stevelawson.net

Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



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

Marketing By Accident

October 19th, 2009 · 1 Comment

I’ve written a lot over the years about the power of curiosity – that most of my own best disoveries have just happened because I was interested in something and decided to investigate it without waiting for any kind external confirmation that that was ‘OK’ or ‘wise’.

So yesterday when a link from a friend landed me at xtranormal.com and I saw that there was a ‘create’ button, I set to work writing a comedy script for two people talking about a solo bass house concert.

Since then it’s had about a thousand views (pretty good going for overnight on a Sunday!), and I’m sure has quite a journey to go on yet… All because I saw a link, clicked it and played around.

Try it, sometimes it can really help :)

Anyway, here it is. “Solo Bass. It’s The Future.”

Feel free to share it around, or make your own videos. It’s pretty time consuming, but well worth it :)

[EDIT] it’s worth noting that the first place I shared this was Posterous. An awesome blogging platform, that I’ll write more about v. soon!

Tags: bass ideas · Geek · New Music Strategies

Puppet Show in A Traffic Jam

September 4th, 2009 · Comments Off on Puppet Show in A Traffic Jam

This is one of those weird stories that often results from me spending more than about 2 minutes in Andrew Dubber’s company. I think we bring out the tangentialist in each other.

We were sat chatting by the canal in Birmingham, and a boat went past, with a couple of little kids on it, waving at everyone on the bank, and getting ever so delighted when anyone waved back. [Read more →]

Tags: Geek · New Music Strategies

After CDs. What’s next?

June 11th, 2009 · 12 Comments

Following on from yesterday’s post about the anachronistic nature of the term ‘label’, I’ve been having a think about the actual format that music is released in.

It’s amazing how containers can make us lazy about content. The assumptions we make about the nature of music, collections of music, what constitutes a ‘complete work’ etc.

There’s a great thread over on solobasssteve.com about this, where Tom asks about the way that downloads are allowing classical music to be consumed in the way it was intended – in mixed programmes of individual movements, or of complete works without the weird filler stuff that’s used to make up the empty bit on the CD. [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

Open Letter to the UK Jazz Community Pt IV – No More Sidemen!

April 23rd, 2009 · Comments Off on Open Letter to the UK Jazz Community Pt IV – No More Sidemen!

photo of Steve Lawson and Michael Manring on stage together at the Brookdale LodgeAnother thing I touched on in part II was the issue of ‘sidemen’ who have no sense of ownership of a project. This is a big problem when a large part of the cost of any particular gig is paying the musicians. If only one of you is doing the work to get an audience, but four of you are getting paid for playing the gig, something’s wrong.

So, my suggestion is that band leaders need to stop thinking in terms of ‘sidemen’ when booking players – stop hiring people just to play on the gig. This works well all round – when we start thinking like this, we end up having the opportunity to bring a whole lot more to a gig than just playing – we bring with us an audience, some marketing ideas and a whole load of enthusiasm. [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

"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

Social Media Help

October 17th, 2008 · 5 Comments

I have been blogging since before it was called blogging and using social media to interact with my audience since the pre-millenial days of Web 1.0. As a result, I’ve found myself, over the years, in a good place to help others connect the worlds of music and social media.

I lecture regularly in universities and music colleges – helping students understand the transformative potential for their music-life that the web offers. I’ve spoken at a few UnConvention events, and also work on social media-led projects outside of the music world with Amplified and Tuttle.

So, it seems I’m pretty good at helping people connect the world of recorded/performed music with the conversations and communities that form around music culture.

It’s been an interesting path to explore for me, drawing on over a decade of online experience running my own career and record label and using that to help others develop a greater degree of web-literacy.

If you want help, or want me to speak at your event, drop me a line.

Most of my ideas are available here for free, so if you want to read more of my thoughts on music and social media, check the blog posts here and those on MusicThinkTank.com, particularly this one about Transformative Vs Incremental Change.

But the very best way to understand what I’m talking about is to listen to the PodCast embedded downloadable below, which I recorded with Penny Jackson for the Creative Coffee Club:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Also, here’s an interview with me from Radio 5 Live’s Pods And Blogs show, from March 10th, talking about how social media has changed everything for musicians:

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

And lastly, two videos:
Firstly, this interview with Andrew Dubber of NewMusicStrategies.com about Twitter usage for bands:


Steve Lawson from Andrew Dubber on Vimeo.

And then this talk from the JAMES conference at Leeds Met:

Tags:

It pains me to say it, but Billy Bragg couldn't be more wrong…

July 26th, 2008 · Comments Off on It pains me to say it, but Billy Bragg couldn't be more wrong…

…And here was me hoping that the arguments over ‘flat license fees’ for music online were going away and people realised it was largely unworkable. Gerd Leonhard has been pushing this for a while as the answer – Gerd is a futurist, and as I’ve said before, he approaches the industry with the characteristic fatalism of a futurist – the trends all point in a certain way, so let’s not try and change the culture or wish for a better world, but instead just bend with the wind and squeeze some money from the listeners before they just steal it all.

And now my favourite living Englishman (OK, joint fave with Tony Benn), Billy Bragg has piled in on the discussion putting his weight behind the idea that music should be either license fee driven or ad-revenue driven.

And I, perhaps not surprisingly, disagree with him. Rather strongly. Here’s a few reasons why:

  • the cost of administrating such a scheme would be prohibitively high – the per-track margins involved in such a scheme would mean that the people who currently make a few hundred or a few thousand pounds a year in revenue from their recorded output would be likely driven out of the game, or forced to opt out of the scheme, and in order to ‘compete’ at all, would have to just give their stuff away without any come-back. There is a healthy music-world that operates outside even the spread of the MCPS/PRS licensing scheme for recorded music, where bands record their own original music, press their own CDs and sell them, because audiences are still aware of the financial value of recorded music. Destroy that, and those people are left high and dry – it would be fine if recorded music were genuinely ‘free’, but recording music takes time, resources, skills, all of which are costed on a scale – you want a better drum sound, you better go to a decent studio with great mics… That’s not going to happen if music for band start-ups is designed to be given away. So we end up back with the home-demo production values of the mid 80s, and hand the record labels another way of holding artists to hostage just because they own a studio and have access to advertising revenue…
  • how hard it would be to police – without getting deeper into a ‘big brother’ monitoring situation, it’d be damn near impossible to bring all music under that licensed umbrella.
  • how difficult it would be for smaller bands to build a ‘brand’ if their music is lost in some massive licensed distribution package – it’s hard enough for bands to carve out their own space online as it is, with most of the current retail options being centralized – iTunes, eMusic etc – they can be linked into, but it’s vital in the current climate that bands can manage their own sales. In the license-era, CDs (or whatever other new format has arrived) could still be sold online as ‘premium product’, but download sales would vanish, and download traffic, in order to fit within the license, will be moved away from the band’s site. I’m sure the widgets will be skinnable, but it’s still shifting the powerbase to whoever gets charged with handling the database (a database of ALL music??? who the hell would we trust with that, to not be gamable by the big labels???)
  • what’s the potential for growth within such a system – the Long Tail, as a concept, only works if an artist/content producer is ‘pushing’ traffic into the long tail – very little of my audience passively lands on my music – last.fm is probably the only significant traffic source for people finding me ‘by accident’. Maybe Myspace, to an extent. But I’m still pushing the traffic that way, and the idea of pushing people away from my site, into the license area (however that becomes administered) for miniscule return, just doesn’t work for me as a relatively marginal artist. It’s bloody marvellous for Madonna, Radiohead and even Billy Bragg – for artists with what I think of as an ‘ambient legacy’, a large general awareness of what they do amongst listeners, it’s a great deal – for people to be able to go and download all of Billy’s back catalogue for ‘free’, LOADS of people would do it, but even charge them £2 per album, and they’d think twice… He gets to capitalize on years of record company expenditure and media exposure…
  • what it psychologically does to the listener to perceive record music as having no value. This, for me is the crux of it – this approach actively ruins the relationship between listener and music – not listener and band, but listener and music. In order to give people the experience of learning from music, of being changed by it, of learning to love it, we need to be building better filters for discovery, not broadening access to 100,000 song archives. I know teenage kids with 10s of thousands of tracks on their computers. Most of it they’ll never ever listen to. You can’t. They have it because it’s there. It’s consumer-gluttony and benefits no-one. If they were ‘paying’ fractions of a penny per track via a license scheme for those tracks, it’s not going to make that track any more valuable for them. In fact, the value of downloading it illegally is probably higher because they need to step outside of ‘the mainstream’ to do it, there’s a frisson of excitement as doing something illegal (if they even know it’s illegal), and that adds value!

I LOVE Billy Bragg, I think he’s great, and I’m really glad he’s thinking through this stuff, but on this one, he’s many shades of wrong…

So what’s the alternative? i’ll write more later, but feel free to add your thoughts in the comments!

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

Twitter-Buzzin' – some early results…

June 17th, 2008 · 2 Comments

Thanks so much to all of you who took part in the great Twitter-buzzin’ experiment! It was firstly a whole lot of fun and the most obvious traceable statistic is that it the number of unique visitors to my blog and the wordpress part of my site more than doubled, and unlike most traffic spikes, the ‘average time on site’ stayed as high as it does for my regular visitors… So the new visitors sent in by my tweetin’ lovelies were engaged to a greater degree than most of the random traffic that comes to my site without any ‘buzz generation’ going on.

However, what also became VERY clear is how impossible it is to accurately track the spread of organic buzz – or rather, it’s impossible to track buzz where the buzz-generators don’t explicitly sign up to being tracked…

What I tried to use was tweetburner, which tracks clicks on twurl.nl so you can see who’s been clicking your links, and, I thought, tracks who else had tweeted it. Except it only tracks accurately those who are signed up for tweetburner, not all twitter users (which makese sense, given data protection and privacy considerations, I guess!) – so while it does show the sites/external apps that are clicked on, it doesn’t say which account generated those clicks, which made it a lot trickier to follow. There are some indications, in terms of whose twitter URL the clicks originated from, but most twitter users are using a client of some kind…

I was able to get some more accurate stats by upgrading my MyBlogLog.com account to pro, and see more details about where clicks were coming from, and by cross referencing that with my Google Analytics stats, I get some idea of where traffic is coming from. But it’s all very much long tail stuff – loads of single clicks from disparate sources add up to a whole lot of traffic.

Conclusions Pt 1 –

And I guess that’s the nature of ‘buzz’, real buzz – it’s not about having one link appear on stumbleupon for a few hours, getting 500 visitors who never come back, and stay for about 6 seconds on your site. It’s about peer proliferation – friends telling friends, inviting them to check out something cool, something relevant, something connected, something of value. One of the interesting bits that was equally un-metric-able was the number of people who were listening to my (or mine and Lobelia’s music, since some of the twurl links were to youtube vids of us… ) – a few tweets came back talking about it, but again, unless people had opted in to having their music listening tracked by last.fm, or chose to comment or rate the youtube vids, the buzz was largely unmeasurable…

So in terms of prizes, I’m a little stuck at the moment to tell who got who to come here… but there’ll be another few parts to this experiment before CDs start whizzing their way around the planet, so rest assured, the prizes are still there to be had.

For now though, a huge thankyou to Banannie, Documentally, ihatemornings, knackeredhack, andycoughlan, t1mmyb, garethjms and to otir and tapps who took the concept over to plurk

For now though, did anyone tweet you back about it? Anyone message you to say they thought it was cool? One day is a short time in which to track these thinsgs and I intentionally kept it as ‘spam-free’ as I could – I wanted this to be about a group of friends helping out and seeing what happened…

Pt II coming later – Blog-Buzzin’! :)

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