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Entries Tagged as 'New Music Strategies'

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

What Does It Mean To Do Your Own Thing?

February 22nd, 2018 · Comments Off on What Does It Mean To Do Your Own Thing?

Light and Shade
High and Low
Fast And Slow
Loud and Soft
Harsh and Mellow
Tension and Resolution
Inside and Outside
Sound and Silence

…the spread of options can be seen both in a micro and macro senses. It’s OK (caveat – of course, anything’s OK, it’s your creative practice here… but Imma try not to get bogged down in overly-explanatory language) to say ‘actually, my role within the scope of things happening in my field is to explore only shade.’ You don’t have to do everything or be everything. Your art is not a school science project to be graded on a set of learning outcomes.

BUT. As orthodoxies and modes of practice within particular disciplines emerge and coalesce around a limited set of expressive options, the invitation is built into that to transgress, explore, colour outside the lines, stay INSIDE the lines when everyone else is going nuts… Your practice is yours, but it exists within an ecosystem that’s partly of your own choosing and partly in the perception and experience of your audience. You can opt to ignore that and be ‘true to yourself’ or however you want to frame it, but when everyone is ploughing the same furrow, your seemingly radical notions are seen in that light.

An example – when I first started playing solo with a looper, a ton of (obviously inexperienced) people thought I’d invented it. Like I was the first person to ever do that. Even to those who had come across it before as an idea, there were very few who could name another solo artist using a looper, and even fewer who had ever seen someone play like that. It was, in short, a killer gimmick. I used to do this schtick where in the second tune in my set (back when I played compositions with actual names n shit) and go to the bar, leaving all the loops running. The trick was that it didn’t sound like just a loop going round and round, but because I had enough unsynced loops going, it could sustain interest as a performance without me adding anything for the 90-120 seconds it took me to go the bar, get a drink and rejoin my toys on stage. Ta-daaaa! 

By the time KT Tunstall appeared on Jools, that gimmick was dead. It was no longer a big reveal. A ton of people were looping by then, Imogen Heap was doing amazing shit with it, and YouTube was happening so people could see all the old footage of Michael Manring and David Torn and David Friesen and Eberhard Weber and Robert Fripp and Bill Frisell and a ton of other people doing extraordinary looping-enhanced performances from WAY before I started doing it… If I’d stuck with the gimmick, with the fact that for my audience it had been a new and novel thing, I’d still be wearing those clown shoes now and be looking like a massive bellend. When Lo and I did a gig with Ed Sheeran in 2007/8, he still had this whole ‘look at me, I’m looping!’ moment in his set. We were on before him, with a much more sophisticated take on the whole looping thing and it stole the thunder out from that moment. However, he had a ton more going for him, so it didn’t spoil his gig at all – he wasn’t reliant on that gimmick for ‘the sell’. (And he was about 12 or something at the time. His mum picked him up after the gig 🙂 )

Anyway, be aware of the way the wind is blowing, and take note of prevailing trends and orthodoxies. If you stick with them, you’ve got to do them in a way that makes your work something other than a hazy reflection of someone else’s work. Doing your own thing doesn’t require you to be wilfully obscure. Conspicuous originality is a deeply overrated and misunderstood notion. Plagarism is, after all, way harder than you imagine. But it also takes

  • some deliberate intent
  • some deep breaths and a commitment to an exploration that might not come to much immediately
  • to be able to go out on a limb and build on those other innovations
  • to take your art to a new place, to see the thing that’s happening from a alternate vantage point
  • To bring your life, experience, skills and curiosity to bear on what’s going on in your field.

All of those things can be fed, nurtured and brought into your work in fascinating ways. There are no guarantees of brilliance or acclaim or financial reward (in fact, the opposite is demonstrably the case, that by far the biggest chunk of money in the arts economy goes to the safe and the derivative, with a number of notable exceptions) but as human beings, doing mediocre things for money is how we got in this mess in the first place. There is no creative or artist reason to pursue anything less than excellence. Now, go be extraordinary – even if you miss, the journey will be worth it.

Tags: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

The Bandcamp Subscription Gets An Upgrade

January 11th, 2018 · Comments Off on The Bandcamp Subscription Gets An Upgrade

…Well, to be honest, the upgrade has already happened. What’s happening is the price is going up a little to reflect that 🙂 (read on to find out how to get in on it 30% off for ever!)

When I launched the Bandcamp subscription service a little over three years ago, it came with my (then) 11 Solo albums and the promise of two more public albums and two subscriber-only albums a year. That was a pretty cool offer, and £20 felt like the point where the value was obvious to anyone who liked what I did.

Fast forward 3 years and there are now 30-something albums in there that you get *straight away* when you sign up, and in the last 12 months, I’ve released 9 albums, and an exclusive book, and a ton of video… So we’re talking about a whole other level of offering.

One of the weird things about us as humans living in capitalism is that we value things based on how expensive they are. I’m constantly being told by people that I should charge more for bass lessons, and that I’d get loads more students if I did. I’m not putting my teaching price up again, because I’m not in it to make as much as I possibly can, but there’s something about the price reflecting the offering that we innately connect with. So the price of a new subscription is going up. To £30. Still crazy-great value, and still an amount that keeps me on my toes planning all the incredible projects that the money from it makes possible.

But here’s the amazing thing – whatever level you join at when you start your subscription is where you stay. If you’re signed up for £20 a year, it’ll stay there until you unsubscribe.

AND IF YOU SIGN UP NOW, BEFORE NEXT WEDNESDAY, YOU’LL BE ABLE TO STAY AT £20 FOR THE DURATION OF THE SUBSCRIPTION. Click here to subscribe now.

I’ve said a million times that the subscription is the at the root of my sustainability as an artist. Because gigs and recordings are basically the same thing for me as an improvisor, it’s the subscription that makes all the shows and the recordings of those shows possible. It’s the subscription that pays for plug-ins that mean I do better mixing and mastering, that pay for pedals and software and the TIME to plan things. TIME – that most elusive of commodities. The one that we’re so so bad at quantifying and valuing as artists. Well, y’all make it possible for me to invest time in making better records for you. This is plan A, and right now there is no plan B.

So, go sign up right now, and get a lifetime of music for 30% less than it’ll be if you wait til next week. And if you’ve previously been subscribed and have for whatever reason ended your subscription, now’s a great time to rejoin the party and find out what’s been happening while you’ve been gone!

Tags: Music News · New Music Strategies

New Music, Nostalgia And The Music Economy – Some Thoughts

October 26th, 2017 · 1 Comment

[caveat – it’s half term and I have a 7 year old asking me weird and amazing questions every 30 seconds, so this may not be as concise as it could’ve been, but you’re not paying me to write it, so read on 😉 ]

Some questions

  • When did you last pay for music by someone you know?
  • Do you pay for a streaming service? Does that feel like it’s “enough” because they say that a large percentage of the money they take in goes back to rights holders?
  • Have you ever worked out what that’s worth and whether it reflects what you would like to see happen for the musicians you know?
  • When did you last buy an old album, something you loved when you were a kid, reissued, remixed, repackaged? How does your spending on reissues compare to your spending on new music?
  • How much of your music listening time is spent on music you already know and love vs discovery
  • Bonus question: When did you last describe someone online as awesome/genius/amazing that you would have no real intention of investing any time or resources in?

Don’t answer these in the comments – that’s really not the point. The questions are the beginning of a line of questioning that is designed to help us throw some light at how we understand the music economy today.

Here are a few statements I see on a fairly regular basis:

  • “no-one pays for music any more”
  • “streaming services are destroying the music industry”
  • “streaming is the future of the music industry”
  • “Google are making it impossible to be a professional musician, there’s just no money left in music”
  • “Piracy has destroyed the music industry”
  • “There’s too much music these days”

So here are some thoughts to try and connect the series of questions at the top with the statements at the bottom. [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies

Bandcamp Subscription Primer – Your Questions Answered!

August 7th, 2017 · 1 Comment

Right, as you no doubt no by now, the Bandcamp artist subscription service has become my primary way of making music available. I’ve had the subscription for 3 years, and in that time have released more music than in the previous 15 years combined. None of it has been ‘demos’ or bootlegs – I just have a music life that results in an awful lot of finished albums. The history of music is littered with great records that were recorded in a single session, live off the floor, and that’s how all my music is made, whether solo or collaborative – and because of the way I’ve built my live rig (after 15 years of tweaking/upgrading/refining), I can get a studio quality multitrack recording of every gig. If I was in a band that played the same set each night, that would result in a single live album, edited from the best bits of the tour, once a year or so. But because I improvise, every gig is potentially an album – and I tend to choose fabulous people to play with, so that ups the likelihood that it’s going to end up being released.

So, the subscription is how you get all of that – it’s just not possible, without several pseudonyms and a full time press team – to do a full, advertised, radio-supported album release for every single one of them. Certainly not to put them out on CD or vinyl. So the subscription means that you don’t have to scrabble around for info about new releases, and I don’t have to waste money advertising a new album every 7 or 8 weeks 🙂

But I know a few of you are still unsure how it works, so here’s a few bullet points that will hopefully answer your questions:

  1. The subscription is NOT renting the music. Streaming services like Spotify charge you a monthly service to be able to stream their music. If you stop paying, you lose access to the premium aspects of the service, and if you close your account, you lose all the playlists and information that you’ve curated. With my subscription, you own the music – you can download it all in whatever format you like, and it’s yours for ever. If you lose it (stolen phone, crashed hard drive) you can download it all again from Bandcamp without paying any more money, whether or not you’re still a subscriber. YOU OWN IT.
  2. Bandcamp is, however, also a streaming service. The Bandcamp app gives you access to everything you’ve bought in Bandcamp, and acts as an amazing discovery service too – you can search the whole of Bandcamp via the app, and listen to albums that way, and you get a feed of everything that the people whose fan accounts you follow are buying. So if you follow people with excellent taste, there’s a ready-made recommendation engine there. So when you’re out and about, you don’t have to download all 30 albums (or however many it is now!) to your computer and copy all of that over to your phone – you can just stream it direct from the app, and pick and choose from any of the subscriber music, without the need to pre-plan it.
  3. But you can also download the same music in multiple formats – so, if you want a lossless version for your computer at home, but the MP3 for your phone (to save on data by not streaming) that’s all good – you can get both versions. Like I said, it’s yours.
  4. The main purpose of the subscription is to make more music possible. The main focus of the mainstream recording industry is not, in case you were wondering, promoting and selling brand new music. The massive value in their model is in re-selling you access to things you already love. That’s why Spotify works for them – to a large extent, people are paying again to stream music they already own and love. Spotify is a convenience, that has new music thrown in too. But it makes way more sense if your album sold 10 million copies 25 years ago than it does if you’re trying to recoup on a brand new album, without all of that historic investment in your music. Here, my back catalogue is offered to you as part of the subscription so you can catch up. There’s some amazing music in there – I’m deeply proud of all if it, and the journey that it charts through the last couple of decades – but the exciting stuff is what’s still to come. The £20 a year is to make that possible, not to try and squeeze additional money out of music that already exists. I’m less interested in creating ‘passive income’ than I am in making it viable to perform, record and release new music that moves this story forward. So your £20 a year is what makes that possible.
  5. It’s OK to unsubscribe and resubscribe. This happens a bit. The first year’s offering is massive. 30 albums of anyone is a crazy amount of music. How many artists do you own 30 albums by? I think for me there are about 5 artists. I don’t even know many artists with a catalogue that big. Certainly not niche improvisors like me 🙂 So, you may find yourself after 12 months with enough music. At that point, it’s OK to give it a while before subscribing again. Of course, I’d rather you stayed on board – every subscriber helps to keep the thing viable – but I’m not trying to trick you into staying. I will say, though, that if you unsubscribe, you won’t necessarily get all the music that was released in between when you re-subscribe – quite a few albums are now available to current subscribers for a month, and then removed from the subscription – mostly so the people I’m collaborating with can make some money from that music too! But those are available elsewhere if there’s anything you particularly love, and they’re rarely more than £5. Or you can buy the USB Stick of everything, should that have the missing recordings on it! Or you can stay on board but take a sabbatical from listening to the new stuff. As it’s all yours to own for ever, there’s no time limit on download it. And £20 a year to keep it all flowing into your account is, as the Americans say, chump change 😉
  6. It’s also OK to unsub and immediately resubscribe in order to change the amount you’re paying. Some people put in an amount much bigger than the minimum £20 when they first sign up. Lots of those people are happy to keep paying that amount. But if you get to the end of the first year, and want to move back to the £20 minimum going forward, it’s easy enough to unsubscribe and resubscribe at the lower rate. Likewise (and even more wonderfully!) it’s possible to do the opposite – to unsub and resubscribe at a higher rate, if the value proposition is one that you think is worth more than the minimum you paid in the first year.
  7. I don’t currently have a plan B. This is the best possible way I’ve come across for me to keep the music making viable. To be able to collaborate as widely as I do, to do proper, careful, beautiful mixes and mastering on every one of these recordings takes a lot of time, and I just wouldn’t be able to do it if I was sticking half of it up on Soundcloud or YouTube or even releasing it to iTunes etc… The ongoing funding model here means that you’re not having to pay £8 for every album that comes out, and I’m not having to spend thousands marketing this stuff to an audience that need convincing of the value of each individual album.
  8. I love you all. I really do. The subscribers, past, present and future, are the people who make my music life possible, who create a world where other artists can look at what’s going on here and see a different, new way to make their music, to not get lost in a system where you’re supposed to spend ten grand on a record and twenty grand marketing it and then tour the same 10 songs for a year while filling your YouTube channel with twee covers in the hope that people will hear them and want to buy your album. Nope, there’s a better way – there’s deeper magic to be had, that means we still get to support niche art, art that’s made without an eye on the charts, that’s not beholden to a record label’s promotional schedule, but which results in some amazing music that helps us soundtrack and make sense of this rapidly changing world.

