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Entries Tagged as 'tips for musicians'

Who Has The Right To Critique Your Work?

May 11th, 2018 · No Comments

…This is a question that comes up for young artists all the time. The mechanisms for getting your work out there, in an economic setting where there’s a particular level of audience size that one needs to be able to make enough money to keep doing what you do, bring with them an avalanche of comment. Some of it comes from reviewers – gig reviewers, album reviewers, people who write about your particular field as their job and amateurs who just have a blog they keep for the love-or-spite of it. You’ll also get feedback from people who love what you do and feedback from people who are all too eager to tell you how you’re doing it wrong. Social media may give everyone a voice, but it doesn’t in any way mean we are obliged to absorb or even listen to their opinions…

So, while acknowledging that in some way resourcing and encouraging that kind of commentary is necessary to audience growth, how do we as artists maintain a sense of who we are and what we do aside from that, and how do we gauge which of the feedback might actually be useful to us? After all, I’ve had utterly glowing OTT reviews that I thought were WAY off the mark, and some critical reviews that I thought were completely fair. And I’ve had a very small number of reviews that actually taught me something about my own work. So how do we discern the difference? How do we decide who to let in and who to ignore? And as things progress, how (if we even should) do we build a team of people around who we invite to reflect on our work in ways that we listen to with a view to actually acting on their advice?

It is – not to put too fine a point on it – an absolute minefield. All the moreso if you’re in any way insecure about your work already. Anyone who’s had anything posted on YouTube that’s had more than a handful of views will know what a cesspool of vindictive and spiteful misinformation it is. I’ve seen friends of mine insulted in all manner of ways on there, and have had a ton of ‘why the fuck are you wearing nail varnish???’ comments as well as the ‘that’s not what you’re supposed to do with a bass!’ comments…

That end of things is irritating, but fairly easily recognised as not useful in terms of defining what you’re up to in your own work. Nothing useful comes of trying to salve the bile of a disgruntled YouTube dickhead… So who gets let in? Whose words get to be considered as useful?

I don’t think there’s one answer to this, but my own rule has always been that I listen to people who have previously demonstrated to me that they understand what I’m trying to do. Whether a review itself seems knowledgeable is not the thing I’m looking for. What I need from someone who is going to comment on my work in a way I can be bothered to acknowledge is the recognition that they have me being the best version of me as the focus of their comments. So anything that says ‘what you’re doing doesn’t sound enough like artist A, therefor it’s bad’ is out. Not useful. Anyone who says ‘this is amazing because it doesn’t sound like anything that anyone has ever done before’ is equally out. That’s not a useful or accurate assessment of where the value lies in what I’m trying to do.

This notion of ‘what you’re trying to do’ stems from a belief that the only meaningful way to measure the true value of an artist’s work is whether they’ve achieved what they set out to do. Whether you like it or not is useful in terms of you deciding what to do with your time, and what to lend your ears to, but a commentary on my work based on whether or not someone else would have done it differently is not useful to me. As my usual response goes when someone tells me that I should be doing an all-ambient record, or a funk record, or should work in such and such a way, I say ‘no, you should! It’s clearly you that wants to hear music in that way. If there’s something in what I do that you think fits there, you can either take that inspiration and make the music yourself, or hire me to help you get there and bring my musicianship and ideas to your project’. But they don’t get to tell me what to do with my own music.

So how does someone demonstrate an understanding?

Firstly, they ask questions. Anyone who truly cares about what you’re doing is going to ask you about it before making a bunch of observations and statements. They’re going to inquire into why you’re making the choices you’re making, what the things are that you’re working on, what your influences are and what you’re trying to do with those influences… There are a ton of different questions to be asked, and angles to be explored…

Secondly, they’re going to take the time to get to know what you’ve already done. This gives anyone who subscribes to me on Bandcamp a massive advantage over anyone who doesn’t, because I know they’ve got at least 35-40 albums by me in their collection. Now, they might not have listened to them all, but if they’re working through them with an open mind, they may well start to form a useful frame of reference for what it is I’m trying to do – I can test that through the kinds of questions they bother to ask. They’re probably going to have a better grasp on the improvised nature of the work, and the breadth of things that I’m exploring at anyone time, as well as the general trajectory of my solo work.

