stevelawson.net

Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



"Art First" – Why the 'Present of Music' is the Best it's Ever Been for Musicians

April 6th, 2009 · Comments Off on "Art First" – Why the 'Present of Music' is the Best it's Ever Been for Musicians

photo of clown art from the Urban Scrawl ExhibitionFrom Thursday to Saturday last week I was following Andrew Dubber’s tweets from a music industry conference in Finland called Is This It?

The premise of the conference is that it’s a ‘music seminar about music‘, though there was a baffling and conspicuous absence of actual musicians speaking at it. The overall tone, it seemed – as drawn from the various tweeted quotes – was that it was a bunch of music industry people desperately trying to come up with a way to continue ‘business as usual’ – marketing strategies, ways to feed more data to collection agencies to get paid, and the usual crop of should’ve-been-left-in-the-70s ideas involving scantily clad women as a marketing draw. So far, so heinous.
[Read more →]

Tags: Geek · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

The Problem Of Time Pt II – Social Networks for Social Musicians

February 5th, 2009 · Comments Off on The Problem Of Time Pt II – Social Networks for Social Musicians

Steve Lawson talking in the Ustream chatroom between sets, Milwaukee House concert Dec 2008So, as I outlined in Pt 1, Social networks can be a really tough place to inhabit as a musician, because you’re going to get a LOT of artists sending you friend requests expecting you to check out their music.

The idea for the artist, in that case, is that numbers mean everything. If I have 80,000 Myspace friends I must be doing something right, right? Surely that means that a percentage of them are going to become fans, tell their friends and then go and buy my CDs. Surely those kind of numbers will land me a record deal? Any label that knows I’ve got 80,000 devoted Myspace ‘fans’ will surely snap me up?

Wrong. As anyone knows whose spent any time on Myspace, there’s no correlation at all between numbers of myspace friends and any real-world metric of success, be that sales, gigs, quality or measurable commercial potential. There are some truly dire musicians on myspace with 80,000 friends, who clearly didn’t get the memo that said ‘oi! stop adding myspace friends and go and practice, your music sucks!
And sadly for musicians on other social networks, the numbers game of the old industry – and myspace – still carries over, and there are bands spamming everyone and anyone on Twitter, ReverbNation, Facebook, Last.Fm and anywhere else they can find to pimp their music. The internet equivalent of aggressively flyering in the street.

Only, as I wrote in part 1, that’s just not how people find music. If you want to know how people find music online, read ‘Net, Blogs And Rock ‘n’ Roll‘ by David Jennings. It’s by far the best book ever written on the subject. It’s brilliant, and you need to read it if you want to be were you audience are likely to be. David outlines the ways that communities form around musical artists and styles, and what the tools are online that are facilitating that. His book is vital reading for anyone working in the industry, and would make fascinating reading for anyone interested in any level of community formation online.

But what I’ll add to it is about the value of being social on social media platforms.

I know, it sounds flippin’ obvious. And it is. It is obvious. So why do so many morons persist in ‘following’ 3000 people on twitter in the hope of picking up listeners? Why the inability to hold a conversation with anyone?

Lobelia and I just booked a whole series of house concerts in the US, almost entirely through Twitter. The vast majority of the hosts of the concerts were twitter-friends of ours, and between us and them, we promoted the shows via Twitter. Loads of our twitter friends showed up, almost all of whom found out about ‘us’ before they found out about our music. They were people we’d chatted with about everything, who listened to the music we make because we were interesting to them.

The conversation was what gave them cause to listen, not the description of what we do. I would hazard a guess that well over 90% of our audience on this tour couldn’t name you another solo bassist (except at the shows that featured other solo bassists!). We didn’t end up playing to rooms full of bass and looping geeks. We played to people who were already caught up in the story of who were are, and were the only too eager to become part of the event, and bring their friends.

We still had to be really good at what we do. Moreso, given that the person hosting each gig was putting their reputation on the line by hosting our gig (in most venues, the owner couldn’t care less what you sound like if you can guarantee beer-drinking punters. House concerts obviously aren’t like that!).

So how does this idea of conversing with your audience transfer to social network activity? Here are some key points:

  • Myspace friends are a cheap (near-worthless) currency, in and of themselves. Most of the people who add you on myspace only do so to get you to listen to them. The only value is the interaction.
  • There are only so many superlatives in the world, and all of them have been claimed by other musicians. Telling me in your bio how universe-conqueringly amazing you are counts for nothing.
  • Your audience are far more likely to talk about you once they’ve made friends with you. ‘Hey guess what, I met this really cool guitar player on twitter, we were chatting about his dog, then I listened to his tunes – amazing stuff’ – etc.
  • Pretending to be an aloof detached rock star doesn’t work unless you’ve got the kind of money it takes to make you into a rock star. ‘Fame’ is way too expensive for very little pay-off – ignore it.
  • If all you talk about is your own music, you’ll bore people pretty quick. Frame it in the context of the rest of your interests. Use the platform you have to share info that’s of value (at this point, if you haven’t read my top twitter tips for musicians, do it!)
  • Time is precious, you have to earn the right to the time it takes people to listen to your music. Take that responsibility seriously, talk up to your audience not down to them, listen, chat, answer questions, ask them, and you never know, you might even end up getting more out of social networking personally than you do professionally 😉
  • Don’t get lost in the numbers – communities of properly connected people take time to grow. Give it time. You’ve got plenty of it.

It’s vital to not get distracted by the over-hyped, bankrupt ideas of the old school record industry. The cost of turning records into hits vs the chances of making it back made for pretty crappy odds for each artist – the labels eventually did OK by making it all back on the ones that went supernova, while the rest were left in debt, and the stars often ended up drugged out and fucked up.

We have the chance to do this differently. If we understand what’s going on, reject the giantism of the friend-list-size-obsessed spam culture and instead invest our time in making great music and inviting people into the world where that music is made, we have much less to lose and much more to gain.

Win-win.

(BTW, the picture at the top is me on Tracy Apps‘ laptop, chatting to the people who were in the chat room watching the live stream of our house concert from Tracy’s place, on Ustream.tv – gettin’ social on yo ass!)

Tags: Geek · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

'But I still like CDs!': why it's OK if your audience are webphobic.

December 4th, 2008 · Comments Off on 'But I still like CDs!': why it's OK if your audience are webphobic.

one of Ben Walker's excellent graphs. Clever man.This morning I read a really excellent blog post by Ben Walker.

It’s headed Wake Up And Smell The Evidence and outlines via statistics gathered from Ben’s own audience just how little of this social media webby geeky stuff gets through to ‘your average music fan’.

So are we wasting our time? Not if, like me, you see David Jennings amazing book, Net Blogs And Rock ‘n’ Roll as the handbook to understanding this stuff.

The Cover of Net Blogs And Rock 'n' Roll by David JenningsDavid addresses the very issue that Ben is most concerned with in the book, and in this blog post entitled Participation And Influence In Social Media in which he introduces us to a pyramid in which the 3 categories of participant in social media – as categorized by Bradley Horowitz – work as follows:

  • Creators — 1% of the user population might start a group (or a thread within a group)
  • Synthesisers — 10% of the user population might participate actively, and actually author content whether starting a thread or responding to a thread-in-progress
  • Consumers — 100% of the user population benefits from the activities of the above groups (lurkers

So when we put all this stuff out there, when we make our blogs and music and widgets and all that geeky bollocks sharable, we’re actually doing it for only a small percentage of our audience.

We can actually take heart that 1% of our audience are likely to be creating their own widgets, writing their own blogs about music and generally making a fuss about the things they love. If that happens to be us or our music, so much the better.

The next 10% are the ones who care, who share and who are very often there to bring friends along to gigs – they aren’t doing youtube mash-ups of our songs and clips from US teen TV shows, but they are very much aware of what we’re up to, and are more than happy to pass the info along.

And at the base of the pyramid we have the other 89%, who just like what we do, who listen, who put it on while they do the dishes. Who buy CDs, who listen to the radio, and use the internet to write emails to relatives and to passively stalk old school friends on FriendsReunited. They don’t really care (at the moment) about downloading and RSS feeds and twitter and tagging and all that other stuff we’re so excited and passionate about.

But then they don’t need to. Hopefully they’ll find out about us because one of their 10 BFFs is doing that for them. and then maybe…

…1 of their 100 work colleagues has started his own internet radio station,
…and he digs mellow loopy solo bass post rock goodness.
…So he plays me.
…And then Mrs FriendsReunited hears it because, hey, he’s a nice bloke to work with, and he even went to the trouble of emailing the link round.
…Most of what he plays is very odd, but there was this really gentle bit in the middle, sounded like the soundtrack to a mellow film.
…etc. etc.

The evolution of web-tools will always be targeted at these three groups differently. While Ben and David and I are all trawling the net for news of great social apps that we can add as plug-ins to our wordpress blogs, our keen friends and fans are happy to click on the ‘share this’ links a the bottom of each blog, and send it out to their mates on facebook. The better the facebook integration with our blog is, the better the chances are for them to share that stuff. And given the size and reach of sites like facebook and myspace, you never know, Mrs FriendsReunited may well have a facebook page, and get sent a link to a post about my new album, and hear it, and think ‘hmm, that reminds me of that thing on the internet radio station’ and about 3 years later she’ll serendipitously find out that they were one and the same, and will buy a CD…

So please do read Ben’s post. It’s excellent. But the situation is slightly less bleak than he makes out, as the marvellous David Jennings makes so clear in his post. I’m glad I have such wise and talented friends. (and no, for the record, David didn’t steal the idea from me… 😉 )

Tags: Geek · Musing on Music · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

Social Media Thoughts 5: Sharing the Love pt 1 – fans.

June 13th, 2008 · 2 Comments

If you listened to the podcast I’ve been talking about in the last couple of posts, you’ll know that one of the things I’ve been thinking about of late is how Social Media lets the story of what we do and why we do it be told in as many ways as there are people willing to tell it.