[Read more →]

Tags: Music News · New Music Strategies

How My Bandcamp Subscription Kickstarted My Creative Path

June 16th, 2017 · Comments Off on How My Bandcamp Subscription Kickstarted My Creative Path

The last two years have been some of the most musically productive of my entire life. The sense that both my solo playing and my collaborative work have taken a significant leap forward is palpable. At least for me. I’m happier with the music I’m making that I’ve ever been, and also have a clearer sense of where I want it to go than at any time since perhaps the run up to Grace And Gratitude in 2004…

I started my Bandcamp subscription three years ago so that I would have a way of releasing more music than could possibly fit into a ‘normal’ release schedule. I was putting music on Soundcloud and YouTube that I would much rather have been able to properly ‘release’, to make available within the framing of an album or single release – the way that we label these things and the stakes we place in the ground when we declare something worthy of both attention and money have a significant impact on our relationship with art. WAY too much of our music lives have become a process of flitting from one YouTube or Instagram vid to another, vacillating between nostalgia and novelty as we fill up the time we used to spend building relationships with art and artists with what mostly functions as a distraction. So the Subscription service was not only an economic experiment but a cultural one:

  • What happens if a body of work is seen as a thing to sign up to and support, with money and attention?
  • What does it mean to release music as a self-contained entity with its own story, rather than as part of a fragmented timeline of adverts for something else, a quest for that nebulous ephemeral notion of ‘exposure’ or virality…
  • Does me valuing my work enough to frame it like this have any resonance with the people who listen to it? How much of it is going to connect?
  • How easy will it be to convince people that releasing anywhere between 5 and 10 albums-worth of music a YEAR isn’t just a pile of demos for a ‘proper’ release every 18 months, but is actually part of a new (but also old) way of thinking about music releases (John Coltrane’s catalogue includes 62 studio and live recordings with him as leader, and numerous side projects, recorded in 10 years – it wasn’t always the norm to put out one album every 2 years)
  • What does having a release mechanism for more music do to the economics of gigging and recording? Because, based on anecdotal evidence, a large number of my musician friends lose money on making and promoting albums. They’re throwing all kinds of strategies at it, and spending money on whatever looks like it’ll be a good idea, but ultimately hoping that somewhere along the line, the expenditure will turn into a critical mass of listeners that means they can do gigs and make records and not end up homeless…

I’ve said before, and I’ll keep saying it til people realise it’s true, this is the golden age for improvising musicians. We have better resources for documenting, sharing and selling our music than at any time in history. We’re not ladened down with the pressures of spending two years writing a record, or spending months in the studio before rewriting all the songs and having to start again. We have none of that in our history and mythology, and it’s certainly not a prerequisite to our day to day practice.

And I’ve spent the last two decades of my daily practice getting better and better at improv. I haven’t focussed on building the skills necessary to spend months in the studio on my own music (though I do rather enjoy the work I get to do in studios on other people’s music! 🙂 ) but instead I’ve worked on being a better improvisor. And not so I can do 5 hour jams that get edited down to 5 minutes of music. But so I can play and collaborate on coherent conversational music that has a beginning middle and end. And that’s what the Subscription makes possible – you hearing a LOT of those conversations.

So, in the next couple of weeks, I’ll be releasing one new subscriber-only album – the first live recording from my Illuminated Loops project with visual artist, Poppy Porter – and will be making the other latest subscriber only release, Over Time, with Andy Edwards, public and removing it from the subscriber back catalogue.

SO if you want both, and 30-something other releases, for just £20 a year (seriously, you get ALL that now – it’d be well over £200 if it was on iTunes, which it isn’t…) then you need to head to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe

And if you want some words from people who are already subscribers, these are testimonials that are posted by subscribers in their Bandcamp collections: 

“Steve is basically my favourite person on bandcamp. I’ve been following his fan-account since my first days here and always enjoy his recommendations. Just recently I realised he’s also a musician. And who would’ve thought – his music is crazy good too! Thanks Steve!”

“Yay! Glad to be a subscriber!”

“Steve is a dedicated, hard working, artist committed to creating authentic, beautiful music and innovating ideas! I whole heartedly support his efforts in finding ways to make a living through music and the art that he is creating in the process!”

“Not many artists have the body of work or the prolific release habit of Steve Lawson. And so it has felt almost impossible to keep up with everything Steve is doing musically. Until now. A subscription is a very simple and elegant solution which seems an ideal fit for fans of Steve’s music making.”

“Steve is not only a brilliant musician and composer he is an exceptional human. He is always so generous with his time, resources and encouragement. I’m proud to play a small part in freeing him up to be the best he can be.”

“I subscribed because Steve is a very prolific artist and I enjoy his music. He also is a champion for independent musicians staying economically viable.”

“Definitely the best music subscription value around. Steve manages to be both prolific and uncompromising on quality – I have no idea how he does this.”

“I’m in love!! Not only do I enjoy the sounds of each song, but the album and track titles are marvellous unto themselves. Thanks again for the amazing music Steve!”

Tags: Music News · New Music Strategies

Will 2017 Be The Year We Admit Ad-Funding Is Ruining Everything?

January 5th, 2017 · 3 Comments

Ad-funding is why we can’t have nice things. I’ve long held this to be true, and have yet to see any useful evidence to the contrary. Pretty much every business idea that relies on it that I’ve come across has to compromise on content, context and impact due to the need for a) massive numbers of page views, and b) the invitation to click away from the thing you’re actually interested in as quickly as possible for the person hosting the thing to get paid for you looking at it.

As a musician, making music because I think the music itself is the thing that matters, that’s clearly useless. I’m not making sonic clickbait – I’m not trying to gather up likes and views in the hope of hoodwinking some company or other into advertising on my site/giving me money/product endorsements/record deals/whatever. The music is the thing I care about, and the process of making it available and telling the story about it is about supporting its existence.

Barnes Law, section h) “keep your art the main focus. it isn’t about you it’s about your art. do what’s good for your art”

With that in mind, this is VERY interesting stuff from Ev Williams (“Renewing Medium’s Focus” – posted on 4th Jan 2017) – he’s the founder of Medium, and interestingly, the co-founder of Twitter, a platform whose social value has nosedived as it has chased advertising money. [Read more →]

Tags: Geek · New Music Strategies

“Why Do You Sit Down To Play?” The Long Answer…

October 24th, 2016 · Comments Off on “Why Do You Sit Down To Play?” The Long Answer…

When I get asked why I sit down to play, the short answer is normally ‘because I need two feet to operate all these pedals!’. But it’s a little more complex than that – as you’d expect, given how many people manage to play standing up while also having massive pedal boards…

The problem is not turning regular effects on and off. That you can easily do with one foot. It’s not even turning off more than one at a time – that can be done with a loop-switcher (pedal that allows you to have any number of pedals in a separate ‘loop’ that the sound can either go through or bypass), or by having them as a patch in a multi-FX unit (I do that a lot, obviously).

The issue for me is continuous control – wah, volume, delay feedback, pitch shift, parameters that fade in and out, and the interactions between them… That’s such a huge part of that constantly evolving feel that I aim for in my music – the feel that is absolutely at the heart of what I’ve been trying to develop as a solo artist since my very first album. Have a listen to ‘Drifting’ from my first album – in order to transition from one set of loopy-stuff to another, I had to fade the first loop down to nothing, quickly delete it and start looping again, all within the context of the music… [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

The Beauty Of Complexity – Why I Can’t Play Anything Live Off My New Album

September 6th, 2016 · 3 Comments

Right, before the main bit of this post, let’s get some niceness in your ears – my brand new album is here: Hit play while you read this:

…and if you’re in London or Birmingham, come see me play this week – Wednesday (tomorrow!) at the Bulls Head in Barnes, Sunday at Tower Of Song in Birmingham 😉

Now, on with the wordsmithery: 

I’m an improvisor. That much is known, right? But there’s a pretty broad range of approaches to improv and ways of understanding what it means:

  • People who play guitar solos on rock songs are often improvisors.
  • Jazz musicians who play the head then play a solo full of material they’ve culled from the rich recorded history of jazz are improvisors.
  • Classical musicians who can interpret figured bass and play baroque music authentically are improvisors.
  • Free players who actively avoid consonance, western-harmonically-define melodic structure and metric rhythmic combinations are improvisors.

So where does my practice fit? Cos, let’s be honest, a lot of it doesn’t *sound* like improv, right? And the language we have to describe recordings is, quite understandably, about ‘songs’ and ‘compositions’ and ‘arrangements’. And once it’s recorded, it just *is*. The variation in the experience of the music is now all about context and the technology used to turn the digital file into sound… The [lossless] file itself is a fixed entity – if it gets changed, it’s a something else. It ceases to be the thing it was.

But the genesis of the music? That’s all improv. That’s not to say that none of the elements of the tracks on The Surrender Of Time have any precedent – that would be like expecting a conversationalist to invent new words every day to avoid being a script writer.

No, improv forms a distinct set of variables for me in music making, which I’ll attempt to list and explain here.

  1. Vocabulary, not repertoire: If you’re in a band, or planning to play in bands, your greatest asset is a repertoire of songs to call on, in a variety of styles that you’re comfortable with and respectful of. Being a great technician – beyond a fairly basic level of facility – is definitely secondary to your ears, understanding and experience. Your ability to play the songs is everything. The relationship between the songs and the spaces to add your own stuff in is variable depending on the setting, but first of all, you gotta know the songs.

    I know very few songs, comparative to how long I’ve been playing bass. I’m *really* good at learning sets when I need to (this is my job, after all!) but I don’t retain them, and I rarely practice songs between gigs. I don’t sit down and play along with records to practice, and I’ve done hardly any transcription in my life. I got good at it so I could do it when needed, but it ceased to be part of my own creative development when I started putting together the toolkit for making the music I cared about, based on the impact certain practices seemed to have on other players…

    Instead, I spent time – and still spend most of my time – building vocabulary. Working on variations on the building blocks that make up the sound that’s recognisable as me. Expanding the set of harmonic possibilities that follow any chord, building a set of sounds that take that music and give it meaning, working on myriad melodic ideas over all the harmonic areas that I’m finding interesting at the moment. When I hear music that moves me, instead of trying to recreate it, I intently focus on how it makes me feel, and then try to recreate that feeling with my own music. That’s one of the reasons why I can quite unashamedly love my own music – it’s not about an arrogant juxtaposition of what I do alongside what anyone else does, and I don’t necessarily expect anyone else to agree with my enjoyment of it, but if I didn’t love it, it wouldn’t exist.

    So when it comes to making the music, instead of me drawing on a massive catalogue of other people’s songs, or transcriptions of their solos, I’m searching through my own catalogue of sounds and ideas for the right thing to attach to whatever it is that I’m trying to say. It’s soundtracking, in a very unmetaphorical sense. But it also means that I never get to properly ‘re-play’ anything. I don’t do multiple takes of the same ‘piece’. I might spend a day exploring a particular area (similar to the process of working out what a book meant to you by talking to multiple people about it, and refining your own take on it…) but there’s never two ‘takes’ of the same piece. Sometimes multiple versions of that iterative process get released, because they’re always distinct enough to be treated as different works.

  2. Complexity vs Repeatability. So, because I’m not forward-projecting to a time when I need to be able to recreate this music, I can allow it to be WAY more complex that I could ever make a composition. Again, it’s not about relative levels of complexity with other musicians (there are people whose composed work would in many ways be way way harder to remember and recreate than mine…) it’s more about my process – I have very little headspace for spending months learning how to recreate existing work. I don’t operate in a commercial space where that matters… or rather, I’ve consciously constructed an alternate performance space, or slotted into the bits of existing ones where I fit, in ways that mean I don’t have to do that.

    But even then, I do bang up against audience expectation that they’d love to hear a favourite tune…. That’s totally understandable, especially as I spent quite a few years doing just that – playing my own songs, doing a set list… Getting away from that has brought about the single biggest leap forward in my creative process since I first picked up the recorder aged 5. When I listen to my live versions of recorded tunes now, it’s only the deviations from the script that interest me. The start point feels like an unnecessary limiting factor, when that start point could just as easily be a sound as a fixed melody.

    So I stripped back the start point to be vocabulary and emotion based, not ‘skeleton composition’ based. It’s pretty heavily influenced by what Coltrane did in later years, when his compositions got looser and looser and were mostly a vehicle for what came after the bit that anyone was familiar. Or Miles’ 70s work, culled from hours of improvisation. Or Bill Frisell’s live solo excursions.

    The result for me is that I can put things together in a way where the serendipity of how they fall IS the composition.

    The unknown state of just how the loops are going to line up half way through the song, or how that loop is going to interact with the Kaoss Pad I’m going to send it through… it’s not ‘random’, in the way that nothing that’s been looped digitally is ever ‘random’ – as soon as it’s done, the result is inevitable, it’s just that no-one can ever know what that will be. The ratios of loop length, because I don’t sync them, are sufficiently complex as to be unknowable, unlearnable, and thus I get to interact with that complexity like a brilliantly unpredictable creative partner. If I was trying to do things that I could recreate, all that would be lost. And if I did it over fixed ideas that were ‘the song’ (in a more jazz like way) that would feel like an unnecessary limiting factor on just how great things can get when serendipity is your homeboy…

  3. Aesthetic constraint vs ‘industry’ expectation : With all of that process, all of the various inspirations (I’m a VORACIOUS music listener, and treat it like ear-food), I needed to find a way to keep focussed on the musical path that would get me to where I felt I needed to get creatively, not be distracted by the rather narrow expectations the come with the various typical western contexts for music – radio stations that play songs, venues that want to know what you’re playing, audiences who make requests, corporate situations that expect a set list, musician-collaborators who want to play standards, or a set of songs. I needed to break from that. Context-wise, house concerts were that, without a doubt. The strangeness and unfamiliarity of ‘your friend’s house’ as a venue gives me a whole lot of creative latitude to mess with all the other expectations, as well as plenty of time to talk about this stuff between songs without the venue getting annoyed that people aren’t dancing…

    But I also needed a way to do something with all the recordings. Because, the simple set of influences on the actual sound of my work mean that the recordings are experienced as ‘finished works’. I’ve built a live recording set up that is basically a studio. The studio IS my instrument (which Jazzwise VERY perceptively picked up on in their review of The Surrender Of Time) – my musical influences contain a LOT of singer/songwriters, because I’m drawn to storytelling over pyrotechnics, politics over self-aggrandisement, questioning music over music that sees itself as the answer… and singers tend to do that best. The music becomes subservient to what the music is trying to say, whether that’s a death metal band, or a rapper, Joni Mitchell or Cannibal Corpse, Divinity Roxx or The Blue Nile – the music is all about creating the context for the story. I just get to hide my stories a little deeper by leaving out the words 😉

So, the records sound ‘finished’. The language that makes most sense when talking about them is the language of songs, of arranging, or composing. They aren’t ‘jams’ or ‘little grooves I’ve been working on’ or however else people’s unfinished work on YouTube gets described, but they also aren’t things I’ve worked out, learned, done a couple of drop-ins on and chopped the end off to make them work for radio… They are conversation pieces that stem for a pretty highly developed philosophy of what improvising within the limitations of live performance with real-time looping makes possible. We have no real words for that, so I’m perfectly OK with you digging my songs 😉

My process is the result of 20 years of finding out how best to tell the stories I want to tell, to play the music that I hear in my head, and do it in a way that responds to the things I hear missing (for me) in other people’s music. When I hear music that doesn’t work for me, I don’t wish they changed it (telling someone else who hasn’t actually hired you as a teacher how they should play music is some tired lazy shit) I just use that as a nudge to work out what it was that was missing for me emotionally and adjust my musical process to work towards that thing that was missing… The gaps are mine to fill, not theirs. (as an aside, this is the exactly the same point of origin as my response to people who come and tell me what they think I should do, in a ‘you should do a funk record!’ or ‘you should totally do a whole ambient record’ or ‘I wish you’d do more of ****’ – my response is, ‘no, you should! It’s you that wants to hear that! This music is exactly what it’s meant to be – take the inspiration and go make your own music’.)

So anyway, call it a song, choose your favourites and play them over and over, transcribe them if that helps your own practice…just don’t ask me to play any of them at shows… 🙂

Tags: Music News · Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

It’s 2016 And We’re Looking For Magic In All The Wrong Places

April 25th, 2016 · 8 Comments

“All of the magic in the world is leaving”

– this is a quote from a friend’s blog about the death of Prince. He was quoting what another friend said to him, but it echoes a VERY widely held sentiment that the number of stars/legends/genuises dying is leaving us bereft of talent, of magic.

To which I say ‘bullshit’.

Statistically incomprensible, culturally myopic, yet completely understandable bullshit.

I know why it feels like that. I get it. I succumb to that in the moments after the announcement of the death of a Bowie or a Prince or a Papa Wemba… ‘not another one??’

Another what? Another dead human, another dead musician, another lost piece of the consensus around what made the late 20th Century so special for mass consumer art. That last bit is key. Musicians die all the time, musicians who changed people’s lives, musicians who made music that meant so much to people. Just *not enough people* for it to register on the global radar. Whether or not another 100 million people liked someone isn’t a measure of how important they were to me. The global population is somewhere north of 7.1Billion – that many, many of those will be making music that could change your life is a statistical certainty. That you haven’t found them yet is the product of a whole shit-ton of overlapping choices, cultural phenomena, the outworkings of a capitalist media and a level of inertia that happens to most people in the west when their music consumption switches from being primarily about discovery to being primarily about nostalgia when they are in their early 20s. Life gets busy, and the messaging in music journalism for grown-ups is almost entirely about the importance of the music we loved when we were teenagers. [Read more →]

Tags: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies