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Steve's Blog: Solo Bass & Beyond



Stop Speculating, Start Sustaining – Talking About Awesome Things.

September 16th, 2010 · 16 Comments

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Radiohead’s manager talked about a change in the way ‘the music industry’ managed its business model. As quoted in the piece:

“We’re trying to get away from a copyright trading model more towards a venture capitalist approach with artists,” says Message. Think of it as Dragons’ Den with guitars – with Message as the thoughtful-looking entrepreneur sitting with fingers interlocked while some young beat combo pitch their wares (“So, we’re kind of like The Smiths meet Funkadelic…”).

(thanks to @lykle for the link) [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies

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

The Futility of Fighting Fire with Fire

December 10th, 2009 · 23 Comments

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the madness of the music industry. To want to fix it. To put it right. To ‘reclaim‘ the territory for ‘real‘ music.

Remember back in the 80s, when the charts were full of music we liked? Top Of The Pops had a point, the chart show was a way to discover music. It was good.

The problem with that idea is that it ignores the fact that the situation then was us making the best of the limitations. We learned from the charts because we didn’t know any better. Most of us moved on to specialist radio as soon as we discovered it and developed the patience or the dadaist affectation required to sit through the more extreme outlying regions of John Peel and Andy Kershaw’s record collections.

[Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

U2 And The Feast Of Enoughness

October 4th, 2009 · 11 Comments

In response to This article about the scale of U2’s current tour, I posted this on twitter and facebook:

U2, knocking years of the length of time earth can sustain human life, one gig at a time

The discussion on Facebook then got as far as one friend suggesting that people who objected to the planet-trashing excesses of U2’s tour wanted us to “email [all the gig-goers] to stay home and make organic muffins…..” – the kind of Richard Littlejohn-esque reductionist, lazy thinking that leads someone to say such things, often stems from the feeling that something they value highly has been questioned – in this case, it was a friend who was deeply moved by the U2 gig he went to, so any attempt to frame them as irresponsible needs refuting and debunking. [Read more →]

Tags: New Music Strategies · Rant - Politics, Spirituality, etc. · tips for musicians

Real Life Touring. A Social Media-Fuelled Tale.

February 15th, 2009 · Comments Off on Real Life Touring. A Social Media-Fuelled Tale.

House Concert peopleSo, we’ve been back in England a few weeks. I’ve even had time to do my busiest week of masterclasses ever! (more on that later, I promise)

For now, it’s time to round up some of the lessons and tips from our house-concert-based, social-media-driven jaunt to the US over christmas/january.

A few salient points to start with:

  • most of the gigs were booked by people we know via Twitter.
  • all but one of the gigs were house concerts.
  • we did 5 masterclasses – 3 in houses, one in a pub, one in a Uni.
  • in 7 weeks, we spent 2 nights in hotels, which we didn’t pay for anyway.
  • we made more money per gig than we ever have playing clubs/coffee houses (read: we actually MADE money, net, after paying for everything.)
  • we met more amazing people on this trip than ever before.
  • very few of the people at the gigs could have named a single other solo bassist.
  • moreso, very few of the people who came to the shows had heard OF us before, let alone HEARD us. Media exposure was not a prerequisite for attendance.
  • we have about 5 hours of video to pick through of the shows.
  • we have invites back for twice as many gigs as we played.
  • nobody got rich.
  • nobody planned to get rich.

Let’s break these down:

Most Of The Gigs Were Booked By People We Know Via Twitter:

the usual method for getting gigs is something like; “google venues and promoters in an area >> email promoter or venue >> send package >> agree to do gig for door money >> minus commission >> with food included if you’re lucky >> book hotel nearby for somewhere to stay”. Add other steps if a) promoter has no idea who you are and wants to put you on a double bill with someone who’s a ‘name’. The upshot is, it can often take 3 or 4 gigs in an area before you make any money. After the show’s booked, you contact local press and radio, send CDs, bios etc, and hope they cover it, so people will hear you and then come to the gig. Sometimes this works. often, it doesn’t.

Method for our tour: “talk to lots of people on twitter >> make friends >> allow them to discover music as they get interested in who we are >> tell them we’re touring >> invite them to host gig >> Book in the dates” – the audience is a shoe-in, cos most people can fairly easily find 15-30 friends who are up for a crazy night of music making in a house. It’s a nuts idea, it’s fun, and it has the added benefit of being validated by a friend of their’s… if Tracy/Linda/Angela/Steve/Gus etc are willing to book this, it MUST  be good. The person who books the show then emails the links to what we do around (no need to send out CDs) so people have an idea what to expect. Everyone comes to the gig, eats, listens, buys CDs, and we go home with money and loads of new friends. Win-Win.

All But One Of The Gigs Were House Concerts:

if we get offered non-house-concert gigs, we take them if they’re fantastic. They have to be AT least as good as house concerts to be worth doing. We’re no longer desperate for somewhere to play. The show we did at Grace Presbyterian church in Long Beach was an amazing night. And we got to see Vicki Genfan and Jim Bybee play too. Win-Win.

We Did 5 Masterclasses – 3 In Houses, One In A Pub, One In A Uni:

masterclasses in houses are great fun, and a fab way of a) sharing knowledge on tour and b) making a lil’ more cash. We did classes on looping, bass stuff and ‘social media for musicians’ – again, arranged by the people hosting the house concerts. I usually do a pretty big bass class in Northern California, and it has in the past paid for my entire trip. I didn’t need to this time, so was able to do a much smaller, more focussed class, for people experimenting with solo bass. Win-win.

In 7 Weeks, We Spent 2 Nights In Hotels, Which We Didn’t Pay For Anyway:

at each of the house concerts, we stayed in the house where the gig was. That’s not always the case with house concerts, but on this trip, it worked really well like that. In most places, we also had another day or so to hang out and see the area. The hotel nights were a thank you from Modulus for all the masterclasses and clinics I do using their instruments all over the place.

