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14 Questions About that Terrible Joni Mitchell Quote

February 12th, 2019 · No Comments

Yesterday, a graphic with a Joni Mitchell Quote went massively viral on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. Lots of my most brilliant and usually quite observant and clued in music friends were sharing it unquestioningly as a useful comment about the state of music now. The quote itself is apparently from 2004, and is as follows: 

“I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look at a willingness to cooperate. I thought, that’s interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to co-operate is what is necessary to be an artist – not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corportation, especially now, have nothing to do with art or music, that’s why I spend my time now painting” 

Joni Mitchell, quoted in the LA Times, Sept 5th 2004

So, perhaps not surprisingly, I take some issue with this. So here are 14 questions/comments you may want to ask yourself or reflect on about this before going ‘yeah, Joni! I’m taking up painting too!’ (though obviously, painting is a really really awesome way to spend your life, and in no way an inferior choice to making music…!)

1) who was this ‘someone from the music business’ and which bit of the music business were they in? Why is this one unnamed person’s pretty gruesomely commercial focus being held up as a template for understanding the motivations and behaviour of everyone in ‘the music business’?

2) what the hell is ‘the music business’. I’m in the music business, clearly this person’s thoughts don’t reflect on me… were they in publishing? Sync? A&R? Running a label? A sub-label? The ‘music business’ is gargantuan – finding a person with really terrible opinions within its bounds has never been hard.

3) For every renegade artist through the history of music, I’ll show you a thousand successful and often brilliant artists how had a certain look and were willing to co-operate. Frank Zappa was a total one off. Find me the label that launched 500 Frank Zappas and we can have a talk about Zappaism as a business model.

4) I adore Joni’s music – Hejira is my favourite record of all time, and she’s easily in the top 10 or so most significant musicians of the last 100 years, but when she was signed, she was a beautiful young acoustic guitar playing singer-songwriter in the golden age of acoustic singer/songwriters. She didn’t need to co-operate, she was exactly what they were looking for. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was what she could do after a decade as a global icon, not the demo that got her signed in the first place.

5) Why are co-operation and artistic vision contradictory? Why do we view wilful obscurantism as a virtue? How many artists are doing exactly what they want to do AND making commercially viable music? James Taylor wrote some of the most beautiful, singable, hummable music of all time. I don’t see that as a flaw in his creative plan.

6) The 70-80 year history of the recording industry is LITTERED with stories of records being rejected because of a lack of singles. Some dickhead sent back Three Feet High And Rising for not having a single on it. Listen to Wasted Years by Iron Maiden and tell me that’s not an obvious attempt to write a hit. Big Yellow Taxi is arguably Joni’s most famous song, and by far the most poppy thing she ever did. And it’s great! It’s not worse art because people loved it! You can’t rate art on its complexity, less still argue about the ethics of a multi-national business based on how insane their commercial choices are.

7) The Major labels were once the only game in town, at least if you had any concern for global success. That’s not the case now. Joni said this, apparently, in 2004. Even then, that was not the case. Marillion had already gone it alone and crowd-funded a record by then, Joni could’ve done literally anything to make a record, and the more outside the mainstream she did it, the more coverage she’d have got (x-ref Radiohead and In Rainbows)

8) Joni’s reasons for quitting music are, by her own extensive admission in many many interviews, WAY more complex than this. All of them are valid – her life and work are her own. The validity of her choices is not really up for discussion.

9) Looks and commercial success have always gone hand in hand. The idea that ‘a certain look’ is a new idea is specious revisionism.10) There has never EVER been a better time in human history to make recorded work as a musician, protect your vision AND negotiate a deal after the fact. Making records is orders of magnitude cheaper, labels do A&R via metrics now – look at Stormzy’s deal with Atlantic/Warner. He owns his entire operation, they just do the donkey work that he doesn’t need to do. But ‘recorded music’ is a tiny blip in the human timeline. Even if the model goes away, that’s not the end of anything. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world.

