stevelawson.net

Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Entries Tagged as 'New Music Strategies'

New Music, Nostalgia And The Music Economy – Some Thoughts

October 26th, 2017 · No Comments

[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. Let’s start with the disparity in the nature of the answers to the top questions with the statements. All of the questions are about what YOU do. How you respond to the music you hear, and what you choose to spend YOUR money on. Those are about you. Not about ‘the music industry’, not about piracy, or sharing or streaming or anything of those big concepts. Just about you putting your money where you think it has most meaning, or just trying to get balance spending as little as possible while absolving your conscience of any sense that the malaise you may or may not see within the wider music economy is your fault. The questions recenter the agency at the heart of the music economy discussion on you (and me) and what we invest in.

The statements that I see are all generalised, external, mostly unsupported by actual peer reviewed research, and are almost exclusively made with no reference to the practices that the questions above would reveal.

Let me give you a couple of examples – there’s no way that I could say that ‘no one pays for music any more’, because I pay for music, at least weekly if not daily. And WAY WAY more of the money that I spend on music goes right back to the people making it – the artists, the small labels, and because so much of it is from Bandcamp, the service that is providing the best possible mechanism for getting it out there. I also get paid by people on Bandcamp. On a daily basis. So for me to say ‘no one pays for music any more’ would be nonsense.

 

But I also can’t turn my own activity or economy into a universal truth – it wouldn’t be true, as far as I can tell, to say that people are paying more for music than ever. It may be true if we work out what percentages of the money that people spend on film, TV streaming, TV licensing, digital gaming, music streaming services, the percentage of their money that they spend on shit they discovered while watching ads on online music videos that must work or no-one would still be paying for them to be there… But I have no way of calculating that, and to be honest, no massive interest in it. It’s not my circus, nor my monkeys.

So what am I interested in? Right now, my big fascination is how terribly we (collectively) seem to be at parsing the information relating to the music economy and nostalgia. It’s been a maxim in marketing circles for decades that it’s much easier to sell someone something they already love than it is to persuade them to invest the time in new music required for it to become a part of their lives. In the old days, (read: pre-internet) that service was supplied by radio – the biggest radio stations played mostly new music, and the social capital of the DJ telling us that it was important was enough for us to let that music seep in over repeated listening until it became the soundtrack to our lives. That was coupled with a late 20thC/late-modern obsession with newness that permeated so much of culture (remember the vintage guitar market in the 80s? There wasn’t one to speak of…)

Without that passive exposure being central to our leisure (or work) time, we need to do a whole lot more work to create time and apply our attention to the task of absorbing new music. We need to seek it out, and we need to actively choose to pursue that future magical feeling when we find amazing music for ourselves. It rarely happens by accident, and given the very specific ways that social media algorithms distribute attention, it is very rarely prioritised as a thing in itself – if it comes packaged with something that makes us go ‘wow!’ it can seep through (EG, Jon Gomm’s video for his beautiful song Passionflower), but the ‘wow’ is initially more important than the art, and if you haven’t already put in the years to build a meatspace fanbase like Jon had, the lure of ramping up the ‘wow’ and dialing back the art in order to get more likes and views next time can be pretty strong.

There are a huge, huge number of musicians and music related services online focused entirely on ‘reach’ – on social media interaction metrics – in the hope that at some point in the future it either scales to the point where the micro-payments attached to those interactions (mostly ad-revenue on YouTube or Spotify/Pandora streaming payouts or some equivalent) become meaningful, or the artist will just luck into a situation where it turns into money. Some do, for sure. There are artists who’ve turned viral videos into a healthy live music career, and others who’ve turned it into corporate money (think Pomplamoose doing Hyundai adverts before Jack became a tech overlord at Patreon), but there’s no direct path, and it’s no more ‘open to everyone’ than the old system of record labels was. What it very effectively does is allow the tech companies to accumulate their percentage on ALL those transactions and build an extraordinary amount of capital. And it’s way more conspicuous because it’s concentrated in a company with, often, a skeleton staff and a priority to pile money into the banks of its execs and shareholders, rather than one focussed in redistributing profits to the stakeholders who created the value in the first place. In this way, it’s pretty much identical to the workings of the major label music industry of yore…

The bit that IS more open to everyone is making the records in the first place. Or perhaps I should say recordings, because creating a physical entity out of those recordings is now wholly optional, based on your economic placement. That a ton of bands are making vinyl because ‘people think you’re more serious if you’ve got vinyl out’ is again outside of my sphere of understanding or interest, but it’s now wholly possible to presell anything physical you make, or at least do market research to ascertain the viability of the project.

But still, that’s not the question here. The big question is about nostalgia (man, this whole argument was WAY shorter when I literally dreamed it last night… sorry about that, it happens when I start typing). Because listening to anything without first paying for it is astonishingly easy, for those who aren’t actively seeking out new music, it makes absolute sense for them to listen to music they already love. ESPECIALLY if they invested hours, days, weeks, months as kids foraging for the good stuff. The social capital I accumulated in my teens and 20s as a music forager is still a tradable commodity. I see my peers displaying their knowledge of 90s indie, 80s pop, ECM classics, jazz funk, etc. online in order to gain bragging rights. It’s tougher to do that with new music, because the people you’re talking to all need to invest some new time themselves into the work in order to be able to discuss and and acknowledge whether your assessment has value. If you’re saying ‘guys, I can’t believe how often the Pale Saints are overlooked in discussions about great shoegaze bands’ or ‘As much as I love Scofield’s Uberjam band, the Blue Matter era is where it’s at’ – anyone who already knows that stuff can pile in and talk about it, anyone who vaguely remembers it can YouTube it and get back up to speed, and a discussion can happen. Even people who only read about those bands/records can recognise that what you’re saying is either radical or orthodox based on their memory of the music press at the time…

  • None of that favours new music.
  • None of that prioritises new music.
  • None of the algorithms generated relating to how FB and Twitter measure the interestingness of a social media artefact favour new music.

The only thing that favours new music is people who have decided that it matters. People who have continued to experience the wonder of The Music Of Now, who aren’t content to solely relive their youth, or revisit classic mythical ages in the history of recorded music, but instead are seeking out what’s new, what’s exciting and what is made by people experiencing the same planet as them at the same time. If that doesn’t matter to someone and you want to reach them with your music, you either need to trick them with WOW, or hook them in with some association to the nostalgic things they already love (ever wondered why cover versions are so popular online?) or tie it in with a less nostalgically driven media like gaming or a TV series. The number of medium to large acts that have had their biggest boost by getting a song on a hit TV show over the last 15 years is pretty amazing.

So, to those questions. The reason I ask them is that to not see our own public, performative, declarative support for new music as WHOLLY ESSENTIAL in communicating the value of new music and the meaning and vitality of investing in it beyond a Spotify subscription is to entirely miss the only solution right now. Complaining about piracy while absentmindedly sharing YouTube links to things you friends have done that you haven’t even watched, but spending all your music money on 5:1 remixes of albums you loved in your teens is to be part of the problem, not part of the solution. This is not a minor tributary in the discussion about how we move forward, about what the internet makes possible. It is absolutely the central path by which new music is discovered, prioritised and made visible.

It is, of course, OK for you to only want to listen to ‘classic’ albums, to continually share memes that reinforce the idea that all the good music was made 30 years ago, that no-one is doing anything meaningful now, that we should be spending out time thinking about and listening to reissues of 70s rock albums instead of seeking out and supporting new artists who are the ones our culture needs to help us make sense of the absolute shit-show of politics and society right now. That’s OK. It’s your choice to do that. But don’t you DARE complain that other people are behaving exactly like you are and that’s why your poor friends can’t make any money from their music. If you spend a year talking about nothing but Prince and David Bowie, and then post some shit about how terrible it is that no-one buys music any more, you can expect me to neither care about or listen to your complaints when your own new album goes wholly ignored.

Be the change you want to see, stop peddling bullshit canards about no-one paying for music, and do some soul searching about how, why and where you find music, share music, talk about music, promote and encourage others to find new music, and WHERE YOU PUT YOUR MONEY.

Cos it matters, and you can be the change. Go do it.

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 · No Comments

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 · 2 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

Modelled behaviour – Be the audience you want to have

April 5th, 2016 · 5 Comments

Here’s a thing I’ve seen happen more times that I care to remember. And every time I see it, I wonder what on earth is going on in the head of the musician concerned. I’m talking about the experience of seeing a musician whose entire online output is a series of hagiographic celebrations of the music of the past, steeped in nostalgia and the palpable sense that all the decent music was made during some golden age…

This is presented objectively, even though in almost every instance it was the music that the person in question discovered between the ages of around 14-20. The music that first showed them the life changing power of music. When it comes time for that person to release some music of their own, the conversation switches to one of sadness and often some degree of anger that no-one is paying enough attention to their music, and the Internet has ruined everything, and no-one has any attention span and blah-blah-blah. The extreme version of this also includes them sharing all of that music via the medium of Spotify links, or YouTube clips, with no useful conversation happening about the sustainable funding of whichever bit of the music economy they happen to occupy. [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies

Why I Never Talk About Women’s Appearance In Public

September 8th, 2015 · 10 Comments

[this is long and sweary – grab a cup of coffee, and strap yourselves in]

First up, read this Gawker Mansplainer post – it’s a very eloquent and funny exposition on the problem we’re exploring here.

Which is what? Which is, the way musicians who are women are often treated and talked about in the music industries. While we’ve made a whole load of progress on gender equality, and there are now so many amazing women playing every imaginable instrument at the absolutely highest levels, we STILL have an issue…

The root of the issue seems to me to be that for a large number of men in the industry, the women that work in it too are first divided into one of two categories – fuckable or unfuckable. That’s the line. If you’re not hot, you’re ignored. If you are hot, then the purpose of any interaction, ultimately, is to try and get laid. There seems to be pretty much no acknowledgement of just how insanely toxic a notion that is for both the personal and professional life of the women involved, or indeed any consideration of the social and professional consequences of that, when guys end up trading stories of who they’ve slept with, and those women end up being ‘trouble’ on a session or tour because of past relationships, and get sidelined. And it’s ALWAYS the woman who gets sidelined. Bros before Hos, right? If you’re an amazing guitar player who slept with an OK drummer but it’s the drummer who’s the dude? Sorry, we’re going to get a new guitar player, cos there’ll be weirdness on the tour bus.

So, for the women who choose – for personal or professional reasons – not to have any kind of relationship with the musicians they work with, they become a conquest. And bets are had over who’s going to bed her first. Or rumours start, because hey, who could resist hanging round with a bunch of delusional wannabe rock stars, eh? She’s got to want to fuck one of you!

And what if the woman actually does want to have some fun? If no strings sex sounds like a great way to go? That’s not a choice that’s available. For the aforementioned professional reasons.

Observation: there’s no male equivalent of a slut, and no female equivalent of a playa. Men are rewarded for promiscuity, and women are punished for it, in every way.

But, I get told (and I DO get told), she looks so great! Anyone dressing that fine must be out for the attention. She laughs when I ‘jokingly’ tell her what I want to do to her. She’s one of the guys, it’s all funny…Well, it can be funny – I know some women with a way cruder sense of humour than me, that love crass jokes…But when it’s relentless? When it’s the only thing that’s ever joked about? When joking turns into being groped? It ceases to be funny. But, if she wants to get hired, she’s got to play along. And she HAS to look amazing. Because if you end up back in the unfuckable category, you’re ignored.

This happens pretty much every time I’m talking to a woman at a music event:

We’ll be sat talking about music, life, family, touring, stupid shit, whatever…

And some dude will come up and say ‘excuse me, I have to tell you that you’re so beautiful.’ blah fucking blah…

And my friend will smile and say thank you…

And dude will push it, and go on…

And eventually – hopefully – realise this is not their conversation and fuck off…

And nothing will be said about the person’s music or art, no attempt to engage with them as a fellow professional will be made. Just some bullshit attempt to ‘reward’ them with attention for how they look. Like somehow having creepy dudes going on about how hot you are and staring at your boobs was part of your career plan when you spent 8 hours a day learning your instrument, or 70 grand of your own money to get through 4 years of university to become the best musician you could be.

But then, it gets worse. And the playing bit of the event is also built around a peculiarly male obsession – that ridiculously competitive, chops-heavy, zero-sound-design, melody-free world of the fusion bass jam. where a bunch of guys trade ever more elaborate reharms over an E minor vamp. And someone quotes Coltrane, and someone does a bunch of clever arpeggios. And if you’re not the kind of player who wants to spend years and years of your life training for the bass olympics, you’re out.

I’m obviously way outside of that world for another reason – my gear takes way to long to set up! This is the world of plug and play, a line of generic amps that give just enough midrange for everyone to battle it out… But it’s cool. I get a million other outlets and while I’m listening to this rutting ritual take place, no-one is stood next to me trying to feel my arse without getting caught.

And there are SO few women who can be bothered with this doleful charade. There are a few who can hang in that world, some who love it. But for the most part, the women I know in music are song players, writers, arrangers, producers – people who tell stories and put together the whole deal. Who care about sound design and things sounding good not just being metrically observable as faster or more complex than everyone else while 4 instruments battle or the same single octave span in the sound spectrum.

Why does this matter? Because it’s all about boxing in people’s options. It’s a social structure that has women watching men battle. It’s as old as dinosaurs puffing up their crests to see who has the biggest one and can pull the lady dinosaurs.

And it’s bullshit. This doesn’t mean you can’t dig bass jams. This is not a value judgement about being a part of that. It’s about acknowledging that narrowness of the social situation and how it impacts on the visibility of the talents of women vs the ‘value’ of their presence as eye-candy.

And let’s face it, everyone likes to look good. That’s not about wanting it to be the only thing that gets talked about. We want to look our best, because we’re on show. We’re entertainers, FFS!

Observation: I get to see a teeny-tiny-miniscule bit of what women put up with whenever a YouTube thread is taken over by some messed up angry-dude discussion about my nail varnish.

But the difference? The massive difference: I have options. I can choose to not wear nail varnish and pink shoes, to leave the wizard coat at home. I don’t suddenly become invisible. I like to look my best but when I’m too tired, it’s all cool. I have agency over my choices and they won’t negatively impact my career. For women? That’s very very often not the case. At all.

So, here’s why I never talk about the way my friends look – because I wouldn’t do that for a dude.

If you talk about the way men sound and the way women look, you’re an asshole.

If you compliment men on their choice of notes and women on their choice of neckline, you’re an asshole.

If you choose the guys you jam with because of their groove, but the women because you think you might be in with a chance, you’re a predatory shithead.

As human beings, we rely on music to tell the story of who we are. Music has done that for millennia. It’s part of our documentation. If we shut down the role of women within that, if we silence them and just make them part of the visual landscape, or fit their story-telling into the whims of the male gaze, the stories we’re telling are a lie. They aren’t us, they aren’t who we are.

For a lot of women, telling the real story of who they are would lose them work. They’d be unable to pay the bills if they took that risk. This is real shit that impacts people’s livelihoods. This isn’t just some theoretical feminist rant, or some moralising BS – women have neither the option to opt out of looking their best (while I can show up looking like a homeless dude and still get the gig) or to fuck all the dudes they like and do it without professional and social consequence (whereas I would be rewarded with high-fives and status if I managed to coerce my beleaguered female colleagues into sleeping with me).

So, have a think about how you talk about women, how you describe musicians who are women vs men. Next time you’re in a group of dudes talking about music, start talking about the women who inspire you and see how long it is before someone starts talking about how they look or whether they’d fuck them:

How easy would it be to dissent?

What would the impact be if you said you were uncomfortable with that?

Now think about BEING the object of it, dealing with that, in the context of your desire to be a professional musician, and the impact that would have on your career. And then think again about the ‘well, I’ve never heard a woman complain about it’ argument that’s used to justify the fucked up behaviour of the creepy dudes who obsessively pursue the women they work with.

It’s time to speak up.

And it’s time to LISTEN – to the stories of women, to the opinions and experiences of women, to the truth that may make us uncomfortable about our complicity in this screwed up behaviour. We need to listen without using our hurt feelings as a threat to the professional status of women. If they can’t tell you when your behaviour is out of line without it damaging their career, you’re not an ally. You’re the problem.

Be part of the solution. 

Tags: New Music Strategies · Rant - Politics, Spirituality, etc.

Crowd-Funding My Next Solo Album (But Not How You’d Think…)

July 5th, 2015 · 2 Comments

So, I’m starting work on my next solo album. I’m not absolutely sure which direction I’m going in – musically – at this stage, I’m most interested in trying some bass and drums stuff with Andy Edwards… What I really need is time to experiment.

Which is where the ‘funding’ bit comes in, right? Because the time required to experiment (and through experimenting make more amazing music for you to hear) is time that would otherwise be spent doing things to pay the bills…

So, the modern thing to do is crowd-fund, right? Give you, the beautiful music listeners of SteveWorld the chance to pre-pay for it.

Guess what? That option already exists. Like Richard Marx, whatever you do, wherever you go, it’ll still be right here waiting for you…

I’m talking about my Bandcamp Subscription. The multi-tiered bit that you get with any other crowd funding thing is entirely optional. The start point is £20 – for that (or however much more you choose to contribute) you get:

  • all 10 of my solo albums,
  • 4 other subscriber-exclusive releases that have come out in the last 6 months or so
  • AND *everything* I put out in the next year.

So not just the new solo album – you get everything else as well. Including the 4 or 5 projects that are currently in development. (in the next couple of weeks, two of those will come out for subscribers only…) I can also send you news of what I’m up to (in a status-update kind of way, rather than a massive-long-newsletter kind of way) and will upload previews of tracks as the new album takes shape…

It feels like a friendlier model, it doesn’t require me to ‘hit a target’ before it becomes meaningful for you (your generosity is not only valid if enough other people are generous) and you also get LOADS of music straight away – under the old economic model, this would be thought of as hundreds of pounds worth of music. That’s not very meaningful right now, but there are certainly many, many hours of listening pleasure waiting for anyone who a) likes what I do and b) decides to subscribe… (and if that music isn’t enough, you can get my complete works USB stick for just £13 once you’ve subscribed!!)

I also – crucially – won’t have to bombard the world of social media with requests for money over a two month period. There are people who do this very well, I don’t think I’d be one of them. I love posting all the random stuff that has nothing to do with my music on FB, Twitter and Instagram, and don’t want that to get lost in a stream of begging notices…

SuperMarket vs Farmers Market:

While large parts of the music world are squabbling over Spotify and Apple Music royalty rates, those of us who will NEVER make sustainable art with the royalties from streaming (even if they end up at ten times the current rate) are quietly getting on with what we do, knowing that you, the listeners, can tell the difference between Walmart (Apple/Spotify) and your local farmers market (Bandcamp/the CD table at a gig). Supermarket efficiency and blandness vs Fairtrade from local makers of beautiful things.

You get it, we get it, we don’t really need Apple and Spotify to help us understand it (and like food or anything else you’d buy in both places, you also don’t have to choose between them, though don’t expect iCloud or Google Music to recognise the files you upload 😉 )

So, if you want to help take the sting out of making the new album, get a massive load of my already-existing music, and be part of the journey towards the new one, as well as a year’s worth of my creative output, for as little as £20 (or whatever you can afford and think is meaningful), I’d LOVE for you to subscribe and be part of our little sustainability revolution. OK? 

Tags: Music News · New Music Strategies