Thirdly, their comments are going to specifically relate their criticism to the framing of your work. It’s OK for someone not to like or understand how you frame what it is you’re trying to do – not everyone needs to like or understand what you’re up to – but if you’re thinking of inviting them to influence it, it’d help a lot of they at least had a respect for what you were attempting. Sometimes, that framing can be an obvious thing, but it’s normally pretty dangerous to assume what a particular musician is trying to do from hearing a track or two and guessing based on who you think it sounds like.

The people whose commentary you allow into your own thought process are acting as de facto producers of your work. It’s WAY more important that they understand it than that they like it. I’ve had a mixture of people over the years give me useful feedback and encouragement – some who loved it, some how just cared about me, and took the time to work out what I was up to, without really being massively invested in the music itself. Sometimes the most useful input is just a well-timed ‘dude, just keep doing what you’re doing’, sometimes it’s in the form of a question I really should have been asking myself for a while. Other times its a suggestion for some new inspiration to check out that they see may well help take me in a new direction.

None of it arrives in the form of insult, none of it is trying to put me down, and none of it is about me meeting someone else’s idea for what music ought to be.

Finding those people can take a lot of time. When you do find them hold onto them, value them and keep them close. A huge amount of the advice that you’re going to hear will be about people’s perception of the commercial potential in what you’re doing, and how to maximise that (it’s baffling to me that I get that bullshit even as a solo bass player – as if playing bass on your own isn’t enough of a statement about your lack of focus on commercial motives already?)  – if commercial potential is your frame for your work, and they are people with a track record of making those judgements in useful ways, by all means let them in – it’s not a bad thing to want to make great pop music! But if that’s not what you care about, you need to find a way of blocking out those voices, because they’ll almost always pull you back towards the consensus.

And in the meantime, don’t feed the trolls, or listen to their bullshit. It’s not going to help you find your path.

Tags: Musing on Music · tips for musicians

Decorating Tips For Musicians (How To Learn Like A Painter)

May 24th, 2017 · 1 Comment

I’ve been teaching bass now for almost 25 years. I’ve taught thousands of students, and given masterclasses and seminars to many more in universities and colleges all over the world. In that time, I’ve never stopped trying to refine my method, my process, my ability to help a student get where they need to be. And one of the things I’m always searching for is better metaphors for what it is we’re trying to do.

So, today we’re going to talk about painting and decorating, OK?

Imagine you were asked by someone to decorate their house – to paint all the rooms, the stairs, hallway, all the doors, fittings. Everything needs doing. There’s a lot of work there, and you’ve not really done any painting before…

There are a number of ways to approach it, so let’s break them down, then you can look at their parallels with learning an instrument: [Read more →]

Tags: teaching news · tips for musicians · Uncategorized

It’s The Little Things That Count – You Are The Press.

August 9th, 2010 · 1 Comment

Sidelong Glace by Patrick_Down on FlickrOver the years, I’ve sent literally hundreds of CDs to magazines and radio, in the hope of reviews and airplay. And I’ve had a quite large amount of both:

But, what is evident to anyone who experiences these things first hand, is that word of mouth – my listeners telling their friends and family about the wonderful music they’ve just discovered – is worth more than all that mainstream press put together. [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

“Sharing Is Not Stealing” – Cost, Value And The Desire To Share.

May 16th, 2010 · 65 Comments

A few thoughts on the relationship between cost, value and the action of sharing music:

As I’ve said before, £10 was never representative of the real value in an album. It was less than the value of the time the person takes to listen to it, and certainly not anything like the value the artist places on their finished work.

