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Favourite albums of 2014…

December 21st, 2014 | 1 Comment | Categories: music reviews

Over the last week or so I’ve read a whole load of different sources talking about the decline in music. Either the music economy has tanked or pop music is dead, or no-one’s buying albums, or only posh people make music…

Well, as an alternative to that, I think I’ve bought more new music this year than any year ever. And SO much of it is fabulous. Here’s my list of favourites from 2014, in absolutely no particular order:

  • Up – Stanley Clarke

I probably wouldn’t have bought this, for the simple reason that I’m buried under amazing new music. But I was sent it to go along with an interview that I did with Stanley for Bass Guitar Magazine (coming soon!) and I’m SO glad I heard it, cos it’s fabulous. Here’s an artist growing older, still learning, still evolving and having a whole lot of fun. It’s a wonderful album.

This one I discovered after meeting White Empress’ fabulous bassist Chela Rhea Harper at the Warwick Open Day in Germany in September. A fantastic extreme metal band, formed by Paul Allender who used to be in Cradle Of Filth. It avoids all the purile shock-tactics-that-appeal-to-12-year-olds bullshit that CoF traded in, and instead contains some incredibly progressive writing, more riffs than most metal bands’ entire careers, and of course some killer bass playing. Love it.

  • Goliath – Steve Taylor & The Perfect Foil

I backed this on Kickstarter about 10 years before it came out (or that’s what it felt like) – SO long awaited. Anything Steve Taylor does is hotly anticipated round here, and Goliath delivers on every level. Amazing songwriting, production, lyrics, everything. Love it.

Another artist getting better and better with every album. I wasn’t sure how Rosanne could top The List, but I guess by applying the same level of care and attention to an album of all-original material (as opposed to the all-covers remit of The List) she gets even deeper inside her own work. It’s astonishing, deep, beautiful. A remarkable album.

I’ll buy anything Polar Bear ever do without even hearing it first, such is my trust in Seb Rochford’s taste and judgement. This one has a lot more Leafcutter John on that before, and it’s for the good, if you ask me. They get further from anything people would normally associate with jazz with every release, but perhaps deeper into the experimental progressive tradition of jazz at the same time. Wonderful.

Also a contender for gig of the year, Phronesis are outliers in my listening taste, as I usually like my jazz languid, ambient, mellow, ECM-ish… They play frenetic, complex, heavily written jazz, though tend to avoid walking bass and straight-up swing tunes. Jasper Hoiby is an astonishing bassist and band leader, and I love everything I’ve heard from them.

Comeback of the year? Quite possibly. A brave, stark, amazing record. Neneh’s voice and therefor words are so exposed here, and the two-piece band provide an amazing, beguiling context for her songs. Amazing.

‘Jonatha Brooke makes amazing album’ isn’t really much of a surprise, but writing an amazing musical about your mother’s journey into dementia is something that raises an eyebrow even from Jonatha. How does that work? Buy it and find out. Another collection of amazing songs. Every little thing she does is magic.

The 2nd extreme metal album in my list, and the 2nd one influenced by meeting the bass player at the Warwick Open Day. Nick Schendzielos is the latest in a distinct line of fretless players in extreme metal bands, and has carved out a sonic space for himself in the band that adds SO much to the sound of the band. Complex, heavy as shit, and with a great deal of light and shade. One of my favourite extreme metal albums ever.

Anything by Julie is going to be great, right? Right. In Marco, she’s found the perfect writing partner/foil. They compliment each other brilliantly, and Marco’s fretless alongside Julie’s signature riff ideas works perfectly. Fusion from the future.

  • Now – Gary Husband/Alex Machacek

I had SUCH high hopes for this, and it exceeded even those. Two musicians at the very top of their respective trees worldwide. Piano and elec guitar duets with just the right amount of additional manipulation from Alex. Love this so much.

Dan’s last project, Modular, is one of the greatest things I’ve ever bought on Bandcamp. So this was a must. And it’s great. A lil’ bit Frisell, a lil’ bit Torn, a big bit Phelps. Incredible instrumental guitar writing.

Another contender for metal album of the year – instrumental extreme metal, with a strong streak of classic rock harmony guitar running through it. The first of two great albums this year with Alex Webster on bass…

From the ashes of Little Fish comes Candy Says. Grown up disco pop perfection.

Ben channelling everything that was great about singer/songwriters in the 70s through the lens of the tracks that he sang lead on in Everything But The Girl. At least as good as you’d imagine that to be, possibly better.

About as mature and assured a debut album as you’ll ever hear. Acoustic singer/songwriter with just enough vaudeville/murder ballad/Nick Cave/Tom Waits-iness to give it an edge. Properly beautiful, and not even out yet :)

Jonas exploring further the intersection between improvised music, metal and indian music. With utterly stunning results.

  • Mira – Arild Andersen, Paolo Vinaccia, Tommy Smith

Sax, bass, drums. Spacious, exquisitely written and recorded, and by far my favourite Tommy Smith recording ever. Arild as amazing as ever. Includes the theme tune from Alfie. True story.

Lou’s vocals are SO refreshingly devoid of all the hystrionic fauxmotional melisma of every post Aguilera/Whitehouse female singer, it’s like a palette cleanser. Lamb do what Lamb do better than pretty much anyone.

Loud, angry, scary, dark, relentless. Pretty much everything you’d expect.

  • Black Messiah – D’Angelo

Album of the year? Quite possibly. An astonishing, audacious, near-perfect comeback, dropped at a days’ notice in mid December. Questlove and Pino have never sounded so great. Adore this so so much.

The all-acoustic version of this record was already one of my favourite albums of the last 5 years, but was never released. Andrew’s since taken it and added all kinds of other instruments, layers, production, and has lost none of the magic. He keeps making astonishing records. And there are a number of songs here that make me cry. So that’s good.

  • Roam – Trevor Exter

Trevor plays cello and sings. Here he does just those two things to stunning, world-beatingly great effect. Another contender for album of the year.

more amazing jazz that originates from the UK. Bassist Ruth Goller is one of my favourite bass playing musicians on the planet, and is also one of very few musicians whose presence on a recording makes it worth listening to purely due to her being there. A dizzying mix of heavy writing and heavy improv with some stellar guitar playing. And Ruth’s killer bass.

Cannibal Corpse’s only competition ever is their own back catalogue. They’re in a league of one. And this is definitely their best *sounding* record ever, and one of my favourites compositionally too. They just keep getting better. Which after 25 years as a resolutely non-progressive death metal band, is a truly unique and remarkable feat.

Imagine how great an album of two banjo players, one of them also singing, could possibly be, and multiply that. By six.

There you go. Something for everyone :)

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Bandcamp and the New EU Vat LAW…

December 16th, 2014 | 1 Comment | Categories: New Music Strategies

Right, finally, a follow-up with some clarification after my last post and all the edits. This may not end up being the last word on the subject – we’re still pushing for an 11th hour change to the law, or at least a year’s delay while people work out how the hell to comply with this. There are an awful lot of businesses that can’t deal with this at all…

Anyway, the important bit for us is Bandcamp’s updated info on tax.

https://bandcamp.com/help/selling

Go read it. All if it. It’s important stuff. [Read more →]

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Selling Downloads of Your Music In The UK? Read This:

November 17th, 2014 | 34 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies

[final EDIT: read the follow-up post here, with Bandcamp’s new tax info – http://www.stevelawson.net/2014/12/bandcamp-and-the-new-eu-vat-law/ ]

[another EDIT: Read this by Rachel Andrew: http://rachelandrew.co.uk/archives/2014/11/25/how-small-companies-and-freelancers-can-deal-with-the-vatmoss-eu-vat-changes/  it’s looking more and more like there is no loophole, unless you a) stop selling downloads to people in the EU or b) distribute your ‘downloads’ via physical media. Read on for the historic discussion, my initial understanding, and the comments thread that is helping to make sense of this…]

I’ve been somewhat aware of this for a while now, and couldn’t quite believe that a piece of legislation so utterly insane was actually going through.

The laws around paying VAT (Value Added Tax) and ‘Supplying Digital Services‘ within the EU are changing, as of January 1st 2015, and it may well affect you. Here it is, as I understand it thus far (I asked the Musician’s Union what their position on this is and they say they’re going to be providing info to members in December). If you have more info, please include it in the comments [EDIT: especially if you work in tax law/accounting: For clarity's sake, I'm NOT a tax expert or lawyer, so my interpretation of the legal situation should be viewed in that light, but I have been dealing with my own tax affairs for 20 years, without the help of an accountant, so am definitely in the 'experienced amateur' camp here]

  • WHO DOES THIS AFFECT? Anyone who sells music downloads (or eBooks/videos/any other digital product) off their own website.
  • WHAT DO THE CHANGES MEAN? For a full exploration using software companies as an example, see this brilliant post by Rachel Andrew. [EDIT: and this follow up piece by Rachel about implementation]
    In short, the arrangements around selling digital products to people in the EU are now defined by the country the customer is in rather than you. Meaning you’ll need to be registered for VAT no matter how much you earn, if you sell your music direct from your website. This means you’ll have to charge (and pay) VAT on ALL your work unless you set up a company to sell your digital products that’s distinct from your self employed business as a musician/teacher etc. You’ll also have to file a quarterly VAT return (which is WAY harder than a self assessment form). In short, it’ll ruin your business.
  • IS THERE A LOOPHOLE? YES.

This is the important paragraph on the government’s page describing the new arrangement:

Supplies via internet portals, gateways or marketplaces

If you supply digital services to consumers through an online portal, gateway or marketplace then it’s important to determine whether you’re making the supply to the customer or to the platform operator. Where the platform operator sets the general terms and conditions, authorises payment or delivery, or doesn’t clearly state the name of the supplier on the receipt or invoice issued to the consumer, then they’ll be seen as making the B2C supply even if they’re contractually only an agent.

What this means is that if you sell your music via another service, you’re OK. If you sell it via a ‘hand-rolled’ site (off your own server with your own CMS), you’re screwed. So this means that iTunes, Amazon and crucially Bandcamp sales are all exempt [EDIT: see comments for an exploration of this...] . Those sites are all platforms that “set the general terms and conditions, authorise payment or delivery” .

So, if you sell your music direct from your site, you may want to switch to Bandcamp for your sales, or get your VAT situation in order. The same goes for eBooks (I use Leanpub) and Video (any suggestions, please put them in the comments)

 

You may also want to sign this petition to provide an exemption to this very, very stupid piece of legislation. Cos it’s going to royally mess things up for so many creatives and small businesses.

 

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The Evolution of Sound

November 13th, 2014 | No Comments | Categories: Uncategorized

‘This is a journey into sound…’ – thus sampled Eric B and Rakim. That’s pretty much the definition of my musical journey thus far. Perhaps because I’ve always been drawn to texture as much as to harmony and melody in music, it was inevitable that I’d end up pursuing an approach to music that put the sonic palette on an equal – or often superior – footing to the notes… The development of my technique was always primarily about tone rather than dexterity. Switching to playing melodies on my fretless bass with the side of my thumb slowed me down a LOT, but gave me the sound I was looking for, so it stuck as my dominant technique. Using the Ebow and the slide, while quirky-looking on stage, result in music that is generally more languid and moved my music further away from the muscular fusion many expected from a solo bassist back in the late 90s.

As a result, my gear choices have also been mostly governed by the possibility to broaden, deepen and enrich that same palette of sounds. To give me a broader base of colours to paint with, a greater range of contrasting textures with which to create the layers in my looped improvisations and compositions. Indeed, the very definition of a ‘composition’ for many of my solo pieces was ‘key plus set sequence of sounds’ – they were improvisations as far as the specific notes were concerned, but the sequence of sounds to be layered was way more consistent.

The 20 year (thus far) journey into that particular set of priorities has lead to a few interesting outcomes – I’ve mostly had wonderful relationships with the companies whose equipment I use, and have been able to have useful practical input into the development of quite a few unique products and product developments over the years. It has also meant – in combination with the platform my journalistic work gives me – that I punch WAY above my weight in terms of the influence I have over other people’s perceptions of music gear. That’s a responsibility I take very seriously, given the potential for someone to invest an awful lot of money in gear at least partially directed by my own choices.

For that reason, I tend to only change my gear when the sound dictates that it be the wisest choice. I’ve avoided paid jobs as ‘the demo guy’ – partly because it’s just not a job I want, but also because they’ve never been offered for the gear I really believe in. I’ve had long standing relationships with a small number of companies that I work with. The one area of my rig that HAS changed the most over the years – and even then only when the music demanded it – is amplification.

It’s also, not coincidentally, one of the areas of music gear development that has changed most in the last 15 years. The advent of super light, efficient, powerful, full spectrum bass cabinets, and REALLY great sounding lightweight power amps was a long time coming, but we’re definitely in that age now.

I’ve always been fascinated by the conversation about amps, and was for a time pre-occupied with the notion of things being ‘flat’ – I wanted uncoloured sound, just my sound back through a loud lightweight amp. With that in mind, I switched to a high-end pro audio PA set up about 7 years ago, leaving ‘bass’ amps behind for a couple of years.

The need for more volume – and the advent of the Markbass combos that I’ve been using for the last few years – brought me back to bass amps, and a sound that was definitely not ‘flat’ but was ‘full range’ and has a tonal imprint I liked.

Freed from the tyranny of spec sheets and response graphs, I was able to explore the notion of ‘good’ sound without the interference of notions of ‘correct’ sound. That was helpful.

If you’ve seen any of the pictures I’ve posted of late of my rig, or seen me live over the last month or so, you’ll see that I’m now using an Aguilar amp set-up… ‘dude, I thought you really dug the Markbass combos??’ said lots of bass players. And I do. They haven’t suddenly stopped sounding good. They’re cool amps that definitely did the job.

So how did the Aguilar thing come about?

Dave and Justin at Aguilar have been friends of mine for over 15 years. we go back to my very first NAMM show in 1999 – they are great friends that I care about a great deal and hang with as much as possible. As a clear testimony to their integrity, neither of them over the years tried to get me to switch amps, but after using an Aguilar house rig at the jam night at this years London Bass Guitar Show, I was interested to find out what they would sound like for my solo stuff – it’s one thing having an amp that sounds great for ‘normal’ bass playing, it’s quite another to be able to handle the huge array of sounds I make, and to deal with all the other instruments that go through any system I use on collaborative gigs (including electronic drums, and vocalists!)

So I arranged to try a rig out – the SL112 cabinets and Tone Hammer 350 heads that I now have. A stereo rig, the same as I’ve had since 2003.

I set them up to A/B them with my existing set-up, and was absolutely blown away. I had NO idea they’d sound the way they did. Clear, full, warm, present… just amazing. Exactly what I was looking for. It was very much a case of not knowing that I wanted to change – I hadn’t really felt unhappy with my other system, but on a straight A/B, the suitability for my music was clearly with the Aguilar rig. I ran iTunes through it, to hear what it was like for full-range playback. Added a very slight EQ in my MOTU Ultralight and found that it sounded richer and clearer than even my (admittedly rather cheap) studio monitors. Like a high end 70s Wharfedale hifi. Properly jaw-dropping stuff.

This experience was confirmed again and again as friends and colleagues and students got to experience the sound. Wide eyes and big smiles were the unanimous reaction.

So I found myself changing amps for the first time in a lot of years. I’ve never been a fan of changing gear for the sake of it, I’ve never tried to deal with frustrations in my playing by getting new toys. It’s only when a clear and obvious choice to move to something that better represents the sound I hear in my head is presented that I’m left having to shift.

I’m deeply grateful to Markbass and Markaudio for the many years of great bass sounds (and am still utterly reliant on their MiniDIST overdrive pedal every single time I play), but if you see me playing shows from now on, you’ll perhaps be able to hear why I made the switch to the greatest sounding bass amp I’ve ever played through.

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Why The Major Labels Love Spotify

November 11th, 2014 | 4 Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies

Oh yes, another blog post about Spotify. Just what the world needs. I’ll try [edit: and fail] to keep it brief.

There seems to be, at the moment, a massive gulf between the opinion of many artists-still-making-music and the labels that many of them are signed to. The major labels LOVE it. But artists are talking about Spotify as a wholly bad thing for artists – not enough money… ‘free’ music is bad… Rosanne Cash (a woman for whom I have an enormous amount of respect as an artist, writer, thinker and human) called Spotify ‘legalised piracy’. Why the gulf?

Here’s my take - The financial world of the major labels has, for a LONG time, been focused on back catalogue – music that’s already been successful. Reselling something that’s already in the public consciousness is WAY cheaper than marketing new, untested music. Licensing old tracks is also easier, because people know them. And there’s the simple question of scale.

Reality check: for the Majors, the vast majority of the music they will ever release has already been released. [Read more →]

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More (long) thoughts on subscription services.

October 28th, 2014 | No Comments | Categories: New Music Strategies

Right, now the subscription is up there, we can have a chat about what it might mean, right?

After all, the word “subscription” has become somewhat tainted amongst musicians by the conversation around Spotify’s pricing model. Little work seems to have been done to look at what in particular people are listening to on Spotify and the degree to which its impact on sales is asymmetric (sales lost and streams gained not being to the same people) not to mention the whole ‘correlation or causation’ conundrum. But generally, lots of musicians are now thinking subscribing to ‘everything’ = booo!! hissss!!

So what does it mean to subscribe to just one artist rather than ‘nearly all music’, and what kind of artists and their listeners are going to benefit from this?

First up, it’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t new. It’s new to Bandcamp, and as a service integrated with the Bandcamp platform, it may well end up being revolutionary, but the idea has evolved from the pioneering work of quite a few people, not least of all (as is so often the case) Kristin Hersh, whose Strange Angels supporters club is exactly this – an annual subscription members club that gives those subscribers access to all kinds of things. Her pricing is tiered, so you can get all kinds of awesome exec perks if you pay a tonne of cash, but for not very much you can get a whole load of music and sometimes cheaper tickets at gigs, things like that. For someone as prolific as Kristin (she has three main projects on the go – her solo work, Throwing Muses and 50 Foot Wave) it’s the ideal way to not be reliant on the vagaries and speculation of the standard model of

  • borrow money,
  • make a record,
  • hope it sells,
  • wait to recoup before doing the next one,
  • or just pile up the debt in the hope you get a track on a film soundtrack and clear the decks at some point’ deal…

[Read more →]

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The Future Is Here: Bandcamp Steve Lawson Subscription Launched!

October 23rd, 2014 | 2 Comments | Categories: Music News · New Music Strategies

This is some SERIOUSLY exciting news. Partly because it’s just an amazing bit of news, but also because of the half a million or so artists on Bandcamp, I’m one of the first 2 or 3 to get to try this out.

Which means that YOU get to be part of this experiment in the future of music. In keeping music alive, in turning back the (quite possibly non-existent and hugely missplaced) tide of despair about ‘the way things are going’.

Here it is – £20 a year, and you get my 10 solo albums for free when you sign up!

 

This model works SO perfectly for me – since I started releasing almost everything as ‘digital only’ the ‘per album’ model was a compromise at best. It didn’t make sense for things to have a ‘unit value’ like that.

What this allows me to do if focus on making as many varied and wonderful musical projects as I can. You get more music, don’t have to worry about having ‘already spent enough’… you pay for it all in one lot, ahead of time, and get as much as I can make.

Subscribing becomes a club of sorts:

  • there’ll be access to cheaper gig tickets wherever possible
  • other subscriber only releases
  • merch
  • snacks*

(*probably not snacks)

At the moment I’m putting together a subscriber only album of things that are currently only streamable on Soundcloud or Youtube. I get asked ALL the time about releasing them, and this is where they’ll go. If you want them, subscribe.

This Is The Future

This Is Sustainability

This Is Exciting

You Get To Partner With Me

More Music Will Happen.

Sign up here: http://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe

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Why the ‘no platinum albums’ story in the US probably doesn’t mean the sky is falling.

October 21st, 2014 | 1 Comment | Categories: New Music Strategies

There’s one story that’s been circulating a lot over the last few days amongst musicians on social media“2014 is first year ever with ZERO platinum-certified records” – it tells us that 2014 is (barring some kind of unforseen massive sales surge) the first year ever (ever??? no.) when no single band has had a platinum selling record. In the US. Even though the Frozen soundtrack has sold 3 Million copies.

Meanwhile, 60 songs HAVE sold a million copies in the US.

So what does this tell us? Without some much deeper analysis, not much. [Read more →]

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Birmingham solo gig, with Vicki Genfan, Sept 28th!

August 30th, 2014 | No Comments | Categories: Uncategorized

Right, after months of awesome collaborative playing, with Andy Edwards, Julie Slick, Briana Corrigan, Jem Godfrey et al, I’ve finally got another solo gig in Birmingham, on a double bill with one of my favourite guitarists in the world, Vicki Genfan:

You’re familiar with Vicki, right? Wait, what? Some of you aren’t?? Wow, OK. Try this:

Yeah, she’s amazing. Oh, and she sings:

Vicki and I have played on the same bill a few times over the last decade, and hung out whenever we can. She’s a great friend, musical inspiration, and YOU REALLY DON’T WANT TO MISS THIS. Trust me.

Click here to buy tickets from Bandcamp.

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First recording by me, Jem Godfrey, Andy Edwards…

August 14th, 2014 | 3 Comments | Categories: Music News

So, our new as-yet-unnamed trio had its debut gig last Sunday, as you know. And it went very well. Here’s the proof – this is the entire first set, starting out with me solo, joined by Jem then Andy. This is mixed and mastered but wholly unedited:

More soon!

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