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14 Questions About that Terrible Joni Mitchell Quote

February 12th, 2019 · No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Steve’s Incomplete Guide to NAMM

January 18th, 2019 · 1 Comment

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

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

Steve Lawson with Vernon Paul and Morton

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

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

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

steve lawson with bryan beller at NAMM 09

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Reflection on Improv, Audiences and Recording

January 17th, 2019 · No Comments

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

steve lawson playing bass

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

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

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



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



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

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My Favourite Records of 2018

December 31st, 2018 · No Comments

Right! I’ve waited til the last minute to do this list cos it’s been such an amazing year for music, I half expected to find something released today to write about!

These aren’t in any kind of order – they’re all properly fabulous records that I suggest you check out and spend some money on if you dig them. They’re just separated out into Bandcamp albums and Google Play albums:

Sonar – Vortex (feat. David Torn) : I’ll buy pretty much anything that has David Torn on it, to be honest, but this time, the record would be in my year end best of whether he was here or not. Odd-time hypnotic grooves, exquisitely played, minimalistically evolving and layered with Torn’s wild guitar explorations. Just incredible.

Kristin Hersh – Possible Dust Clouds : Again, not a surprise that this is amazing, cos everything Kristin does is amazing, but Possible Dust Clouds gets even more unhinged than the last couple of albums. The mix is dizzying, the guitar/bass/drums are SO intense and the songwriting is extraordinary. Maybe my favourite thing Kristin has done in ages, and I’ve LOVED everything she’s ever done…

Phi Yaan-Zek – Reality Is My Plaything : A record I’ve been waiting for ever since I met Phi 4 or 5 years ago. Reality… had a 10 year gestation period, was recorded all over the world, and incorporated skills that Phi took time out to develop as he found a need for them. An amazing way to make a record, and it’s even more amazing just how coherent it is. It’s a HUGE amount of music, some amazing hooks, insanely complicated writing, but nothing that ever feels twiddly. A masterpiece.

Cuong Vu – Change In The Air : Everything Cuong Vu does is brilliant. I’m a huge, huge fan of his, particularly his earlier trio albums, but marrying his trumpet to Frisell’s guitar is an inspired pairing and has some of my favourite Frisell playing for YEARS on it. Just wonderful.

Liran Donin – 8 Songs : Liran has been bassist with Led Bib for years (I saw them play at the Vortex a decade ago) but on this, his solo debut, the writing and playing are so mature and developed. It’s a deep album, full of great improv, amazing bass playing and killer tunes. British jazz is absolutely overflowing with massive talent right now, and this is at the top of the shop.

Dinosaur – Wonder Trail : speaking of British jazz, Dinosaur are another example of just how exciting the scene is right now. Post-Miles electric jazz, amazing playing (bassist Conor Chaplin is just incredible here) and Laura’s killer writing. Properly brilliant.

Echotest – Daughter Of Ocean : the first of two pre-releases here (out properly TOMORROW!) – Julie Slick and Marco Machera just get better and better. The writing, arranging, recording and playing are all progtastic, hummable and grooving, and Marco’s beautiful voice just gets better and better. Will be playing this a lot throughout the coming year.

Andrew Howie – Micronations : I subscribed to Andrew this year, and he’s released SO many great recordings, many of them remasters of albums I already loved. This new one is a beautiful experiment in downbeat electropop. It really doesn’t matter what Andrew turns his hand to, it always turns out incredible. I’m a MASSIVE fan.

Artemis – Of This Dirt : Artemis actually asked me to record some stuff for this album years ago, but I took WAY too long to get round to it, and by then it didn’t fit at all. But, it doesn’t miss me at all – the record hangs together as such a gorgeous suite of songs. Like the Andrew Howie album above, it’s the sound of grown-ups making electronic music. All that wisdom and experience wrapped around a deeply current aesthetic. Magical.

Sam Phillips – World On Sticks : Another great Sam Phillips album that sounds like a great Sam Phillips album. No surprises, but who would want them? She sounds utterly like herself and tells her beautiful stories in a way that everyone should hear.

Gretchen Peters – Dancing With The Beast : talking of songwriters who tell amazing stories, Gretchen goes from strength to strength, telling rich and moving stories of growing older, of resistance, of troubles and trials. The opening track rips my heart open. So, so beautiful.

Aaron Gibson – Horror Films And Sunday School : another pre-release released TOMORROW, this album is one of the finest things ever recorded by a bass playing singer/songwriter. The strings are exquisite, Aaron’s playing, singing and writing are all exemplary, and it’s also the only album in the list that I played on (I take a solo on one track). Just incredible.

The Midnight Hour – The Midnight Hour : I spent a lot of time this year listening to hip hop. Much of it was older Tribe Called Quest/Eric B and Rakim/Dilla/Slum Village/De La Soul stuff, but there was also this incredible crossover jazz/soul/hip hop record by Adrian Younge with Ali Shaheed Muhammed. I found them via the Luke Cage S2 soundtrack (below), and foudn this soon after. An incredible level of skill and soul at work here.

Field Music – Open Here : the last Bandcamp album on my list, but one of the best pop albums I’ve heard in decades. Everything about Field Music is incredible, and Count It Up is possibly my track of the year. They were also one of my gigs of the year, opening for The The in Birmingham. Joyful awesomeness.

And then there were these fantastic albums not on Bandcamp, that I bought on Google Play. Every one of them is amazing:
Sweet Billy Pilgrim – Wapentak
John Coltrane – Both Directions At Once
Adrian Younge/Ali Shaheed Muhammed – Luke Cage Season 2 soundtrack
Black Thought – Streams Of Thought Vol. 1
Anderson Paak – Unreleased

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New album out now – Restless

December 13th, 2018 · No Comments

cover art for the album Restless by Steve Lawson and Pete Fraser I’ve just put out a new album! It’s called Restless, and it’s a duo live improv record with sax genius Pete Fraser. Pete and I first met just over two years ago, went into a studio 2 minutes after meeting and made a record. That was Intersect. This was our second time meeting, on Nov 25th this year, for a gig in Birmingham, at Tower Of Song. It was a lovely gig, and as always I recorded it, then mixed and mastered it, and here it is! 

At the moment, it’s a subscriber-only release. That means that the only people who can hear it all and download it are my Bandcamp subscribers. You can find out all about the subscription, the massive amounts of music you get by signing up and all the other fun stuff alongside it by heading to http://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe 

But, for those of you that aren’t yet subscribers, here’s 22 minutes of it here to watch and listen to – I filmed the first set and the encore, but forgot to hit record before the 2nd set! So this is the 2nd half of the first set:

Here’s the sleevenotes for the album: 

I’ve recently realised that every time I come to write sleeve notes for a new release, I’m trying to tell the same story, that the music has the same basic assumptions about the world underpinning it for me. The purpose is to ask questions and expose the beauty in leaving things open to interpretation, the deeper magic that comes from revealing and representing the complexity of everything rather than trying to sit above it and declare from some lofty vantage point that this is a finished statement. Music is my research method into the human condition and the human experience and, like academic research, you aren’t ever sure what you’ll find when you begin. You have a hunch and if this isn’t your first rodeo you’ll have a bunch of experiences to draw on, but you set off to find something new rather than just to offer proof of what you already know.

So this like everything I do is music that not only acknowledges questions, it asks them and rarely if ever offers anything definitive in response. Having that as a modus operandi means finding other people who are more interested in feeding their own curiosity than putting up signs to signify their own greatness. The irony being, of course, that it’s the quest that creates so many of music’s greatest moments – Miles gave the charts for Kind Of Blue to the band in the studio. Eric B & Rakim made Paid In Full in a week, with Rakim rapping while reading the words he’d hand-written. Black Sabbath’s first album was done in a single day. Allow the moment to define the music and all those questions can add up to something that under the right light looks like a statement. But that’s hindsight. In the moment it about instinct and trust, not second guessing and micro managing. As such I never ask people to do specific things on gigs. My basic score for any improv gig is an imaginary piece of paper that says “you’re amazing. Just be amazing” – and that’s intended as an invitation to just be, not a pressure exercise. You are already amazing.

So it is with Pete Fraser – an incredibly versatile musician, as much at home playing pop horn arrangements on TV as improvising in tiny Birmingham clubs with me. He really is amazing – I love his playing and greatly value his friendship and that vital curiosity. He’s a skilled chef, and that same spirit of mixing ingredients and respecting the laws of physics is at work in his music.

And, like me, he’s restless. His music evolves, his influences develop, his particular focus is what it is on the day of the gig. Before this show we hadn’t met since the day we recorded Intersect, but we’d both grown in the intervening two years and the music here reflects that. Pete’s use of delay and an octaver is particularly note worthy here, and once again the speed with which he reacted to anything I threw at him was nothing short of telepathic. We’ve grown and evolved and this is where we were at on that day. Like Miles and Sabbath and Eric B & Rakim, hindsight offers us the chance to reflect on the consequences of that particular quest in a more considered environment. And for the people that were there, there’s the opportunity to revisit the musical part of the experience, outwith the venue and away from the company, the extraneous sounds, the weather and the sight of us playing and interacting. That changes things. A lot. So much that the music isn’t meaningfully the same. We hear music in relation to all those things, it comments on them and reflects them back to us. That’s perhaps why music is the most repeatable of the arts, the one we encounter intentionally again and again. The music is a conversationalist, not the musician. It’s the music we hear asking us questions about where we are and what’s going on. As much for the people playing it as those in the audience. We are jointly bearing witness to this questioning and no one is thankfully expected to come up with a definitive answer. Music that tries to do that, for me, is selling us short. As with all the best research one of the most reassuring findings is always just the acknowledgment that “it’s complicated”. Life is complex, and this here’s a soundtrack that’ll hopefully invite you to rest easy in the midst of that complexity and as Martyn Joseph once sang, “Treasure The Questions”.


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Birmingham Gig on November 25th!

November 2nd, 2018 · No Comments

Right, this one is a little last minute, but I’ve got a gig on November 25th, with the properly brilliant Pete Fraser:

Steve lawson and pete fraser

Look how smiley we are! We’d just recorded an album when this was taken, on the same day we met… therein lies a tale, that involves mutual friends and lots of chatting about stuff on Twitter. But the point is, we made this: 

It’s a properly lovely album, I’m sure you’ll agree. And now we’re finally – two years after recording it – going to do a gig. So I guess this is the album launch gig. And we’ll record it, so you’ll also get to be there at the birth of album number 2… Which is exciting. 

Putting on gigs in 2018 is hard. Long gone are the days when social media was a delicious free-for-all where interesting music had a currency that meant people would see it and share it around for all to discover. That happened a LOT from 2008-2012, but then all the filters and algorithms kicked in and they made it harder for us. I’ll run a couple of FB ads for this, but really, we just need you who are reading this to tell a friend or two about the gig, and if you’re coming to grab some other friends. 

Tickets are only £8, and they include a download of the album! …in fact, if you’re a Student, or unwaged or in the MU (musician’s union), it’s only £4. And you still get the free album. 

Here’s the link to the info and tickets: https://music.stevelawson.net/merch/steve-lawson-and-pete-fraser-gig-birmingham-25-11-18 

See you there, OK? x 

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Happy Fourth Birthday To my Bandcamp Subscription!

October 23rd, 2018 · 4 Comments

Today is the fourth anniversary of the launch of my subscription!

It’s easily been the best decision of my entire recording career to move away from the idea that each 45-60 minute chunk of recorded work requires me to press 1000 CDs, do a massive marketing campaign (‘massive’ is a relative term 😉 ) and then ‘tour’ those tunes.

steve lawson bandcamp subscription releases from 2018


As an improvisor, the result of 20 years of continuous revision of my approach and the equipment that makes it possible, as well as the opportunities I’ve had to play with some truly world class, astonishing musicians, means that I have hours and hours of remarkable music piled up that needs an outlet. And the subscription gives me the ‘headroom’ to release it all.

Click here to see everything that’s on offer in the subscription!


The number of subscribers who avidly consume everything I put out the moment it’s released is pretty small – people’s lives don’t accommodate that, which is why it’s only £30, not some £200 a year uber-exclusive club for obsessives. It’s pitched so that people who want to dip in and out can do so at a price that makes it easier than buying individual albums, that gives them access to video and the occasional eBook or transcription that otherwise aren’t available…


The subscribers are a truly amazing and beautiful part of this experiment to see another way of making and sharing music in a sustainable way online. What does the internet make possible that previous models didn’t? This is one exploration of that, and I want to give a massive thank you and a virtual hug to everyone who’s been a part of this so far – every collaborator, every subscriber, current or lapsed (I explicitly chose Bandcamp so people had the choice to unsubscribe and still keep all the music – this is not a ‘rental’ scheme to trap people, I’d rather feel the motivation to continue making it valuable for existing subscribers year on year…)


Here’s to the next four years!!


(massive shout out to Andy Edwards, Phi Yaan-Zek, Bryan Corbett, Corey Mwamba, Robert Logan, Rich Brown, Poppy Porter, Pete Fraser, Julie Slick, Jem Godfrey and Michael Manring for their contributions/collaborations and general awesome musical magique! 🙂 )

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How To Organise Yourselves For A Group Project

October 4th, 2018 · No Comments

working in a groupAn awful lot of music courses these days have group-based practical projects as at least one module within the course. This is, I think, a positive trend, in that it encourages you situate your learning within the context of your own practice as creative professionals, but it definitely requires some thought regarding how to organise yourselves in a group. So here are a few thoughts on how to do that:

  • Firstly, you need to decide on a shared communication method – it could be email, a Facebook group chat (or group), Whatsapp group, Skype chat, Google Hangout… You’ll need both ongoing text chat and probably the option to have audio or video meetings, depending on how often you’re able to meet face to face. So, decide on this straight away, and make sure it’s one that everyone can access.
  • Secondly, you’ll need some kind of shared calendar into which you can put tasks and deadlines and assign roles. Google Calendar is as good as any for this, and is pretty widely supported on the web and via phone apps. It may be that your college or university has the option to create shared events via their web services, which is fine too. There are also a LOAD of great task-sharing apps – Wunderlist, Trello, etc… Some are paid, some are free. Do some research (assign someone the task) and settle on what you’re going to use within the first 24 hours of forming the group. Make a rule that you all check the calendar for that days tasks every day.
  • Along side this, you’ll need a space where you can all share documents, resources etc. Google Docs/Drive is good for this, and I think Microsoft Office 365 also has this option. Dropbox is great if everyone has an account. Google Docs makes it possible to collaborate on the same document in real time. That can be really handy if one of you is, for example, writing a press release, and someone else is proof reading it.
  • Establish a set of guidelines straight away that everyone agrees to regarding what you do when someone misses a deadline. Get it down in a document before you start so that you can deal with people who are unreliable without it having to get personal. If someone is missing deadlines as assigned in the calendar, have a protocol for reassigning that work, and for finding out what on earth is going on.
  • Set regular times to check in and report back on what you’ve done. If it’s a big project, you can do this at the end of every day – start the day with the to-do list, end it logging the tasks that have been accomplished. If you’ve got a little more time to work on it, you might decide you only need to do this every other day, or three times a week… But make sure it’s regular so you can keep a track of jobs that are missed. If it’s part of a 10 week module, you REALLY can’t afford to be waiting a week to find out that a whole load of the work that you’re all relying on has been missed.
    Keep your tutor in the loop. Make sure that each week you report back on what’s going on, where you’re up to and what you need help with. If they’re available for tutorials, book time with them. If they aren’t, but they are available via email, check that it’s OK, then contact them.
  • Find out where the other staff are in your institution that may be able to help you. Get all the support you can, and then apply your initiative and learning to get on with it.
  • Document EVERYTHING. Keep accurate notes of what you’re up to, and what you need to do, make sure that meetings are minuted (one person keeping a log of everything that is discussed and decided), use the camera on your phone to take pictures and video of all the stuff you get up to – sharing the story of your project can help make it interesting for your potential audience, so use the story of the project to support the project!
  • Sort out your own plan for time management – if you are prone to wasting endless hours online, or gaming, or watching TV or whatever, commit to finishing the tasks on your list daily before you reward yourself with your leisure pursuit of choice. Don’t let the group down because you’re too undisciplined to put the PS4 away for a few hours…

Project work can be an amazing chance to try things out, learn from your peers, and get valuable experience in your chosen field, as well as to develop skills you didn’t even know you might need. Enter into the task with enthusiasm and an open mind, get the work done, and enjoy it – it could end up helping you decide what you really want to do with your life!

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Making Time For Music

October 1st, 2018 · 2 Comments

From Danny Barnes’ “How To Make A Living Playing Music”:

v. if there’s no social context for the music you are making, don’t be mad if no one comes to the shows or buys the music. or if only very few people do. in that case the reward has to be the music. hey that’s a great deal. also you have lots of freedom to do different stuff. there’s no one to alienate. let’s face it, sometimes having no one at the show is a great indicator that you are onto something. i’m serious.

This was such a wake up call to me the first time I read it. Danny’s linking of ‘success’ and social context/utility is an enormously important one, both for live and recorded music. It’s why cover bands get more work than new/unknown original bands. The social context for nostalgia is way more widespread, and so many of the venues where live music happens are built around that. I don’t really make great beer-drinking music. The dynamic range of what I do is way too wide for people to comfortably talk while I do it without ruining it for everyone, so the ideal social context for my music is a house concert or a provincial theatre. I haven’t reached the provincial theatre level of success (yet) so house concerts it is… 

steve lawson and daniel berkman in concert

But for recorded music, the issue is similar. Whether or not people think what you do is amazing is not really the number one measure of whether they’ll listen to it. The bigger question is ‘what does this music do for me within the context of my life? What do I need music to be right now, and is this music that thing?’ – it’s why a whole bunch of music that sounds like wallpaper can be so successful. Everyone needs wallpaper! The contexts within which people can carve out space and time to listen to difficult music are surprisingly small in so many parts of contemporary western society.

This is absolutely borne out in the sales/popularity of my solo work. The weirder/harsher the sounds, the lower the sales. Often the responses from the people who love it are more effusive if I get more experimental, but if it’s harder to use, people engage with it a different way, and it becomes a thing that needs its own space and time, rather than an accompaniment. So my new album has done well for a number of reasons, but one of them is evidently that it works as social music – it’s great to put on while chatting to friends or hanging out in a way that PS, You Are Brilliant isn’t. That’s a weird, gnarly, twisted record and ends with the sound of the world exploding. Not exactly dinner party stuff…

And as a listener, I experience this on a daily basis – we have a pair of really nice BlueTooth HK Speakers in our living room. They just sound lovely, so I greatly enjoy listening to music through them. But because of where they are, the choice to listen through them means that most of the time the rest of the family are going to be listening too, and it means whoever wants to watch TV has to stop. So what are the kinds of music that work in that setting? I experiment with this a lot. Some of the things that work are surprising – we’ve had 80s Thrash parties on a Saturday morning while playing Lego. Anthrax was a particular winner. For Lo and I it was deeply nostalgic, so we were chatting about buying Metallica and Anthrax and Megadeth albums, swapping stories. For Flapjack, he got to rock out to something fairly melodic and with a ton of energy while we were playing.

But that’s a set up that doesn’t work at all with a lot of more modern – or heavier – metal. Even if it’s really diverse, it’s tough to get the family past an intro that’s all chugging Djent guitars are guttural roars… The context isn’t there. Now, extreme metal is one of my big musical loves, so in order to spend time with it I have to MAKE time. The social context is absent, so it becomes music for commuting, or solo driving, music to listen to on headphones while I’m working (if it’s the kind of work that isn’t impeded by music)

It’s the same with some kinds of free/complex jazz. There are jazz records that really work in a family space – a lot of Miles’ 70s stuff is cool, Dinosaur, Phronesis. We’re a pretty musical household, and occasionally I get away with something a bit freer – Flapjack and I have been known to listen to Cecil Taylor in the car – But I’d be unlikely to put on John Zorn as an alternative to watching Sam And Cat.

And then there’s lyrics. Alongside jazz and metal, hip hop is one of the mainstays of my musical loves, but I have to vet the lyrics fairly carefully for family listening. I’m less concerned about swearing that I am about things that carry deeply negative messages that it’d be tricky for an 8 year old to decode, but I end up playing is safe, and keeping a lot of hip hop for myself.

But I do make time for it. Because otherwise I cut myself from all this music that I need to be able to make the music I make. If you’re a musician, music is food. You can go on a diet of only listening to your own ideas, and there are certainly examples of musicians who manage to make amazing music in relative isolation (though there are also numerous examples of musicians self-inflating the auteur nature of their own practice), but for the rest of us, what we choose to listen to will shape our musical adventures in often dramatic ways. It will shape our understanding of production and arranging, and even lets us learn what our particular speakers and room are SUPPOSED to sound like – a vital aspect in learning how to mix/master is learning your system.

So, think about the social context, and carve out time for the music that matters to you, but may not necessarily fit the social spaces you occupy. Your musical journey will thank you.

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Making music sustainably in the Internet age

September 4th, 2018 · 3 Comments

Have a listen to my new album while you read (it’s a long post): 



2008-2012 was the tiny window in which the Internet looked like it really might be some kind of utopian amazing thing for independent artists trying to find a likeminded audience. With Twitter and Facebook in the ascendency, and neither of them messing with what you saw in your feed, there was a genuine meritocracy and an amazing space for indie artists to help spread the word about each other’s work without it impinging on their ability to reach their own audience. I put out a couple of records in that time, and they’re still my biggest selling digital albums. That’s no coincidence.

Then it all changed (in case you’re writing about this for college, the music economy can not reliably be divided into pre and post napster. The changes happened way more often than that, and as above, there were moments when it looked really good for us…) – Spotify came along. Initially without a mobile version or caching, it mostly replaced radio and a lot of people used it to find music to buy elsewhere! (some people still do, just fewer of them). But they pulled enough people into the streaming idea, and the prevailing industry wisdom was a really un-nuanced view that saw ‘legal streaming’ as the answer to torrenting stuff, rather than as a real and present challenge to buying stuff. Soon Spotify started ramping up the frequency of ads to make it really unpleasant without a paid account. (imagine being an advertiser who paid for an ad that purely existed to annoy people into getting rid of those ads? What a world…!)

And alongside that, first FB and then Twitter started to close off unfettered access to audiences. FB were blatant. On a given date, they introduced an algorithm that meant not everyone who was signed up to your artist page would see your stuff. Bands were literally having to cancel tours after having thrown their lot in with FB instead of a relatively costly email list, only to find that instead of 50K people a day reading their posts, it was less than a couple of hundred. Yup, it was that severe. No real warning, no room to manoeuvre, just ‘pay up, or no-one sees your tour dates’. And as most bands haven’t budgeted for that kind of contingency, there were tours booked on the assumption that 50K people would be engaged in knowing about and talking about them to help build an audience that crashed and burned.

Twitter was more subtle. First there was the shift of their ‘recommended’ users away from friends of the people that worked there that they thought were interesting (remember when brilliant and fascinating indie artists like Zoe Keating and Imogen Heap were on the recommended people to follow? The good old days…) Instead it was corporate accounts and reality TV stars. We were all being encouraged and subtly engineered away from forming meaningful open conversations with our friends and instead following celeb accounts, who in turn were paying for ‘promoted’ tweets, faked trending hashtags and the like. I still hold that the biggest enemies to conversation on Twitter are us all following way too many people, and the entirely bogus thought that our time is best spent trying to sum up how shit politics is in pithy Tweets that will salve the nagging feeling that we’re all going to burn. Seeing endless retweets and now seeing people’s faves in our timeline further ruins the experience…

And iTunes, once the supposed shining crown jewel of digital music shopping online (if you ignore all the BS with 128k files and DRM at the start), acquired Beats Music and morphed it into Apple Music. Their own streaming service, in direct competition to iTunes. They clearly give no shits about iTunes store, and would rather have the residual payments for people re-listening to old stuff than help current artists fund their work (TL:DR of streaming economics – it makes perfect sense IF 99% of the value in your body of work has already been released and sold in the past. If you’re a major label who also owns a publisher, then making money (and scraping metadata) from all the people who listen to The Beatles and Michael Jackson and Abba and The Eagles and the thousands of hit songs from yesteryear is WAY, WAY more profitable to you than those same people listening to vinyl or CDs that they bought in the last century. So you throw all new artists under the bus for that publishing money, and then pretend that the fight over higher royalty rates is one you even care about so the new artists don’t all leave. And if you can grandfather streaming into a record deal that still gives the label and publisher most of the money despite nothing being released, then you can make even more money and the artist gets basically nothing (see Peter Frampton’s viral complaints for evidence). Some indies are doing OK from streaming (if you keep all your rights and get some good promo elsewhere) but there’s no solid model for it as yet… In a nutshell)

But, through all of this, one only music entity kept growing, kept getting bigger, and better, adding music journalism, subscriptions, discovery… While Spotify was posting millions in annual losses and faking artists so they could stack their own playlists with shitty music that was published in-house dishonestly, Bandcamp grew and grew. $317 Million dollars to artists as I write this, and no losses. Also, no billionaire owners…

For me, as that fleeting utopian window faded, Bandcamp came up with the subscription idea. Offer people more music, more video, more interaction for an annual fee. The subscribers still get albums to download and keep (it’s still the bit of this that matters to me the most – nothing that anyone gets from me on Bandcamp is rented. It’s theirs. You aren’t paying for annual access to a thing that can be taken away. It’s yours (and in my case, it’s all Creative Commons licensed, so you can share it with your friends too – it makes no sense to me to criminalise people helping to spread the word). If Spotify goes down, all those curated playlists and all that data you’ve built up is gone for good. If Bandcamp goes down, all the music is yours (and equally valuably, my listeners are on my email list, so we don’t lose touch like we did on Myspace or MP3.com)

So what of releasing an individual album like I did yesterday? For me it has a number of functions. It’s good for me to stick a flag in the ground once a year – here’s what I’m up to, y’all – for those who aren’t already into what I’m doing, it’s a chance to explore it at album length. And for those who like some of what I do and not other bits, it’s a chance to buy an album at a sensible price and not have to subscribe to a bunch of music you don’t like just to get it!

YouTube for instrumentalists has developed a culture of wowing people with super clever tricks and monster technique. All fine except when it stops people from making any other kind of music. I’m acutely aware that my stuff on YouTube is never going to go viral. But I’ve also no plans to start making circus videos as adverts for something else. Great if your art leans in that direction already, but I’m more concerned about a diverse ecosystem for the arts, than forcing everyone into a particular mould to go viral.

Bandcamp doesn’t have that. I’m not trying to get a specific number of listens/views/clicks to make it meaningful. It is what they describe as ‘high friction’. It’s not designed for 20 seconds of wow before clicking out to somewhere else. The attention is on the art. And the invitation is to pay for it and help make more of it possible. If someone buys my new album, they aren’t paying off a budget for making or promoting it, they’re helping to make the next one possible. That’s why the monthly income from subscribers is so amazing. I worked out that I’d have needed somewhere north of 11 million Spotify plays to make what I’ve made on Bandcamp. That’s never going to happen making the music I make. I’d have to be thinking of ambient playlists as my target audience to try and make any money on Spotify at all. And that’s not what I do, it’s not what’s interesting about what I do, and it’s not why the people who subscribe to me are there.

My thinking on how music works online evolves a lot over time (dig back into my blog and you’ll see many posts where I was v much pro-Spotify at one point, and earlier than that where I had a really regressive and insane view of file sharing) but the knowledge that there’s no better environment for the sustainability of independent music online than Bandcamp has remained solid since 2009.

Thanks to everyone who made the defiant step of buying my new album. It would’ve taken me many, many thousands of Spotify plays to get the same level of income, and the ad campaign to get those plays would’ve eaten up all the money I made from it. Instead, a small group of people have made this record viable, by helping me to cover with download sales the money I’ve lost in the last week or so through illness-induced canceled teaching. That’s pretty amazing, and I’m grateful.

I’m not going to get rich, I’m not aiming to be famous, or to go viral. I just want to make more interesting art that reflects the world it exists in, and finds the people who care about that. Bandcamp is making that possible. Join the quiet revolution 🙂

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