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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Making Time For Music

October 1st, 2018 | 2 Comments | Categories: Uncategorized |

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.

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2 Comments so far ↓

  • edward

    thanks for your thoughts. I always enjoy your perspective. And to add , your encouragement has lead me thru some frustrating moments with this whole music thing.

    • Steve

      thans Edward (and thanks for subscribing! 🙂 ) – I’m really humbled to be able to help you through some of those moments. I have my own strategies and people who provide guidance and encouragement when I hit those moments, so am delighted to be able to pass that on a little…


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