11) If this is about there being an absence of successful ‘risky’ pop music out there, please explain Janelle Monae, the last ATCQ album, most Grime, Bjork, Kate Tempest, DJ Shadow, etc. etc. etc. Some are on subsidiaries of majors, some are completely independent and wouldn’t accept a deal if they were offered it. That’s a GREAT thing. A wonderful situation.

12) On a daily basis I come across incredible music, so much I can’t keep track of it. The world is laden down with people making extraordinary art. There are people making incredible art who I saw sharing this insane meme, in seeming ignorance of their own careers being the evidence that this is nonsense. Commercial success has been the death of many, many people. Riches are rarely ultimately a blessing. Sustainability of artistic practice is the only concern I have here, so a reduced capacity for stardom and supreme wealth is not going to make me sad… 

13) being an artist is hard. It’s always been hard, that’s what makes the art so special. A handful of people who remember selectively isn’t the story we need to be hearing or re-telling. Sure, there’s less money in A&R and artist development from majors now. The whole landscape has changed. But more people are making more music in more places, and that’s a fundamentally good thing, unless you assume that by the divine right of kings you should have their audience as well. There’s also a lot less record label money being spent on coke, turning every charlied pop star into an insufferable self absorbed bankrupt arsehole. Every cloud has a dusty, silver lining…

14) go make some art. If that’s painting instead of music, that’s not a step down. Joni’s music is unassailably amazing. Her painting is also exquisite. I’m glad that she’s had the economic latitude in her life to pursue both of those dreams in such extraordinary ways. But please don’t take a dump in our paddling pool because things aren’t they way there were in the 70s…

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Steve’s Incomplete Guide to NAMM

January 18th, 2019 · 1 Comment

The NAMM show is on next week – for those who don’t know, NAMM stands for the ‘National Association of Music Merchants’ and the show is the world’s most important music gear trade show (it’s not the biggest, but it is the one where everyone launches their flagship products for the year and flies in their biggest endorsers.) It can be a huge amount of fun, and many of my favourite people in the world are brought together in one place for a weekend, so that’s great. But it’s also incredibly weird, and potentially a shitshow, so here in no particular order is my incomplete guide to how to behave at NAMM:

1) Listen to the person in front of you! It’s so tempting to keep one eye on who may be walking past, looking out for celeb sightings or people you’re trying to do a deal with. Ultimately, it just makes the person you’re talking to feel unwanted. If you genuinely have to be somewhere, just say so, don’t string people along. I’ve often described NAMM as “120,000 people lying to each other for a weekend” – and there’s so much in it that is false and meaningless. Avoid that. Give the person you’re talking to your attention, be as real and as kind as you can be, and carry yourself with some dignity… Likewise, wait your turn if someone is already in a conversation. Wait to be invited in (few things are more annoying than having a conversation about something that actually matters and having some numbnuts pile in and start hugging and high fiving you or the person you’re talking to with no awareness of what they’ve just interrupted). This isn’t primary school, behave like a reasonable person…

Steve Lawson with Vernon Paul and Morton

2) Don’t promise to go to everything. Factor in the time it’ll take you to get to places. Everyone at NAMM has unexpected encounters with friends and it messes up their schedule – that’s fine, obviously, but don’t go around promising to go see someone play or to go to an event or launch or whatever if you’re not going to show up. It just means you end up compounding the bullshit later when you see them again and start making up excuses. Put things in your calendar with at least a 10 minute buzzing notification so you can make decisions rather than piling up regrets at all the things you’ve missed…

3) If you’re not a buyer or a dealer, don’t expect manufacturers to prioritise conversations with you. This is one for artists – NAMM IS NOT ABOUT US! We are a vital and important part of the ecosystem, a big part of the mythology that fuels the whole shebang, but unless you’re Eddie Van Halen or Vinnie Colaiuta, you don’t take precedence over the dude from Iowa who needs to be convinced to stock your friend’s guitars/amps/pedals etc. Having a booth at NAMM is eye-wateringly expensive, and the companies are there to do business. If you do get some downtime with a friend there, great, they’ll be delighted to see you and talk to someone they know for 5 minutes, but as soon as someone with a buyer badge arrives, make yourself scarce, or if you know the builder well, offer to demo the product (and don’t be offended if they say no).

4) Eat a massive breakfast. Food in the convention centre is, well, convention centre food. It’s bogus. You can get out of the centre and go to Subway on the corner of Harbour and Katella (my food of choice for my first decade of NAMM – so much so that the manager recognised me and said hi every time I was in there for the next decade… 🙂 ) but I’d recommend a decent diner breakfast to get you through the day, and a snack at lunch time. Take it with you, so you don’t end up paying $8 for a slice of reheated pizza.

steve lawson with bryan beller at NAMM 09

5) Drink water! Loads of it. The air con in Anaheim is vicious and will destroy your voice in minutes. So drink water whenever you can. If you’ve got a friend on a booth that has loads of it, make regular stops. Bring a water bottle if you can to save on plastic, or reuse the first one you pick up – refill from a water fountain. NAMM is already a spectacular environmental disaster, try not to make it worse…

6) Be honest with people. This is perhaps the hardest of all of these things. The number of meaningless superlatives that get thrown about at NAMM ends up crushing you. If every person you meet is awesome and their music is the greatest and every guitar you try is perfect, and every amp is the greatest you’ve ever heard, you have literally no way of ever conveying an opinion that has any merit at all. NAMM is overflowing with people who’ve never learned that superlatives are best used in strict moderation, or they become utterly and irredeemably useless. I have a mental list of the people who every year tell me that I’m amazing and an inspiration, and I’m all too well aware that I hear or see nothing from them in the intervening 12 months – no social media comments or anything, and certainly no Bandcamp sales. So, vague rule of thumb: If it’s not something you’d part with cash for, if they aren’t a band you’d drop everything to go see if they come to your town, they aren’t ‘awesome’. There are other ways to make people feel loved and cared for beyond lying to them about the degree to which you’re invested in their life and work. You can be meaningfully and demonstrably delighted by your friends’ successes without trying to falsely insert yourself into that success. Be present, be honest and be compassionate.

7) Pace yourself. The history of NAMM is littered with people fucking their lives up for a weekend. Regional sales guys who suddenly think they’re in the Guns n Roses biography. It’s quite possible to have fun without getting wrecked and doing stupid shit. Look out for your friends too, especially if they’re new to this – NAMM is quite literally overwhelming. It’s unlike almost any other experience on earth – it’s a weekend in Vegas but with 10,000 hustling musicians trying to show off their musician-y-ness to each other. I have deep enduring friendships that I made at my first NAMM show in ’99, and people I still avoid because two decades ago they tried to drag me into their coke-fuelled hell. No. Don’t be a dick – rule #1 of human existence.

8) Feel free to step away from it all at regular intervals – get outside, go grab a coffee in a remote corner of hall E, go sit on the grass, or take an afternoon off to head over to the beach. It’s an utterly inhuman environment, in which a lot of human wonderfulness thrives despite the context not because of it. Be kind to yourself.

9) Watch out for the casual racism/sexism/homophobia/ableism. Politically, the wider context of NAMM is one of the most toxic environments on the planet. The position of women within many, many dudes’ understanding of what’s going on is ‘promotional eye candy’ – a huge number of the women there – regardless of their skills and experience – are essentially handed an ultimatum – look sexy, or stay away. Feel free to celebrate with the women who’ve carved out a space for themselves outside of that, but do not fall into the trap of either objectifying or vilifying those women whose work requires them to engage with that toxic bullshit. From the ‘booth babes’ (pro-tip – never use the term ‘booth babes’ about anyone ever) who hand out flyers and pose for pictures with provincial dudes to the artists who are ‘strongly encouraged’ to get overly glammed up in order to make any kind of headway in a world where male musicians are listened to and female musicians are gawped at. You WILL see a lot of that, and you will likely hear a bunch of hideous bullshit spewing from people with horrible opinions. Work out before you get there how you plan to deal with it – don’t be blindsided but also don’t be complicit. Offer solidarity, but also don’t commiserate with someone doing their job – just don’t reinforce the culture that limits their options. (it goes without saying that there are a lot of women who get glammed up because they LOVE it, and should be and ARE free to do that – that anyone might question their motives is a sign of just how toxic the environment is. If you assume that every woman looking glam is only doing it for ‘attention’ that’s as much a part of the problem as giving her marks out of 10 to your guitar-bro. Just treat all humans with dignity, and all musicians as fellow professionals. It’s not that hard, honest.)

10) Phone home. Stay in touch, stay grounded, talk to your partner and kids, get away from the mayhem to do it. E.T. understood this in the early 80s, and he was a fictional alien. As a real life human, it’s not beyond your abilities.

11) Wear VERY comfortable shoes. I’ve sometimes walked more than 10 miles a day at NAMM. The convention centre is huge and the events are often a few blocks away. Don’t get caught wearing shoes that you couldn’t comfortable do a quick 3 mile walk in, you’ll injure yourself. If your schtick requires showbiz shoes (I say his as someone who wore a fake-fur coat in the sweltering California heat for YEARS at NAMM), take some flats in your bag…

12) Bring earplugs! This was suggested by my lovely friend Sam over on FB – (he’s a many-year NAMM veteran, and can often be found playing crazy-fast jazz on upright on the booths of some of the sax and jazz guitar amp companies..) But yes, the ambient noise level at NAMM is pretty high and gets fatiguing – I’m not sure if the high percentage of that noise that is total bullshit makes it even more draining, but I like to think it does. So bring earplugs. Maybe even wear them all day. You’ll take them out at 6 o’clock and it’ll feel like a new day.

There you go – I may add to this over the weekend, so check back, or add your own tips in the comments… 🙂 

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A Reflection on Improv, Audiences and Recording

January 17th, 2019 · No Comments

My recorded output is divided sharply into live and “studio” recordings. The equipment and audio process are identical for them both but the presence of a live audience completely changes the experience. When I’m in the studio (such a professional sounding euphemism for “the corner of the bedroom”) my audience is me, my aesthetic decisions, my moment to moment assessment of what needs to happen to is made in relation to my own taste, in dialogue with my own history, with whatever I’ve been working on and the lingering shadows of whoever has been inspiring me of late.

steve lawson playing bass

But live, the audience are present on the music. I interpret their presence, I respond to who’s there, to the sounds and gestures that I’m aware of while playing, and to my projected imagining of what their experience is like. I play to them, and for them but also with them and I become them, projecting my own understanding of what my experience would be were I not the one with a bass in my hands…

Listening back to any recording is a fascinating exercise in time-shifting the audio record of that moment, live or studio, and re-experiencing it with its own extant nature as a factor instead of the sense of possibility that exists in the unfolding.

So recordings are a translation of that experience and its quite possible for something to “work” on the moment but not as a recording or vice versa to feel like a failure live and then blossom under scrutiny.



I’ve been listening to my latest solo album on the way to work this morning, which is without doubt my favourite thing I’ve ever recorded. It’s also the most “successful” thing I’ve released in many many years. I was trying to remember the experience of improvising it all and some of the performances are still vivid in my mind (aided by the video that exists on YouTube of the actual recordings 🙂 )



Anyway, here it is if you want to hear it – just remember that, first time through, you share the sense of becoming that I had as it emerged in the moment. Second time through, you’re experiencing something wholly new – improvised music that now exists in relation to the memory of itself.

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