As an example, think of an album you like, and try and sum it up in one sentence – a slogan that would work on a bill-board. Then have a think about the diverse range of people who might listen to that music, and whether they would understand what it is that you’re describing. Are you using other music as a reference point, music they might not know? Are you referring to it technically in a way that most of the audience wouldn’t understand or even care about? Are you framing it culturally in a way that alientates parts of the potential audience? The answer is probably ‘yes’ to all of those, for some of the potential audience.

I’ve designed a few print ads in my time, most of them to run in bass magazines – easy target audience you’d think? Nope. For every bassist who gets excited over the ‘idea’ of solo bass, there are 20 who dismiss it before listening as a mindless technical wankfest. Musician-specific audiences are a mixed blessing. Sure, there’s a level of ‘wow’-factor that anything clever has for them that a lay audience may not have, but they’re also prone to listening with their eyes, so if you’re inclined to make music to be listened to rather than watched as a sport, it can be a tough crowd.

No, writing broadcast ad-copy is a nightmare, and very rarely worth the expense, if what you’re marketing isn’t a necessary utility.

Which is where the ‘viral’ aspect of social media comes into its own, and doesn’t just involve videos of cats being cute racking up 11 million views on youtube. No, I just mean us being able to talk about and share things that we think are of value to anyone else in our social networks.

There are two distinct sides to this – what we do as ‘fans’, which I’ll deal with here and what we do as fellow artists, which I’ll blog about shortly.

The fans bit is easiest – people who find what I do and like it can ‘share’ the page on facebook, ‘stumble’ it, tweet about it, or just send an ole fashioned email to a friend with a recommendation to check out a particular tune or artist. We can even buy music for them on iTunes, and can of course describe it in any way that works for us, using the promo blurb that the artist has on their site if we want, or just making it up. So someone finding me could send their friend some BS about ‘the UK’s leading solo bass guitarist’ or say something random like ‘here’s a song that REALLY reminds me of custard… can’t work out why’… either way, it’s a new story, it’s a story that has context, and history and shared language in a way that a broadcast soundbite written by a marketing person will never have.

The artist’s role in this is to resource those digging for info. Often I want to share music with a fair amount of context, especially if it’s great music made in a way that is relevant to a particular musician, so if I go to the artist’s site and find a description of how they made a particular sound or recorded a particular track, so much the better. If while I’m there, I read a bit more about why they make the music they make, and what’s going on with them, it provides even greater context for me, and also for anyone I point to the site.

The key here is understanding how and why we ‘get into’ a particular band. It’s VERY rarely through one listen to a song. Two things in particular make a big difference to the likelihood of us loving a band – context and repeat exposure.

In the bad old days, pre-internets, repeat exposure came either through radio or after we’d bought the record. So we had time to grow to love things, and often bought them based on reviewers or friends who acted as cultural gate-keepers. The need to buy on trust has gone, so the role of musical town-criers is less vital, and we can all play a part in sharing what we dig.

Three things are therefor vital for musicians to do

1. articulate the need for some assistance – in the bad old days of Web 1.0, the vast majority of ‘web-savvy’ indie musicians played the ‘faux-major’ website game. Get a super flashy (often Flash-y) website design, and make it look like you are hidden behind a team of managers, designers, pluggers, PRs and a fancy schmancy rich label. Fake it to make it. It soon became very clear that audiences value interaction with artists far more than they are ‘wowed’ by faux-corporatism. So in the new web ecomony, we need to make ourselves available to answer our audience’s questions about what we do, invite their interaction with our process, and ask for their help! I UTTERLY rely on my audience telling their friends, family and social peers about what I do when they find something in it that works for them – and, leading onto number 2,
2.I try and make it as easy as possible for them (you?) to share things – at the bottom of this post, and any other post or page on my site, you’ll see a lil’ green logo that says ‘share this’ next to it – if you click on there, it’s easy to share that page or post on any social network you happen to be a part of – Myspace, facebook, stumbleupon, digg, del.icio.us, and a bunch of others I’ve never even heard of! that’s one of the main ways that people who have never heard me get to hear what I do – you sharing it.
3. The 3rd thing we musicians need to do is Show Gratitude – I’m well aware that you don’t NEED to tell anyone about my music. You don’t NEED to listen to me, or read this blog, or anything else – it’s a tragic pit that so many musicians fall into when they forget what David Jennings refers to in Net Blogs And Rock & Roll as ‘Jennings Law’ – “people make most of their discoveries elsewhere.” – no-one is hanging around twiddling their thumbs feeling like their monthly broadband fee is wasted cos I haven’t released enough music or written enough blog posts this week. In an attention economy, the onus is on me to be interesting enough for people to come and see what I do, and to frame the music is a context that hopefully inspires people to want to share that with their friends and peers, and to get the pay-off that they see it helping me…

So, in closing, it helps. If you’ve been sharing what I do with your friends, let me know in the comments below, and I’ll show some gratitude 🙂

Tags: Geek · Musing on Music · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians