche of comment. Some of it comes from reviewers – gig reviewers, album reviewers, people who write about your particular field as their job and amateurs who just have a blog they keep for the love-or-spite of it. You’ll also get feedback from people who love what you do and feedback from people who are all too eager to tell you how you’re doing it wrong. Social media may give everyone a voice, but it doesn’t in any way mean we are obliged to absorb or even listen to their opinions…

So, while acknowledging that in some way resourcing and encouraging that kind of commentary is necessary to audience growth, how do we as artists maintain a sense of who we are and what we do aside from that, and how do we gauge which of the feedback might actually be useful to us? After all, I’ve had utterly glowing OTT reviews that I thought were WAY off the mark, and some critical reviews that I thought were completely fair. And I’ve had a very small number of reviews that actually taught me something about my own work. So how do we discern the difference? How do we decide who to let in and who to ignore? And as things progress, how (if we even should) do we build a team of people around who we invite to reflect on our work in ways that we listen to with a view to actually acting on their advice?

It is – not to put too fine a point on it – an absolute minefield. All the moreso if you’re in any way insecure about your work already. Anyone who’s had anything posted on YouTube that’s had more than a handful of views will know what a cesspool of vindictive and spiteful misinformation it is. I’ve seen friends of mine insulted in all manner of ways on there, and have had a ton of ‘why the fuck are you wearing nail varnish???’ comments as well as the ‘that’s not what you’re supposed to do with a bass!’ comments…

That end of things is irritating, but fairly easily recognised as not useful in terms of defining what you’re up to in your own work. Nothing useful comes of trying to salve the bile of a disgruntled YouTube dickhead… So who gets let in? Whose words get to be considered as useful?

I don’t think there’s one answer to this, but my own rule has always been that I listen to people who have previously demonstrated to me that they understand what I’m trying to do. Whether a review itself seems knowledgeable is not the thing I’m looking for. What I need from someone who is going to comment on my work in a way I can be bothered to acknowledge is the recognition that they have me being the best version of me as the focus of their comments. So anything that says ‘what you’re doing doesn’t sound enough like artist A, therefor it’s bad’ is out. Not useful. Anyone who says ‘this is amazing because it doesn’t sound like anything that anyone has ever done before’ is equally out. That’s not a useful or accurate assessment of where the value lies in what I’m trying to do.

This notion of ‘what you’re trying to do’ stems from a belief that the only meaningful way to measure the true value of an artist’s work is whether they’ve achieved what they set out to do. Whether you like it or not is useful in terms of you deciding what to do with your time, and what to lend your ears to, but a commentary on my work based on whether or not someone else would have done it differently is not useful to me. As my usual response goes when someone tells me that I should be doing an all-ambient record, or a funk record, or should work in such and such a way, I say ‘no, you should! It’s clearly you that wants to hear music in that way. If there’s something in what I do that you think fits there, you can either take that inspiration and make the music yourself, or hire me to help you get there and bring my musicianship and ideas to your project’. But they don’t get to tell me what to do with my own music.

So how does someone demonstrate an understanding?

Firstly, they ask questions. Anyone who truly cares about what you’re doing is going to ask you about it before making a bunch of observations and statements. They’re going to inquire into why you’re making the choices you’re making, what the things are that you’re working on, what your influences are and what you’re trying to do with those influences… There are a ton of different questions to be asked, and angles to be explored…

Secondly, they’re going to take the time to get to know what you’ve already done. This gives anyone who subscribes to me on Bandcamp a massive advantage over anyone who doesn’t, because I know they’ve got at least 35-40 albums by me in their collection. Now, they might not have listened to them all, but if they’re working through them with an open mind, they may well start to form a useful frame of reference for what it is I’m trying to do – I can test that through the kinds of questions they bother to ask. They’re probably going to have a better grasp on the improvised nature of the work, and the breadth of things that I’m exploring at anyone time, as well as the general trajectory of my solo work.

Thirdly, their comments are going to specifically relate their criticism to the framing of your work. It’s OK for someone not to like or understand how you frame what it is you’re trying to do – not everyone needs to like or understand what you’re up to – but if you’re thinking of inviting them to influence it, it’d help a lot of they at least had a respect for what you were attempting. Sometimes, that framing can be an obvious thing, but it’s normally pretty dangerous to assume what a particular musician is trying to do from hearing a track or two and guessing based on who you think it sounds like.

The people whose commentary you allow into your own thought process are acting as de facto producers of your work. It’s WAY more important that they understand it than that they like it. I’ve had a mixture of people over the years give me useful feedback and encouragement – some who loved it, some how just cared about me, and took the time to work out what I was up to, without really being massively invested in the music itself. Sometimes the most useful input is just a well-timed ‘dude, just keep doing what you’re doing’, sometimes it’s in the form of a question I really should have been asking myself for a while. Other times its a suggestion for some new inspiration to check out that they see may well help take me in a new direction.

None of it arrives in the form of insult, none of it is trying to put me down, and none of it is about me meeting someone else’s idea for what music ought to be.

Finding those people can take a lot of time. When you do find them hold onto them, value them and keep them close. A huge amount of the advice that you’re going to hear will be about people’s perception of the commercial potential in what you’re doing, and how to maximise that (it’s baffling to me that I get that bullshit even as a solo bass player – as if playing bass on your own isn’t enough of a statement about your lack of focus on commercial motives already?)  – if commercial potential is your frame for your work, and they are people with a track record of making those judgements in useful ways, by all means let them in – it’s not a bad thing to want to make great pop music! But if that’s not what you care about, you need to find a way of blocking out those voices, because they’ll almost always pull you back towards the consensus.

And in the meantime, don’t feed the trolls, or listen to their bullshit. It’s not going to help you find your path.

Tags: Musing on Music · tips for musicians

Illuminated Loops II out now

May 9th, 2018 · No Comments

 10 Months on from vol 1, Illuminated Loops II has just been released to my Bandcamp subscribers. The Bandcamp subscription is still my main mechanism for releasing (and funding) the music I make – when you sign up, you now get 40 releases straight away. And you also get the next 12 months of music. All for your first year’s subscription. It’s a crazy deal, designed to invite people who are interested in what I’m doing now to get some context and discover where it has come from. And so far that’s the only place to get the two Illuminated Loops recordings… There’ll be a LOT more recording from this project coming up later in the year… Sign up now at stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe, to make sure you get it all as soon as it is released.

This album, Illuminated Loops II, is the music from our Feb 25th 2018 show at Tower Of Song in Birmingham. As before, this recording is in some ways just a relic of the show itself – that it works so well as a standalone musical experience raises all kinds of questions about whether the fact that something is enjoyable affects what it actually is… if the music made no sense without the art happening at the same time, would it cease to be music, or at least worthwhile music? The art as a static entity is in the same precarious position – it’s beautiful and intriguing to look at, all the moreso if you know its origins, but the static version is just what’s leftover after the show. The unfolding, the interaction, the experience of before/during/after – the consequential nature of it all, of it coming into being – that’s ‘the work’, the show, the full experience.

But, having said all that, don’t let it stop you enjoying the music! I’ve been saying for a while that making music in the context of Illuminated Loops results in work that is significantly more interesting to me than anything else that I do as a solo artist. Obviously because it’s not really solo – all of this is co-credited to Poppy and I because the music as it is wouldn’t exist without her. You can definitely hear my vocabulary in there, my musical accent, but the script is one that is developed between us as we go along. The fact that the music I make serves a dual purpose – the music as a journey through time, and the sound as trigger for Poppy’s synaethesia gives me a license to go to new places… The 2nd set here begins with a looped two note bass line played in on the Quneo – I’ve never used the Quneo for bass parts before, and hadn’t planned to this time! The whole soundtrack is littered with strange and surprising sounds that are meshed together via my long-developed ‘unfolding’ aesthetic… And, in listening back to it now as I write, I remember that when I mixed it, I left in all the crackles and pops and artifacts that were present in the audio on the gig, because they were part of what Poppy would’ve ‘seen’ and therefor drawn… In a pure ‘album recording’ setting, I’d have probably edited some or processed them in other ways, but here, they’re all there as part of the sonic canvas (in case you want to do your own synaesthetic representations and draw from the same source!)  There is some video from this show around, so hopefully we’ll get that into a publicly releasable form soon, so you can see a little more of how it works!

I love this project so much, and I hope you get some sense of what’s happening from this. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see it live soon – we really need to do more of it (weirdly, the thing that’s holding it up is me getting clearance for the research bit of my PhD from the ethics department at the Uni!) keep an eye out, and hopefully see you at a show soon.

You can also read more about the Illuminated Loops project from Poppy’s perspective on her website – poppyporter.co.uk

 

Tags: New releases · Subscription news