We Made More Money Per Gig Than We Ever Have Playing Clubs/Coffee Houses:

so much of what happens on tour is built on the promise of imagined success; ‘if you do *** then *** will surely happen’ but rarely is anyone willing to underwrite it to that degree, and so the artist takes a lot of the burden of risk… With house concerts, there’s no chance at all that you’re suddenly going to find yourself making millions of dollars. But there’s also less chance that you’re going to find yourself in debt and unable to pay the bills. The financial arrangements are generally straightforward, friendly, and sensible. Guarantees are kept at a level where they work for everyone.

We Met More Amazing People On This Trip Than Ever Before:

guess that speaks for itself. My music life is full of encounters with incredible, inspiring people. At house concerts we just get way more time to get to know them, to make friendships that will last. Ultimately, I’m WAY more interested in people than ‘success’. If I can combine encounters with magical people with a sustainable touring model, I’m happy. House concerts do just that. Win-win.

Very Few Of The People At The Gigs Could Have Named A Single Other Solo Bassist:

SO often gigs by bassists are largely populated by other bassists ogling their wikkid skillz and monster tech. As much as I love spending time with bassists, it changes the gig if they’re over-represented in an audience. Singers never have to play to entire audiences of singers. It’d be weird. So to play to rooms full of people who have little idea what looping is, don’t know any other solo bassists, and so are listening to what I do as music first and last is REALLY inspiring. I love it. It makes me a better musician.

Very Few Of The People Who Came To The Shows Had Heard OF Us Before, Let Alone HEARD Us. Media Exposure Was Not A Prerequisite For Attendance:

we had precisely ZERO mainstream media coverage for these gigs. No radio, no TV, no mags no nothing. At least partly because these are private events at people’s houses, and so we weren’t about to be giving the addresses out to total strangers. There are ways for people to get to the gigs if they contact us, but it’s not about broadcast at all. No, most of the audience were friends of the host, people brought in because the host said it was good, put their house and money behind it, and believed in what we did. It paid off. We had no shows that were less than wonderful. Made loads of new friends, and sold lots of CDs. Win-win.

We Have About 5 Hours Of Video To Pick Through Of The Shows:

the digital footprint of house concerts is probably about 10 times that of a normal gig. People are excited and talk about the show. Often the attendees are geeked-out, tweeting and facebooking the show from their iPhones and N95s, filming it, taking pics and posting them online, and in many cases, streaming it. The Milwaukee show has now had nearly 300 views on Ustream.tv. Everything is amplified.

Not only that, but after watching the Milwaukee show, we were invited to play in Philly. The show was booked because of the stream. Lovely Linda Mills saw the gig, sent me a twitter message, booked it, promoted it, and the show happened. All in about 3 weeks. Win-win.

We Have Invites Back For Twice As Many Gigs As We Played:

at house concerts, everyone there is a potential booker. they all have homes they live in, and may want to book a show. Loads of people went away inspired to book us next time we came, and also to start doing shows for their friends. That’s GREAT news.

Nobody Got Rich / Nobody Planned To Get Rich:

this is so far from being driven by the rock ‘n’ roll myths it’s untrue. No-one’s getting rich doing house concerts. But no-one’s doing it to try and get rich. It’s sustainable, people-centred, low-impact, high-value touring. It’s cheap to put on, flexible, engaging, original, exciting and artistically elastic. You can do the kind of show in a house you could never get away with in a club full of drinking punters expecting to dance. And you can go home making a profit, paying your bills, with time and resources to make more music for the next time you come round.

This tour was probably my favourite tour I’ve ever done. Every gig was more fun than playing the Royal Albert Hall. The people were amazing, the hosts were incredible in their generosity and still grateful to us for coming and playing. The audiences were attentive, engaged and loved it. There really was nothing bad about it at all.
Yesterday on Twitter, someone suggested that while my soundbites were enjoyable, the reality was different. (see the whole conversation here ) Our experience on tour says this works. Says it’s real. Says it will continue to work.

So, were you there? What did you think? Have you done house concerts? how did they go? please post your thoughts on house concerts/social media/the future of touring in the comments below…

(the picture at the top is of about half the audience/musicians who played at the inauguration house concert/party we co-hosted with Kerry Getz in Newport Beach – an amazing bunch of musicians, from all over the place, playing amazing music)

Tags: Geek · Gig stuff · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians

Sustainable Touring Pt 1 – planning a house-concert tour.

September 25th, 2008 · Comments Off on Sustainable Touring Pt 1 – planning a house-concert tour.

I’ve just written a piece for MusicThinkTank.com about Sustainable touring, inspired by an interview on BBC 5Live with Geoff Hickman, the manager of Paris-based band, Televox – here’s the interview, and the video discussion that’s happening off the back of it on Phreadz…

The Music Think Tank post will go live in a few days (they have a new queuing system for new posts, where things get posted at more regular intervals – good idea, perhaps I should learn from that. :) )

I don’t want to pre-empt what I wrote there, but one of the things that I do want to highlight at this point is that Lobelia and I are planning a house concert tour for early December – if you’re interested in hosting one, and are somewhere in or near the Southeast of England, please drop me a line. They are easy to organise, the logistics just being

  • travel,
  • an audience (can be any size),
  • some way of us getting paid (either ticket/donation, guarantee or a sponsor – we can sort that out by email)
  • a date!

For now, if you have any thoughts on the idea of sustainable/eco-touring, please throw them into the comments – would be nice to get your thoughts before mine go live on the MusicThinkTank blog for a change…

Tags: Music News · Musing on Music · New Music Strategies · tips for musicians · travel