And of course, given that all albums sell in different amounts, and all the cost of making the album is upfront – before anyone knows how many it’s going to sell – it couldn’t really be described in any fractional way as a share of that value.

No, it wasn’t an expression of ‘value’, largely because the most natural way of expressing our sense of value in music is to share it. [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

How DO Musicians Earn Online?

April 14th, 2010 · 23 Comments

Social web has been buzzing these last couple of days with a visualisation by Information Is Beautiful, entitled “How Much Do Musicians Earn Online?” Click here to see it.

In case you’re not able to see the list, it’s a visual representation of how many instances of a range of online ‘music payment events’ you’d require to make a living wage solely from that service.

Not surprisingly, streaming services come out of it badly, especially when compared to sales of CDs.

However, the problem with presenting data in this way is that implicit within the list itself is the assumption of linearity: the list itself says “these are distinct events between which there is at least conceptual parity when comparing how many instances of that payment event are required to meet a particular sum.” [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

Web Stats for musicians: Lies, Damned Lies and Google Analytics.

March 17th, 2010 · 14 Comments

So, you’ve taken the advice and started blogging. You’ve put your music up on Bandcamp for ‘pay what you want’ download. You’re chatting to your audience, friends and fellow musicians on Twitter and Facebook. Now you want to be able to measure how much impact all this stuff is having, right?

Almost all web-hosting comes with some kind of statistics option for tracking how many people are visiting your website, and what they are doing. The most widely used 3rd party option is Google Analytics, which is available to be added to any website (and particularly easily integrates with publishing packages like WordPress and Moveable Type). [Read more →]

Tags: Geek · tips for musicians

Curating a Live Event: Never Settle For Less Than Greatness.

March 15th, 2010 · 18 Comments

Following up my last post about recommending awesome things, I want to tie the same ideas into putting on events. The trigger for this was the Antwerp Looping Festival which I played last Saturday night.

A bit of background – the ‘festival’ was one night, 6 artists, in a gorgeous little theatre venue in Antwerp, organised by one of the performers – Sjaak Overgaauw.

The whole idea of a ‘looping festival’ or any other non-genre- or personality-specific festival is fraught with possible marketing pitfalls – if there’s no inherent style of music, or artistic/culturally-thematic link, how on earth do you make it work? What are people coming to, and why? Who are you going to market it to? [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

More on Favours And Recommendations

March 11th, 2010 · 5 Comments

I’ve mentioned a few times on here that I’m not a big fan of reciprocation-dependent deals between musicians to plug each other’s stuff. Let me expand on that a bit.

One of the most valuable currencies that anyone (music-person or otherwise) has online is their recommendation. Loads of people have written about this (Chris Brogan wrote a book about it called ‘Trust Agents’ …that I haven’t read.), but basically, if you talk about things you believe in, the people who hear those recommendations are going to find things that are awesome to someone. They won’t necessarily agree, but that’s not the point – you’re not pandering to an audience, you’re getting excited about greatness.

So, how does this work in a world where we’re all meant to help each other out? I mean, I also talk a lot about the way that collectives and coalitions can work in favour of musicians…

The workable reality is as always somewhere in the middle – there’s nothing wrong with feeling grateful and acting on that. To take your impetus to finally get round to blogging about a band from the fact that their drummer just tweeted about how awesome you are is perfectly natural and fine. Contrast that with the ‘if you put us in your top friends on MySpace, we’ll do the same…’ mentality. Do this for me then I’ll do this for you’ is a recipe for the survival of the pushiest, not the awesomest. And it also overstates the value of a recommendation, link or ‘top friend’ in and of itself. The existential value of such a thing is negligible. It just being there means next to nothing. It’s only real value is in the energy that’s behind it. And that energy is cumulative, but can also be diminished by dilution.

If I get an endless stream of links from someone about lame-assed music, it doesn’t suddenly make me like rubbish music. It makes me think that either

  • their taste and mine really don’t match, or
  • they’re not to be trusted cos they link to any old shit that may lead to them getting a link back.

That’s the death of value.

Same goes for only ever linking to stuff in which you have a vested interest – if the only bands you ever plug are people you’re working with, it looks like you just want more people at your shows. It stands to reason that you’re going to want to work with musicians you think are awesome, so this isn’t some unworkable call to never draw any benefit from the stuff you put out there – of course not, almost all of us want to have more listeners, more gigs, more people to play to. (Or at least, have more people wanting to see us so we can pick and choose the gigs we do!) It’s all about finding the balance, and building a social DNA chain that points to you being not just a producer of great music, but a curator of great everything.

The principle is one of ‘value-added’: how many extra ways can you make your story – and the media, events and supporting cast that surround it – compelling to the people who are discovering it? You can be exciting, funny, sexy, distracting, educational, passionate, inspiring, consoling, wise, dangerous, scary.. you can be a node-point for finding great things, a recommender of great books or films or food, a philosopher, theologian, comedian, curator, historian, essayist, guitar-ninja, recording advisor, producer, svengali…

When I hear musicians saying ‘I just want to make music, I don’t want to have to be a social networker or marketer’, I do have to wonder what they really want to fill their days with. The big question becomes, ‘yes, but what do you want to make music about??’ Great music – world-changing, awesome music – never exists in a vacuum. It’s always part of a story, and its inspiration is very often a big part of the value in it. Don’t try and tell me that the success of the Beatles wasn’t down to their personalities, stories, controversies and cultural experimentation/boundary-pushing as much as it was the notes on the record… Whether the music was the gateway to the story or vice versa is largely moot – they feed one another in a loop. Story leads to music about the story when leads back to the music.

And the music you talk about is part of that story ‘check out my friend, cos he wants you to check out me’ is a really really shitty story. ‘Check out this amazing film, it changed my life’ is a far more compelling story, and one that will make me want to hear your music. Srsly.

In Pt II, I’ll talk about this with live gigs.

For now though, have a listen to Premonition Factory’s album – pure, gorgeous ambient goodness. Got this at the weekend in Antwerp. Fabulous stuff:

<a href="http://premonitionfactory.bandcamp.com/album/59-airplanes-waiting-for-new-york">To those worthy of honour by Premonition Factory</a>

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

Interview With Me For The Unconventional Guide To Art And Money

February 1st, 2010 · 2 Comments

Last week I was interviewed by Zoë Westof for the Unconventional Guide To Art and Money – it was a really fun interview to do (anybody surprised that I love talking about art, vocation, creativity, business and stuff like that??)

The eBook itself is a really interesting idea, in that with it you get a bunch of audio interviews, and then updates – more interviews as they come along. It’s a great way of fairly easily ‘adding value’ to a digital product. Much harder to do if you have to mail out hard copies of extra chapters to a real book, but for digital services like this, it makes a lot of sense to continue updating them (I know that a lot of authors continue blogging on the same subject to update the info in their physical books. that works too!)

So, check out the book by clicking here – it’s interesting that so much of the advice in it is about visual art, rather than music or writing, but that actually makes it more fun (and perhaps easier?) to abstract principles from it rather than getting caught up in the details of someone else’s execution of their ideas.

Anyway, here’s the interview with me – it’s an hour long, so set aside a little time, or download it and listen to it on the bus on the way to work 🙂



or download it here.

I don’t have a transcript of the interview, but if you want to pull out the quotes from it that connect with you the most and add them to the comments, we can put together ‘edited’ highlights.

Tags: cool links · tips for musicians

Quick Thoughts On “Obscurity”

January 21st, 2010 · 25 Comments

A few days ago, MusicThinkTank published this post in response to this post, pulling out the ‘headline’ that “in 2008, 1,500 releases broke the “obscurity line” (sold over 10,000 albums).”

The context for the quote is this (it’s from some bloke who works for TommyBoy Entertainment):

“So in the whole year only 227 of the artists were artists that had broken what we call the “obscurity line.” When you sell 10,000 albums, you’re no longer an obscure artist; people know about you.”

So this is a made-up measurement – it’s what ‘we’ (no mention of who ‘we’ are), arbitrarily decided, that selling 10,000 records makes you not obscure. Why? How? Nope, nothing. Just that ‘people know about you’. Very scientific and verifiable. ‘People’.

It’s also based on ‘Soundscan’ statistics. By Soundscan’s reckoning, I’ve sold about 3% of my actual sales across my career – that’s how many have gone through the Soundscan system. Not a single one of my gig sales, my own website sales, bandcamp sales, CDbaby sales have gone through Soundscan. So this tells us that 1500 artists have reported 10K sales to Soundscan. And that’s apparently a story about obscurity?

No it’s not. Not even close:

  • Are there only 1500 acts in the world playing music professionally? No. There are hundreds of thousands. Possibly millions.
  • Are there only 1500 acts in the world making awesome music, and continuing to be able to make awesome music? No. There are tens of thousands for each of us. And tastes differs so much around the world. There are millions of artists that are awesome to someone and keep being awesome to someone.
  • How many outlets are there for music that don’t report to Soundscan? Thousands.
  • Where do most indie artists make the vast majority of their sales? Their gigs, then their own website.
  • So just how specious is it to whack a label as pejorative as ‘the obscurity line‘ onto a statistic that just proves itself to be utterly meaningless if you, y’know, listen to music because you love it rather than make money from ‘breaking artists’.

So, the whole notion of an ‘obscurity line‘ is so bogus as to hardly be worth responding to.

If the figure here is that only 1500 reported more than 10,000 album sales to Soundscan, the REAL story is the hundreds of thousands of bands who make awesome music and are able to keep making awesome music without selling that many records through the mainstream. The old industry. The ‘established path’. That it’s quite possible to have a sustainable, successful, fulfilling, enjoyable, liberated, creative career in music without selling 10K ‘albums’ a year through those outlets. That, my friends, is proper awesome!

So why ‘Obscurity’?

Obscurity is an utterly meaningless word in this context – obscure to who? Where? Obscure meaning unheard of?

There are a lot of artists in the world who are known to millions but couldn’t sell 10K copies of a new album if they released one. Not obscure, but certainly not ‘current’.

And there are others who are selling hundreds of thousands of records, and feel like abject failures because their label promised them more and spent as though they were going to sell millions. (in the same article, the TommyBoy bloke says that of the 112 albums that sold more than 250K, HALF DIDN’T BREAK EVEN! What industry, after 50 years of experimenting, of statistics or measuring trends, or gauging audience reaction, still can’t make money on a product that sells 250,000 units?? A broken, insane industry, that’s what.)

All these two statistics prove is that some people still equate industry success with ‘gross’ figures rather than ‘net’ figures. Gimme a 300 grand marketing budget and I could fairly easily sell 20K+ albums in a year. The problem would be that that would only gross, at best, 200 grand. Net would be a lot lower. So I’d be selling WAY more records than I am now, would no longer be ‘obscure‘ (ha!) but I’d be a failure in every other sense because I’d be a hundred grand in debt, and my self esteem would be shot. Or if someone else paid for it, I’d be beholden to them for what happens next to try and get that 100K back.

Forget obscurity metrics and think about what matters – making the music you love, finding the people who share that passion, and not killing yourself with unrealistic expectations of how much money it’s going to make you.

Here’s a suggestion – 10,000 listeners is a much more creatively inspiring target than 10,000 sales. How would you get 10K listeners without spending a penny, OR worrying about earning anything. Cos 10,000 listeners and no money is a really great problem to have to try and solve… Answers in the comments 🙂

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians