stevelawson.net

Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Review – solo gig, St Luke's London (Misfit City)

May 7th, 2008 · No Comments

“Drawn by the call of bass, I’m chilling here – it’s cold inside the nave of this small church tucked away by Holloway Prison. Were he American, Steve Lawson would be filling Stateside theatres on the progressive-instrumental circuit. But he’s British, and aiming at a gap in the market that the industry’s done its best to squeeze shut (or suffocate with endless minor variations on “Tubular Bells”). And, consequently, he has to plan and implement his own events from the ground up and in out-of-the-way places.

At least St Lukes is a fine place tonight. Flickering tea-lights, sofas and chairs, lovely acoustics and clean tall white walls to carry the visual multi-media provided by the Sparks collective. Long shots of bus travel and busy campuses fill one wall, a cartoon tribute to Lawson’s trippy bass guitar music along another, and TV screens frame inert men lolling in armchairs. Negative homilies manifest quietly on walls – “Once bitten, unlikely to trust anyone ever again”; “Failure is inevitable, therefore I will never even try to begin anything”. Jolly animations of dancing subway signs and jostling cells inhabit one corner. From another a muted, indistinct babble of voices seeps out of three detuned radios to wind around our chair legs. Once again, I find myself part of an installation (tonight, Matthew, I’m the saggy off-colour bit up near the front).

By all appearances, Steve Lawson’s pretty much marked for bass guitar playing. He looks like a frighteningly convincing young Geddy Lee from a Rush tribute band, and he sounds much like Michael Manring – the clusters of ringing-bell harmonics, the use of E-Bow sustainer and the glutinous pining tone of his six-string fretless. But he’s very much his own musician, and one capable of taking on any of the American virtuosi on equal terms. A live shot of Steve Lawson (photo by Edward Eldon) His playing has elements of other remarkable bassists (Victor Wooten’s bubbling folk-song lines, the inevitable Pastorius, Eberhard Weber, the aforementioned Manring, plus every now and again a moment of cyclic Stuart Hamm tap-and-hold). His improvised melodies, though – allied to the upside/downside/back-to-front timbral inventions and the multi-layered looping fed through his small garrison of effects pedals – make for an assertive and individual new voice.

Lawson’s milieu is a translucent psychoactive landscape of sound that tugs at old memories of water, of night, of the hypnotic rapture of nature; as close to the ethereal electronic/acoustic embrace of Cipher or BJ Cole’s Transparent Music as it is to the inevitable Frippertronics. As he duets with himself on soprano-calling E-bowed lines, plucks crisp sophisticated little riffs, or feeds in a ribbon of backward-processed Chinese Opera or Turkish trumpet tones (which he’s quietly played and tweaked only moments before), it’s both captivating and enveloping. He makes unnerving harmonised passages of scrunched sound like a passing swarm of disgruntled operatic bats. Or manufactures and introduces his own complex thump of trance-techno beats on the spot, mixing them in carefully to evolve a questioning jazz solo into a dance-music leap. All part of a weave of rich underwater reverb and freeflowing textures (or, as the man himself puts it, “weird stuff”) which molds itself to the warming air in the church.

There’s always a sense of audience in this guy’s playing; always a feel for melody and placement, and – incredibly, for a loop gig – no straying into pretentious or tedious noodling. The continually morphing but almost hummable “Drifting”, in particular, seems to last for most of the evening, yet never once feels dull or overstretched. Everything is considered carefully as it’s played – you can see him thinking, nose wrinkled and fingers hovering – and if the improvising is slow, laid-back and eminently accessible, it’s also consistently inspired and knows where to move to. There’s humour here too – the string-click that turns into an amplified lipsmack, or the way Steve spends half a minute constructing a fresh set of rhythm, harmony, melody and texture loops almost from scratch to make a perfectly harmonised melodious group arrangement… and then casually strolls to the toilet for a few minutes, leaving a squad of virtual-bassists to calmly play on without him. Had you been looking down, you’d’ve have missed his absence entirely. A honeycombed version of an old standard (“Blue Moon” – warm, graceful and far from blue cheesiness) connects back to traditional jazziness, but Steve Lawson’s very much a modern player: a full-on ear-bather in love with the luxury of de-e-e-e-p sounds, but suspicious of waste, thank God.

For the second half, Lawson brings on Harry Napier (on elegantly melodic cello) and Mark Lloyd (on compact percussion rig), pulls himself out of the ultramarine and the innerspatial, and plonks himself down into a more mannered realm. Specifically, New Chamber Music: that tidy, definition-elusive, very white stream of fusion, factoring in classical, jazz and folk idioms, and best illustrated by Napier’s correct and serene improvisations over a little loop of Bach. Half of the mighty loop rig is switched off, to be replaced by group approaches and music overlapping into aspects of Windham Hill (the muso cleanliness of The Montreux Band) or ECM (the more melodious, commercial side of Oregon or Paul Winter). And as the trio course through versions of Pat Metheny/Charlie Haden’s “Spiritual” (written by Charlie’s son Josh, indie people – he of the noir-ish, string-laden Spain) and Bill Frisell’s “That Was Then”, you can tell that their spiritual home’s the panelled confines of the QEH or Carnegie rather than the Jazz Cafe or a proggie hangout. It sometimes edges too far in a polite direction, but for slow-cooking group playing it’s tough to fault.

In a less intimate setting, Andy Thornton would’ve looked like this… After this, former Big Sur songwriter Andy Thornton – over in the coffee lounge, in low light – is a fine comedown, and no let-down either. A camply mellow presence with a nice line in dry wit, working with strong roadstepping acoustic guitar and a voice that pitches a little lopsided but hits the emotional target dead on, his is the necessary music to complement the wordlessness of Lawson and co. Songs with soft sides and late wisdom about love and ageing, performed in a number of personas from the petulant (“She Won’t Talk To Me” – “once you say you love them, then you’re shown the door”) to the hyperreal. Fine-tuning his guitar, Thornton announces “this is about a random shepherd sitting on a hill, contemplating physics; and this is what he wrote” – and follows up with a spiralling love song full of dramatic metaphysical jumps of scale and perspective. Later, he’ll sing something with the same driven blend of voyeurism and thwarted intimacy as “If I Was Your Girlfriend”, giving us permission to laugh at the first line (“I wish I was a girl of 21″) but daring us to giggle at the sympathy and jealousy emerging from there on in. Another dark horse talent revealed. This church is broader than I thought.

– DANN CHINN

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Review – Solo Bass Looping Festival, Santa Cruz (Good Times)

May 7th, 2008 · No Comments

“As a rainstorm raged outside the beautiful Art Deco walls of the old Rio Theatre there was quite a storm of another kind brewing on this venue’s new stage. Tuesday night’s world premiere ‘Bass Looping Festival’ was a great success story for hosts Rick Walker and Laurence Bedford. The avante garde event journeyed into the untapped areas that electronic musica can truly offer an audience. The concept of a ‘looping festival’ held the promise of musical expansion and also some risk into the unknown creating an exponentially, mind-expanding musical terrain.

Rick Walker was the couturier of the evening and shall remain so as the musical director of this new ongoing series, which will explore the underworlds of electronic music. Walker’s history and leadership of the seminal New Wave group Tao Chemical, Tao Rhythmical and the innovative World Fusion ensemble, Worlds Collide, proves he has always managed to be at the razor’s edge of inspiration and innovation.

Trey Donovan took the stage barefoot and gave a stellar performance on his Chapman Stick, often switching mid-song to add notes from his electric bass. The interface of the two sounds was rich and gratifying. Max Valentino came up next and played an extra large acoustic bass that looked like a large guitar rather than an upright bass. The sounds had a crisp resonance unlike the bassy bottom end sounds that emanate from a traditional bass. His third tune of the evening was “Sticks and Tones” (I love the title) which proved his refined ability to be a solo bassist. “Time is Rubber” had unflinching integrity and filled the hall with a stir of emotion.

A bassist who displayed a Buddhist approach to playing was Scott Kungha Drengsen. He played meditative drones with chordial cathedral-like melody lines. His usage of a foot-operated sequencer, coupled with his own version of special effects, created an ‘otherworldy collage’ with accents similar to Scott Lafaro’s slapping techniques. Drengsen is proficient on six-string fretless, five- and eight-stringed basses and six-string electric doublebass. He chose to incorporate multiple bass in his movie soundtrack-like performance.

Englishman Steve Lawson at last took center stage with the spirit of Jaco Pastrious woven into the tapestry of his technique and his grasp on the language of bass artistry. He brought forth the textures of a fuzzed-out Jimi Hendrix riff or seduced you down a jazzy cobblestone road in New Orleans with “Blue Moon.” His hypnotic trance jazz/blues crossover piece “Blue Sticks,” had a Zen-like quality to its melody lines. Next you found yourself “Drifting” to distant lands and uncharted looping terrains with this fine composition of experimental artistry. Lawson conjured a sense of time traveling, as he placed the e-bows on the lower strings, resulting in continual watery feedback loops of sound that evoked images of an aquatic world. Lawson’s candor in between songs were tongue-in-cheek, with its brilliantly dry delivery, in his lovely English accent.

The showstopper was a duet with Rick Walker playing his drum mallets upon the strings of Lawson’s bass, as Lawson played the upper strings on the bass’s fretboard. I wished that I had a recording of this moment.”

– Michele Benson

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Interaction, Conversation, Respect: the death of broadcast marketing on the web…

April 29th, 2008 · 1 Comment

I’m just back from a visit to Internet World – a trade show/expo at Earls Court for internet business peoples. It sounded interesting, so I thought I’d head down for a look.

I guess it didn’t help that they were sharing the hall with a direct marketing expo, but the feeing that one was in the belly of mammon, in a space largely devoid of creative thought or concern for human interaction and anything other than statistical dominance in a given field was pretty overwhelming.

Actually, that’s not strictly fair. A lot of the companies there were touting content management software, e-commerce solutions (no bad thing in an of themselves) and a couple of speculative social networking start ups. But there were loads that were selling a model of internet usage that just seemed sooo archaic – the basic message still seemed to be that it’s all about emailing millions of people, getting to the top of the search engines, getting google adwords in the right place, and then whatever you’re doing online will be a success…

I suppose it’s the nature of the show that it can’t really be concerned with content, because the content could be anything from health information to porn, ethical shoe-shops to online gambling, but the total lack of any visible discussion about making the net a nicer environment in which to work and play, the focus on spreading ones marketing message by whatever means made for a pretty sickly experience (I had one bloke accost me in an aisle and ask me if I wanted to buy email addresses! WTF? So spammers now have their own stands at expos??)

Bottom line was, the expo looked for all the world like a shop front saying ‘for your business you don’t have to interact with your audience/community/end users; you just have to pay us stacks of cash to put together a slick looking site for you, virally market via BS videos and downloadable games, crass adverts and paid-for email lists, and you can get on with being scared of the web and thinking Myspace is the big news in the future of internet usage, safe in the knowledge that we’ll sell any old crap just by spamming so many people that one click in a million will yield results…’

Which is bollocks. And it’s bollocks despite it supposedly ‘working’ for a lot of people. It’s bollocks because it’s intrusive in its methodology, hopelessly inefficient in terms of the amount of hours of people’s time it wastes compared to the return (time spent filtering out unwanted email, watching endlessly forwarded viral nonsense etc.) and because it’s a distraction from what those of us who actually CARE about a) what we’re producing and b) the environment in which we live and work on line actually need to do to enhance the lives of the people who come into contact with what we do.

I’m not in the marketing business. I USE elements of marketing strategy to try and make my music – and information about my music life – available to the people who want to find it. I don’t want to have to send unwanted emails to 1,000,000 people in order to reach 600 who might like what I do. Even though those are 600 people who might otherwise not find it. Why? Because I’m sick of being one of the 1,000,000 people who get spammed with BS hundreds of times a day just on the off-chance that my address might lead to someone who’s interested in the product. That ruins the web for all of us. And I don’t really care whether the address list is pure (illegal) spam, or some kind of crappy opt-in list that’s 99.9% full of people who just forgot to click the right check box, it’s still generating way too much negative web-karma for it to be of interest to me.

I try to operate online the way a rather wise man once suggested we carry out all our human interaction; ‘treat people the way you’d like them to treat you’. I don’t want to be spammed, I don’t want my email address to be a salable commodity, I don’t want to be seen as part of a wall to throw mud at in the hope that some of it sticks.

Here’s where Social media comes into its own – I can set up an interconnected network of pages, sub-communities and widgets whereby anyone who is interested can find my music, try it, engage with it on whatever level they want to and then share it with others if they think it’s of value. I’m not throwing it at them, I’m asking them if they’re interested, and offering information about the how, what, where, and why in as many mediums as I can. I can do videos explaining my methodology, I can blog about the processes involved in the music making, I can provide widgets so people can share my music with people who visit their sites or blogs or facebook pages or whatever if they are interested, and each time it’s driven by real interaction.

There’s the scattershot stuff as well – Seth Godin posted this great piece about unfocussed web-traffic – sure it makes us feel great to have 10,000 visits a day, but in all honesty I’m much better off with the coupla hundred people who actually read my blog each time I post over and above the thousands who have found my blog over the years looking for stuff about David Beckham or Bernie Clifton. They, as Seth points out, are gone in a couple of seconds.

That’s not to say that search engine traffic is bad, or stumble upon, or even adwords or whatever. The problem comes when the purpose of your site/blog/enterprise is traffic. Where what you’re making becomes about getting people to look at it, download it, buy it.

The joy of social media is that it removes the need to obsess over ‘bigger better faster more’ – it allows us to focus on deeper, richer, more important, personal, engaging, thoughtful, nuanced creation than we ever could have if we were relying on record companies, radio, TV and newspapers to spread the word about it. In the language of barcamp, it enables us to engage in UnMarketing. To tell the story around our art, our creativity, or lives and our services, and allow an informed, liberated audience to choose whether or not they want to be a part of that, and on what level they want to be a part of it.

There are loads of ways in which internet professionals can help content providers – this isn’t a rant against web designers, CMS companies or e-commerce specialists. We just need to get our priorities right, and if art is of any importance to us, then the marketing should be there to connect with a willing, searching audience and free us up to do our art better, not force us to dumb down in order to fit some loser’s ‘projection’ of the kind of big money we could make if only we targeted our content a little more specifically ‘Steve, you could clean up in smooth jazz, if only you’d get a quartet and start grooving more….’

Keeping our sights set on that which made us want to get into art/music/creativity in the first place is vital to understanding the magic that social media can facilitate. That means keeping a tight rein on those who would seek to make your art the content that drives their business venture… Or at least being honest about that relationship and understanding it for what it is (again, before I get accused of being some kind of purist, I don’t have a problem with people who make music commercially for a living, or indeed an objection to making commercial music where people want me to do it, it’s just that it’s a WHOLE other world to making ‘me-music’, and requires a very different approach…)

So for me, the kind of marketing-driven, spammalicious devoid-of-community BS I was hearing at Internet World fails in every way that the Social Media Cafe succeeds. I’ll blog more about the SMC later, as it deserves its own post, but suffice to say as a community of webby social media lovelies, it’s provided me with more inspiration, information, connections and ideas in the upstairs room of a pub in soho than the amassed fortune spent on Internet World could have done if I’d spent all three of the days there trawling for quality…

Tags: Geek

Thoughts and Questions on Originality.

April 20th, 2008 · Comments Off on Thoughts and Questions on Originality.

Been having some fantastic conversations with creative people of late on the subject of originality. It’s a subject that seems to lead to wildly different comments and responses from creative people, but rather too often seems to become deified or fetishised to the detriment of the resultant art.

With solo bass being such a niche musical pursuit, I often end up with people thinking that what I do is ‘completely original’, in that listeners outside of the solo bass/looping/etc. cognoscenti have probably never heard anyone doing anything quite like what I’m doing before. It would be very easy for me to claim that I came up with the whole idea and convince people – at least in the moment – that I’m some kind of pioneer in a way that I’m not.

But, it’s also worth noting that some of what I do has been described as ‘pioneering’ and even folks within the ‘scenes’ from which I draw most of my influence have recognised bits of it as being in some way ‘original’.

So what is one to do with that? In both situations the result is that the people involved have another level on which to engage with what I do, but it’s one that holds precious little ‘real’ value.

The first question that comes from this is a) ‘how many records have you ever bought just because the artist was flagged up as ‘original’?’ – and part b) of that question is: of those, how many did you stick with just because it was ‘original’?

The answer to the first bit is probably – if you’re an early adopter and enthusiast like me – ‘a few’. There are a few things I’ve checked out (though these days more via downloads/myspace etc.) that I’ve being pointed to because the persons approach to music making was in some way novel. However, it’s the second half that concerns us – Long term engagement with an artist’s output is based on quality, value and integrity, not gimmick.

This is something that we’re all too aware of when it comes to the marketing aspect of what we do – trying to rebrand dogturds as caviar isn’t going to make people enjoy the taste of dogturds – but originality is trickier because it’s a) less easy to quantify and b) it feels like an artistic consideration first and not a marketing gimmick.

So, here’s the question that will help you to gauge your own reaction to concepts of originality – if everyone in the world did things the way you do, would what you do still have value? In otherwords, when your schtick ceases to be a schtick and just becomes a creative model like ‘being in a band’ or ‘taking photographs’, what is the innate value in the way your story informs the output?

For me, it becomes this – if all the world were solo bassists, would my music as a solo bassist still be worth anything? Or, to frame it in now, ‘what’s the value of what I do to an audience saturated with looped solo bassists?’ This last question is a key one when it comes to putting on ‘branded’ gigs – if I put on a solo bass night, does it water down my brand to the detriment of people’s perception of how ‘original’ I am, or does it just remove the ‘originality/novelty’ element from how they engage with it, and cut to the storytelling?

The reality for me is, as I’ve been telling my students for years, it’s way more important to be ‘good’ than it is to be ‘original’ – a whole load of the willfully obscure experiments that one can end up with when looking for a ‘new sound’ are things that other people have tried and dismissed before inflicting them on an audience.

Influence seems to be the dirty word in so many discussions about originality. The equation seems to go thusly –

Being original is key to my success, therefor I mustn’t experience anyone else’s art that may shape what I do in an overt way because if I hear them, I’ll want to sound like them, and that will ruin my USP (unique selling point), and I’ll be finished as an artist. So as a result, I’ll live my life in seclusion from talented people operating in the same field as me.

This, dear bloglings, is what’s known in the trade as UTTER BOLLOCKS. I’ve seen a few people’s musical paths really messed up due to their phobia of influence. I’ve seen people torture themselves when another band came up with a title similar to the one they wanted for their next album! It’s crippling creatively, but more than that it bears no relation at all to how we relate to art on any non-superficial level.

So from my observation of my own and other people’s reactions to these questions, here are a few thoughts on the creative process as it relates to originality and influence:

  • We are all aggregators: or as Bono put it (possibly quoting someone else) ‘Every artist is a cannibal’. Very very little in the development and progress of human existence has appeared in an intellectual vacuum. Our progress on a macro and micro level is way more often than not evolutionary rather than eureka-moment-driven. We take in our observations of what’s going on around us, filter them through eachother, through the world as we see it, through a complex-but-contained set of experiences and ever-growing opinions and tastes, and decide what to do, what to create, how to create, how to tell our story. Those Eureka moments that do happen are too random to be factorable in steering our creative path. What influences we choose to subject ourselves to is something we’re very much in control of.
  • Influence is influence, whether the influence is from within your own discipline or outside: If I stopped listening to all music, I’d still be shaped in my music making by politics, art, comedy, love, life, illness, nature etc… Everything I do as a musician is shaped by influences, millions of them. Influences won’t negatively impact my art, only unhealthy obsessions will.
  • The problem isn’t influence/no influence, it’s self-awareness or the lack-thereof: People who make great music in isolation won’t suddenly start making crap derivative music if they open themselves up to influence, and likewise people who are so unable to figure out what they want that they just ape someone else’s process to the point of plagarism aren’t suddenly going to discover their creative focus by not listening to their main influences. The problem with obsession is bigger and more fundamental than whether or not your music sounds like another band.
  • Influence is like a diet – it’s the mixture and balance that keeps us healthy: Obsession is not a healthy state to be in. Like eating only potato, or drinking nothing but tea, listening to one artist is going to mess you up. I have for a long time viewed my music listening as a diet, and as such cherish my music listening time like a meal. I avoid junk-food, and crave sumptuous filling meals that meet my dietary requirements. I don’t like eating the same thing day after day, and definitely enjoy the effects of seasonal variation.
  • Style is a medium, not a message – how you say something IS important. Vitally so. But talking shit with a soothing voice is still talking shit.
  • Speaking someone else’s language doesn’t make you think like them, it just makes you able to communicate with the same people they communicate with – this blog doesn’t come across as derivative just because it’s in English. None of us trawl the interwebs looking for ‘new languages’ just because they’re new. Language is there to communicate ideas.
  • Storytelling is an artform that exploits shared history and narrative form: If you’re telling your story through music, things that are familiar have a different resonance from things that are completley alien to both artist and listener. This is one of the reasons why so many creative musicians still find so much to stay within the confines of ‘blues’ – despite the restrictions of the form, there’s still so much great original music that’s coming out that is blues-based and blues-influenced. The language, imagery and resonance of the blues still provides a channel for so many people’s unique stories.
  • the quest to be original might actively prevent you from soundtracking your world: If I attempted to do away with my influences, most of the stuff that makes my music important to me would vanish; the melodic forms, the chord progressions derived from folk, pop and jazz idioms, the phrasing that I’ve absorbed from Joni Mitchell, Bill Frisell or Michael Manring, the bass techniques that I’ve nicked from Trip Wamsley or Victor Wooten. What makes me sound like me is the combination of everything that goes into my music. I throw it all into the mixing pot, and out comes my music. I practice to learn more about how to channel the feelings and emotions that those independent influences bring out in me, and look to find the right amount and blend of ingredients to make me feel the way the combination of all of them makes me feel.

So, where does all this leave me? Well, right now, I’m working on a new album, or at least, I’m getting ideas together to start working on a new album. Some of that involves working out what’s physically possible with the Looperlative, but a lot of it is working out what I want to say and how best to say it. So I’m putting myself on a fairly strict diet. A diet that will contain a whole range of music that generates the kind of response in me that I want from my own music. I’ll be listening to a lot of The Blue Nile, Joni Mitchell, Eric Roche, Rosie Thomas, Theo Travis, Alan Pasqua, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, and then a whole bunch of extreme stuff in as many directions as I can to help me push back the walls that define the stylistic parameters of what I’ve done up until now.

And how I deal with notions of Originality and their value or otherwise impacts every minute of my practice time – do I get frustrated when I play something and it reminds me of some other musician, or do I use that as a model for saying something in their language? Do I get fixated with listening to other solo bassists because I am one, or do I realise that solo bass is in the grand scheme of things nothing to do with whether my music is any good or not, and look at developing the component parts of my musical narrative via influences that are best at those bits – for example, looking to singers for melodic influence, pianists for harmony, and classical guitarists for phrasing and shaping chord/melody ideas?

The end result of this is whether or not you hear those influences, the music is 100% me. It might be a different angle on me that hasn’t come out in other ways before. It might be me as expressed through the playing of other musicians on music that I’ve written for them, but it will be a combination of all the various influences that make me want to do what I do, and will at the same time be both entirely derivative and completely original.

Tags: bass ideas · Musing on Music · tips for musicians

Critical, pragmatic, self-belief – an artist's life-blood…

February 27th, 2008 · 4 Comments

Had a lovely morning giving a lecture/masterclass at the ACM today. It was extra-fun because I was given a topic I hadn’t spoken on before, but was given it at too short notice to have time to prepare so I had to wing it. And it went great, at least from where I was stood (which as we’ll discover, is the best place to judge it from…)

I was asked to talk about putting together a set list, and preparing ‘programme notes’ or promotional material… we didn’t spend much time on the last bit, as I got really into the theme of the first bit.

The first thing I highlighted was the danger of mechanistic formulae for ‘how things work’ – in any creative pursuit, following the tried-and-tested paths to the letter is a recipe for mediocrity, for blending in, disappearing into the general morass of non-descript music. This doesn’t mean that learning about those formulae was a bad thing, just that there is no ‘if you do this, then you’ll be great’ about any creative pursuit. Everybody wants the ‘one piece of advice‘ that’s going to send you over the edge – as I mentioned in the Bull-Schmidt podcast I once heard a kid ask John Scofield what kind of things he’d play over a Dmin7 chord, obviously hoping for some magical one line key to unlock sounding like Sco… clearly, that’s bollocks. It doesn’t mean that you couldn’t find within Sco’s phrasiology some repeated ideas that are common to the way he plays over min7 chords, it just means that those aren’t what makes his playing connect… Using the 9th a lot isn’t a formula for sounding great, even if it is what a particular soloist does a lot…

So where do we start? Well we start with a guiding principle, but instead of it being one to lock things up and give us a tidy outcome, it’s wildly open ended, and ultimately a call to being mindful of every bit of music or performance you come into contact with… The principle is one of ultimately trusting your instinct, your gut, your own taste.

Why? Why trust your own taste? Primarily because it’s pretty much all you’ve got. There are so few people in the world who can successfully and repeatedly second-guess the taste of a particular music buying audience, that it’s fairly safe to assume that you’re not one of them. And, as Jeff Schmidt pointed out here, so much of it is completely random anway… So, your own taste – why go with it? Because unless you’re the kind of person who gets off on the sound of the fridge door opening and closing, the chances are there’s something pretty standard, broad and interesting about the music that excites you. It probably won’t be completely ‘mainstream’ (serious musicians with completely mainstream taste scare me) but will probably feature an appreciation of some stuff that your more snobbish listening-only friends would dismiss as ‘too pop’…

So you embrace your own taste, you reconise that there’s a reason why you like the things you do, there’s a way they make you feel, there’s a way that the music you choose to put on soundtracks your world (here comes the pay-off) – and you attempt to write and perform music that makes you feel the way that music makes you fee. That’s a very different thing from trying to sound like someone else. Soundalikes are generally compared unfavorably to their primary influence. You might convince some short-termist record company goon that you’re worth a punt because the band you’re ripping off are successful. You might even sell millions of records. But it’s phenomenally unlikely, and not really a good bet, given that your stake is ‘every waking hour’…

No, if you go with your taste, and aim to write and perform music that soundtracks your life in the way that the music you love does, you’ll be writing music you love, but music that tells your story. You’ll be combining the emotional imprint of the different things that inspire you, and building up a range of emotions and stories and feelings to soundtrack.

However (there’s always an however), what needs to happen then is to critique your own taste and filters. To critique your perception of what you do. Because as well as being most in touch with your own taste, you’re also the one most likely to be seduced by the idea of what you’re doing do the point where you mis-judge your own execution of that idea.

And that, dear bloglings, is a life long process of refinement. Of listening, playing, resting, listening, of being surprised and disappointed, restless, enthralled, of peaks and troughs and plateaus. And advice.

The advice bit is a real headache. Why? Because everyone will want to give you their opinion on what you do and most of them will be a waste of oxygen. Again you ask, why? Because precious few people will take the time to try and understand what you’re trying to do, to offer advice that helps you reach for your goals. So few people realise that their taste has pretty much nothing to do with whether what you do is ‘right’ or ‘good enough’ or whatever.

It’s why posting your music on a web forum and asking ‘what do you think?’ can be a very effective promotional method, but is worse than useless as part of the critical process. It just provides taste-based opinions entirely without context and as we’ve said many times before context is everything. It’s quite possible for people to say that great music is great for all the wrong reasons. It’s possible for positive feedback to be deeply unhelpful.

The interwebs are full of people who will tell you why they don’t like what you do, what you’re doing wrong, why your songs are too fast/slow/ repetitive/poppy/ rocky/obscure/ bassy/trebly/ spikey/dull/complex… the list is endless, and the ascii-rendered brain-vomit that they produce is pointless.

What you should really be trying to build is a council of referencea group of people who have demonstrated beyond doubt that they get what you’re trying to do, who are sympathetic to your approach, desires, inspiration and goals, and who want to help. A few groups of people are immediately disqualified –

  • anyone with a dispensation towards jealousy when they hear other great music, *anyone who’s on your pay-roll (if they feel their job is at risk if they piss you off, no-one’s going to tell you you need to work harder),
  • people who are always telling you how other people should be doing their thing.

Finding those people who have a desire to help, to support encourage and to push you to be the best you can be is a rare rare treasure. Hold onto them. And perhaps even more importantly – both in terms of the learning exercise and the karmic fall-out – BE THAT PERSON TO THOSE WHOSE MUSIC YOU HOLD DEAR.

What does all this have to do with putting a set list together? Everything. Getting, as our ‘merkin friends say, your ‘ducks in a row’ is vital before starting to decide things like this. Guiding principles are vital because our thoughts need guiding.

When you’re thinking about what the first song in your set should be, there are loads of things to consider. Firstly, who your audience is – do they know who you are? Do you have a reputation to them that is bigger in their minds than their actual knowledge of what you do? Are they already onside? Is it a genre-specific event? From those and other related questions, you can deduce an approach, based on whether you want to confirm or confound those expectations. Do you want to ease in gently, or lay your cards on the table?

Gigging to a new or new-ish audience is the art of seduction, you’re trying to draw people in, get them interested, get them feeling positive about what you do, and expectant for what’s coming next. You can lay out a manifesto in your first song, or just put them at ease. You can be confrontational in a ‘this is us, screw you if you don’t get it’ kind of way, or your can say ‘come on in, the water’s lovely’ and invite people to join you in your soundtracked smiley world.

And from thence the journey continues – how long is the set? do you have a long time to do the slow build, or do you only have four songs to wow them? is there a ballad or two that you want to fit in. Where do you fit the freaky song in? do you want to throw in a curve ball, and do a song just bass, spoons and four part harmonies, even though you’re a screamo band?

It can all work, there are no hard and fast rules, and for every formula there’s a breath-takingly great band that have printed out said formula and wiped their arses with it.

Do what works, but constantly critique what it is that you think works. The key to keeping a balance (and well done if you’ve read this far!) is a principle I apply to just about everything, that of ‘pragmatic self-assurance’ – I assume I’m right and operate as though I am, whilst being constantly open to the possibility that I’m wrong. Any criticism that has context, that is shared by someone who wants you to grow not fail, who has proven they understand your goals and wants to help you towards them, is to be cherished and heeded. Reviews in fanzines and critiques from muppets on web-forums and email-lists, who write to belittle what you do for whatever odd pointless reasons are to be avoided. Don’t even read them. Go elsewhere for the critique you need, to a deeper place.

And never stop learning. (this’ll be my last point in this hugely overly-long blog post) – for any music student, it’s catastrophic for you to study music with the idea that there is some kind of difference between what you’re trying to do and what your teachers or other pro musicians should be doing. We’re all trying to play the best music we can, and to communicate it as best we can to an audience. Passing exams is neither here nor there. It’s not a bad thing, but it’s also no indicator of whether you’re going to be ‘successful’ at what you do. It can provide a useful framework for learning, I’m not suggesting that formalised education is a bad thing, but it has to be about you as a musician growing, learning and more fully realising who you already are. I didn’t stop studying when I left college, and I didn’t start being a creative musician when I ‘turned pro’ – whatever that means. All that changed was how the bills got paid. On an epistemological level, I’m doing the same thing now as I did when I first picked up a bass and started whacking the strings with a thumb pick. I’m trying to develop the control and awareness I need to make music that soundtracks the world around me.

It’s simple in concept, and lifelong in execution. Enjoy the journey.

Tags: journalism · Rant - Politics, Spirituality, etc. · tips for musicians

Two jobs in one – the perils of being artist and label.

February 2nd, 2008 · Comments Off on Two jobs in one – the perils of being artist and label.

OK, for one moment, I’m going to think about what record companies did well when they were functioning (very few people that I know who were ever signed to labels had this experience, but it’s what in an ideal world labels offered artists):

1. A Label Let an Artist be An Artist – those of you reading this who are trying to run your careers as booking agent, publicist, record label, distributor, web master, etc. will know that the most scarce commodity in the midst of all that isn’t money, it’s time. Money’s hard to come by too, but the reason for the lack of money is a lack of time to do things properly, not the other way round. And what’s the first thing that disappears in this new multi-tasking time-economy? Creativity time.

Why is that? Because it’s very difficult to be unfettered in your creativity but it’s pretty much vital if your music is to really mean anything. If you’ve just been designing posters, on the phone trying to book shows (usually targeting a particular kind of venue), and on MySpace dealing with add-requests, comments and feedback, sitting down with your instrument and trying to empty your mind of all that nonsense and JUST PLAY is damned near impossible. It takes time to create that kind of headspace, and it takes frustrating hours of working all the hackneyed tired cliched nonsense out of your system before the magic starts to flow. In terms of pure instrumental technique, if your music is in any way challenging, it may require a whole load of ‘maintenance’ before you’re in any position to really get ‘in the zone’.

A functioning label gives you time to do that. Just imagine if you even had a web administrator, how much extra time you’d have to practice? Imagine if someone else was dealing with your press, how much less you’d be thinking about labeling what you do, about niche marketing, about whatever – that’s the stuff that labels are supposed to do, while we’re busy creating genre-busting epoch-defining life-changing music.

2. They allow us to get our creative priorities straight – one thing I decided very early on in my career – and that I still say out loud to other people as often as I can just to remind myself of it – is that my number one aim in making a record is to make the record that I want to hear, that soundtracks the world as I see it. AND THEN – once it’s done – start thinking about the best way to market it. Music that sounds like it’s been dreamt up by marketeers is horrible. No-one wants to be listening to music that’s been decided on by a committee. Actually, that’s not strictly true – a heck of a lot of music that sounds like that sells a lot, but doesn’t really have that much significance in the lives of the people who buy it and then forget about it.

No, we should be making the music we love. That doesn’t mean that outside influence isn’t important – it can be vital to stop us from becoming completely self-indulgent, or lost in our own creative mire. What it means is that the influence has to be from people who know what we’re trying to do, people who’ve earned the right to critique it by understanding what the end result is trying to be. I get less of them now, but I used to get a lot of emails from bass players telling me that I should write more uptempo music, to which my response was usually ‘No, YOU should write more uptempo music, cos it’s you that wants to hear it!’ – the assumption that I’m some kind of music producing automaton trying to meet the listening requirements of a bunch of faceless bass-monkeys sat at their computers across the world critiquing what everyone else does is utter bollocks. With the best will in the world, I’m really not interested in the opinions of people who have no idea why I do what I do.

I have a very valuable ‘council of reference’ – a range of musicians, listeners, fans, friends and people who have proved that they ‘get’ what I do – not by being super-fans, but by demonstrating an understanding of where I’m coming from. Record Label people are very rarely qualified to understand that stuff – not always, but almost everyone I’ve ever met who had record company interference in their project has ended up being deeply unhappy with it. Even some records that I love are the product of undue RC influence, and I can only imagine how great the record would have been if the artist had been able to choose their own sounding boards.

Here’s one of the bits of the entertainment industry-end of the Record business that is most horrible and that we don’t distance ourself from enough – that a label’s job is to sign ‘raw talent’ and then manage the career of the artist, handing them a producer, band, designer, etc. etc. etc. and then paying them a pittance for the privilege.

What would be a far more useful and productive way to operate if we’re interested in letting musicians be the ones who make music would be to look for the music that is already there. If musicians and writers forged relationships with producers, arrangers and ideas people for creative reasons rather than having those people foisted on them by labels as a matter of expediency, labels could concentrate on finding great music that they have a hunch they know how to market, and producers could be shopping for work based on creative understanding…

3. Labels built a reputation based on quality within a field – are there any labels that you trust? Chances are if you’re into old school jazz, there are quite a few records on Prestige, Blue Note and Verve in your collection. If you’re into more modern progressive jazz, ECM and Nonsuch may feature more highly. For free music, Cryptogramaphone may be up there. For extreme metal see Earache and Metal Blade, neo prog see Magna Carta… Do all the artists on ECM sound the same? Not at all. There are actually a few different ‘ECM sounds’, but there’s definitely a feeling of quality, and as a listener you kinda know that some thought has gone into the stuff that gets signed. Labels at their best are enthusiasts as much as they are business people. Why? All the business planning in the world can’t pick our exciting music. Great music is great music is great music – finding it is step one, working out how to market it is step two. Get those two round the wrong way and you’re screwed. Any deal that gets a so-so artist and tries to drop them into a marketing formula is back to front.

The problem with all this in terms of discerning what’s important is that getting it very wrong can be very profitable. I’m not talking about what’s ‘successful’ on a business level here. I don’t think that’s what being an artist is about. It’s important, but it’s ancillary to the job of creating great music. A good label lets musicians make music. A good manager does the liason, and anyone worth their salt will delegate the stuff they can’t do. Most of my headaches in negotiating my way through the future-is-now new media revolution are from trying to keep my creative energy at the forefront of what I do. I’m deeply passionate about finding new ways to market what I do, to communicate, to monetize, to get the music out there, but the music has to be what it is, not an attempt to second-guess an imagined potential market. That’s bound to fail.

This imaginary great label all in an ideal world. It didn’t happen much before. It happens even less now. So why bother writing about it? Because all those things still need to happen – you still need time to make music, you still need to think about how to market it, you need to find your audience, you need to build credibility with the people who are spending money on what you do. All those things that good labels have built in, YOU STILL NEED THEM. They’re just harder to find.

What we need to do is to abstract them as principles for making art happen then making it available, then finding a way to pay the bills while we do it. That’s the three steps. I’ll try and address the questions more as we go on…

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

phone-cam phame…

January 19th, 2008 · 1 Comment

Got an email a few days ago, from a site called Schmap, asking if they could use one of my crappy phone-cam pics of Douglas Coupland in their entry about the Bloomsbury Theatre…

So here’s the link, to Steve Lawson, web-published photographer have Sony Eriksson K-810i, will travel…

Tags: Random Catchup

Microformats plug-in for Safari

November 26th, 2007 · Comments Off on Microformats plug-in for Safari

A few days ago Sarda sent me a link to this microformats plug-in for Safari. Basically what it does is, when there’s an microformat data on a page, it shows the lil’ green microformat symbol in the address bar (like where the orange RSS thingie is if you’re looking at this page in Safari), and when you click on it, you get the option to automatically add the hCalendar or hCard address info to iCal or your address book.

It’s very useful for adding gig details from last.fm direct into iCal, or for adding the gig dates from my gig dates page direct into iCal. Or even the gig dates posted on this ‘ere blog. If you had the plug-in installed, and are reading this on the home page of the blog, then the two previous gig date entries would be listed in the microformat thingie, and you could add them with one click.

There’s a similar plug-in for Firefox, should that be your thing.

And if you’re using MS Explorer, please switch to something else – Firefox, Opera, or even Safari for PC

Tags: cool links · Geek

Music as ancillary?

October 31st, 2007 · Comments Off on Music as ancillary?

So, back on track – onto the task of unpacking the notion of our music being given away for ‘free’, the story going that it’s great publicity, that we’ll develop a degree of ubiquity (or localised ubiquity – is that an oxymoron???) and it will serve us well in the long run.

A lot of the talk about new ways of getting music out there has revolved around established bands ‘giving away’ their music, with the aim of spreading the word about their tours, and making it back in the live arena, the two main ones being Prince (who gave his new album away in the UK with copies of The Daily Mail – a heinous newspaper, inexplicably read by a couple of million people a day…) and The Charlatans, who gave theirs away to downloaders on the XFM radio website.

Now, what’s happening here really? Is anyone being altruistic? Prince was paid handsomely by the Mail (just been trying to find out exactly how much, but can’t – it was over a million anyway…) the Mail circulation spiked by almost a million, and you can bet your ass they charged more for advertising in that issue, knowing that they would have that many more copies out there.

No, what happened was that the CD – and the music on it – became an ancillary product to the Mail selling advertising space, and getting people who wouldn’t normally buy it (both those who hate it, and those who would normally buy a rival paper like the Sunday Express). No-one was ‘giving away’ anyway. The mail sold it as part of the cover price, and Prince sold it to the paper.

I know less about the Charlatans deal, but the XFM website is advertising driven, and they clearly benefit from increased traffic, both in terms of new listeners and click throughs to their advertisers. I wonder if the Charlatans are on for a cut of that. I also wonder what they’ll do when everybody’s doing it.

See, advertising space in newspapers is REALLY expensive, so if you can get the jump on the rest of the market, and are a big enough band to make a splash by announcing something like this, or the Radiohead deal, you’re getting serious amounts of column inches for free, or rather, for the cost of the album. Right now, it pays for a band like the Charlatans or Radiohead to be seen to be giving it away, but it’s a trade, and for the people doing the giving away, the music is ancillary to their primary business – it’s just there to generate traffic.

This isn’t a new thing, as I’ve blogged in the past about Carling owning loads of venues, with the purpose of selling more beer (wow, it was over two years ago that I wrote that!), but it is something that we REALLY need to be aware of in all the talk of ‘free’ – we need to ask the question, ‘is this ‘free’ idea just about someone else making money out of me giving my music away?’

It’s already happening – Myspace, for example. You get free hosting of a few music files and a page, and they make billions in advertising. We’re providing the content that fuels Murdoch’s empire (yeah, when you put it like that, it’s pretty seedy). However, it’s a knowing agreement, and in return WE get the traffic too – it’s our content, we can get the click throughs etc. and hopefully the increased audience…. hopefully.

So there are two models here – symbiosis and exploitation. Trying to sell indie musicians on the idea of giving their music away for free because Prince and the Charlatans think it’s a great idea is utter bullshit. It’s heinous. There is no parallel, as we won’t generate either the column inches or the fee for licensing our product to whichever media outlet wants to distribute it…

And unless someone comes up with a far far better workable scheme, the same would be true of whatever globalised collection agency was needed to distribute the fees collected when music is made downloadable for free in exchange for a ‘tax’, possibly collected by ISPs. The music would be ancillary to the company behind the agency making money and branding it. The kind of size of operation needed to do such a thing online means it could only really be handled by one of the online giants – Google, Yahoo, News Corps, Microsoft or Macintosh – I really don’t relish the thought of trying to contact Google’s new licensing department to get my share of the license cash… Still, I have a couple of chapters of The End Of Control that I’ve not read yet, so must go and find out how Gerd has been expanding on his ideas…

Tags: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies

recorded music as an advert for gigs – the death of an artform?

October 19th, 2007 · 1 Comment

This post started out as a response on the stevelawson.net forum to a comment from lovely Tom who said, “Perhaps the last few decades have been an anomaly and we will go back to live concerts being the mainstay of the music industry”

To which I responded thusly (i’m cross-posting it here, because the notion that records can be given away by all musicians as a way of publicising gigs has become the standard answer to why file-sharing is ‘great!’, even though that’s not what Tom – a vinyl junkie and great supporter of musicians – meant)


Steely Dan would be screwed then… no more Peter Gabriel or Blue Nile albums, no more records that take 3 years of writing and experimentation to come up with…

I think the thing that is being missed here is that recorded music is already an ‘advert’ for live music! And vice versa. A lot of times, the only money I make on a gig is CD money. Take that away, and I don’t make anything. The idea that we’re moving back to a live music economy would be just fine if there was a commensurate shift in the way venues viewed music, but the vast majority of gigging opportunities in cities are about selling beer. So the musicians are in the bar area (or at least ‘a’ bar area), playing to people who are drinking and talking, aren’t paid to be there, and get to do 30 mins max because the higher turnover of musicians means that each of them bring friends along who drink… So the bar makes a few hundred (or a few thousand, in some cases) quid, and pays nothing (and then complains that the PRS are robbing bastards because they charge them a licence for broadcasting music – hah!)

The way that musicians make money is fragmented already – I get paid for gigs, I get paid for CDs, I get paid for teaching, for masterclasses and clinics, occasionally for session work (live or studio, though most of my live work outside of my own music is pro bono for friends), royalties for live performance and radio airplay (thank God for the BBC/PRS) and very occasionally for writing about music. I’ve made money on t-shirts before now (not much), and i’ve received a fair amount of payment in kind from music equipment manufacturers, but precious little towards keeping a roof over my head…

In any one year those levels change throughout the year. This year has been a lot about gigs, music gear demos (did a fair bit for looperlative earlier in the year in Italy and Germany), and so far, not much about music sales (the Calamateur Vs. Steve Lawson album has sold a few copies, but certainly nothing to compare with a ‘proper’ CD release, sadly…)

The beauty of the music scene is its breadth – there are people who are all about the gigs, and people who are all about the studio creations, there are bands who manage to come up with an image and brand that means they make literally thousands a night on merch and live off that money (the Stourbridge scene of the late 80s/early 90s).

If recorded music just becomes an advert for gigs, it will not only be the death of an income stream for musicians, it’ll mean the death of an artform, as album-as-work-of-art become album-as-advert. (whoever heard of a 30 minute ambient advert?) As a synonym, imagine what it would mean for world cinema if all films were given away for free, and paid for by product placement and TV-style ad-breaks?

I seriously want to do more gigs, play more live music, and I would indeed be happy to spend my life just playing live and releasing documents of that process. At least, at the moment I would, because all my albums are essentially live anyway. But there are LOADS of great artists whose contribution to the artistic quilt is their remarkable skill in the studio, a skill that requires time, and money and expertise and training and years of trial and error. All of which need to be paid for somehow, and won’t happen if they are playing 250 nights a year in order to make some dough…

[blog-only addendum]

it’s funny how in the course of the discussion some people look forward to a golden age when all musicians are paid via some kind of music license (Gerd Leonhard et al), despite it meaning that there are going to yet again be middle men creaming it off – interesting that Gerd talks about this being a way for artists to get remunerated directly, but hasn’t yet mentioned the need for a multi-billion dollar intermediary such as google, yahoo, news corps etc…. unless he’s suggesting the setting up of a global non-profit organisation whose sole purpose is to make sure that the new music license (which lots of people will see as a tax) gets distributed fairly… meanwhile, the musicians at the very end of the long tail will just drop off…

One possible scenario that scares me is that we see a ‘mainstream’ licensing scheme, so you can get all the James Blunt you want as part of that license, but running along side it is a sub culture of ‘art music’ performers and recording artists, who still charge, and who operate within a community of arts patrons. To some extent it’s already happening (I’m guessing that people who buy my CDs and downloads, either here or at gigs, do so with a very different sense of investment in what’s going on that even those who by a David Sylvian, Bill Frisell or Blue Nile record in HMV), but the idea of such a schism is unappealing purely due to the implied elitism of the mainstream/art-music split – I don’t really want to be part of some elitist musical world, but I REALLY don’t want to be told by ‘the market’ that need to play shorter snappier tunes, and maybe start singing, in order for my music to connect with an audience fast enough for them to ‘get it’ and come and see me live…

The thinking goes on…

Tags: Musing on Music · New Music Strategies