Subscriber Economics – The Value Of Resourcing An Expert Audience

This post was originally posted as a Twitter thread about the subscriber release schedule and its creative implications. Here’s the first one if you want to click on it and read it in its original form:

https://twitter.com/solobasssteve/status/1347492120026869760

And here’s the post edited slightly to turn it into a readable blog post. It’s more thinking out loud about my PhD (specifically chapter 3 of my PhD 🙂 ) but may be useful for those of you trying to make some sense of the various release models for music and various non-monetary considerations when trying to map value in the exchange between artist and audience.

-o0o-

Recorded a thing last night. Liked it, but wasn’t sure how much. Still, mastered it so I had a ‘finished’ version. Have listened to it three times in a row this morning, all 24 minutes of it. So I guess that’s good, eh? Subscribers, first new release of 2021 coming soon 🙂

I once read Brian Eno quoted as saying that he doesn’t read reviews of his work because it’s always years behind what he’s actually working on at that time. That disconnect from the people experiencing your work struck me as a problem to be overcome, rather than embraced. I’m HUGELY grateful for informed, generous, interested commentary on what I do. Not magazines telling us what’s hot or not, but people who are genuinely invested in the art and the artist discussing its meaning and value to them…

So having created a space in which the people who care about what I do can get it within hours or even minutes of me recording it means that I don’t rely on some delayed commentary from people who want to position my work within some much wider contextual field. (not that that’s not OK, just that it’s not interesting or particularly informative for me as an artist) – instead, I get feedback and commentary from people who understand it as the next chapter in a longer journey, people who’ve often heard more music by me than ANYONE else…

…I don’t mean many of my subscribers have spent more time listening to me (that may be true of a few, but I don’t think I dominate the listening of most of them 🙂 ) – but that they’ve heard more recordings by me, by virtue of them existing. 90-something albums, so far. 🙂

So, that body of knowledge, opinion, experience, expertise and – crucially – care becomes a resource. Not just for me but for the community as a whole. It gets shared, stories get told and I get to make more music in response to it, liberated and educated by it. And the series of recordings function not as commercial commodities with a fixed unit value but as what Jyri Engeström called ‘Social Objects’ – entities around which social interactions can happen. Interactions which accumulate multiple forms of capital and meaning through the process

So narrowing that temporal gap between recording and release, between my experiments and the response and reaction of a caring, informed community who – collectively – know more about what I’ve done than I do, becomes an act of creative liberation, enabling more art to happen.

I couldn’t do this, or extract meaning from it, if I had to record it then market it, send it to journalists and radio, harangue my extended listenership into adding it to playlists, liking and sharing & all that bullshit in the hope that someone would add it to a sleep playlist. The unit value of any one of these recordings is wholly undetermined. I’ve no idea which elements of the subscription people find most value in, or if as I suspect it’s ‘the whole experience’ that gives it meaning. Along the way, I get to document it and make more & better music

A vital comment on this came from Chris Mapp who made the distinction in relation to all this between curation and archiving. I think I’ve gradually shifted from being a curator to an archivist, the greater my degree of trust & experience of value in the expertise of the community. I have a threshold for the value of a subscriber release, but it’s not ‘will this make money? Can I recoup my investment?’. It’s ‘does this add meaningfully to the existing body of work? Will the subscribers find this interesting, enjoyable, worthwhile & value the time spent?’

All of this, of course, relies on it being improvised (or perhaps I could do it if I composed very quickly, but the lines between improv and composition get rapidly blurred there), because 200 versions of my greatest hit would be meaningless without each having its own community…meaning, when Pearl Jam released a CD of every gig on a tour, they did it not really expecting anyone to find much value in hearing all of it. Owning all if it, perhaps, for the social capital, but the personalisation of getting the gig you were at was the real value. The body of work was still those 20 or so songs that everyone knew. The value was in hearing it and saying ‘I was there’. I’m working on making the entire catalogue have cumulative value, with the added bonus that many of them are live recordings so ‘I was there’ is possible too!

[addendum] It’s perhaps worth distinguishing between this model and asking my audience what I should release, in the style of a crowd-funding vote-for-your-favourite tracks model. Cos that’s a million miles from this. The joy of the subscriber community is that their involvement is not conditional on a particular response from me. The buy-in is ‘be a part of this’, not ‘if you do this, I’ll record this kind of music for you’ or ‘let’s have a poll and see what the most popular choice is’. The beauty of this – and why I experience it as a community of practice – is that I never get subscribers saying or even implying ‘you need to do this or I’m withholding my support’. These are smart people who share their wisdom with care and concern, but let me make art, and are explicit about it. Constructive criticism is often couched in terms of ‘I don’t want you to stop what you’re doing, but this is how I experience it’. That’s never happened to me in any other context other than a gathering of fellow musicians trying to get better.

I experience it as a flattened hierarchy where I’m not being aloof, but neither am I doing a focus group to find out what the most popular choice is. I’m inviting commentary from people who know more than me about what I’m doing and then they let me get on with it.

the new thing is released for subscribers – go get it if you’re on board 🙂

https://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/album/resolution x

8 Replies to “Subscriber Economics – The Value Of Resourcing An Expert Audience”

  1. Of all your work, I think this one feels closest to the Vangelis soundtrack for the original Bladerunner. The organic synthy textures and slowly alternating chords, the ping-pong delay on some sounds, the wet, dirty, percussive sounds… Some of the overdriven lead sounds add a proggy vibe of the same era—the sort of sounds Steve Howe or Fripp made in the 80s. The other nostalgic note for me is some of the higher, glassy synthy sounds evoque Can or Harold Budd or Rodelius. It’s a potent package for someone who was a teen in the ’80s!

    1. ahh! thanks Ed! I know almost nothing of Bladerunner, which is weird because it’s such an obvious touchstone for what I’m doing. I started watching the film once on a plane but fell asleep (tiredness, not disinterest 😉 ) – Fripp, Howe, Czuky and Budd are all big influences. Glad it’s so resonant for you!

  2. I never understood the attraction of live albums that were just recreations of the studio album, albeit with a bit of audience noise unless there was a significant difference to the source material – e.g. songs having more energy or speed or nuance after being played every night of a 3 month tour. Even then, one version of that enhanced performance would be fine for me.
    What I do enjoy is when artists revisit their back catalogue with a new approach, whether that be new band members, new skills or new instrumentation, in such a way that the song becomes a living thing that changes over time, rather than being freeze-dried and trapped in a bubble.
    That may not make so much sense for a solo artist, but I would still be interested in hearing your current take on a couple of your older ‘composed’ pieces, having been through the filter of what you have learnt over the last few years, using your latest gear. Even just taking the basic melody line and letting it guide you somewhere new could lead to the creation of something wonderful in itself.
    Anyway, thank you for this latest album – for some reason it seemed to resonate with me straight away on first listen, as the perfect antidote to the outside world as it stands right now.

    1. Yeah, that’s one of the things I really love about Bill Frisell – his revisiting of the same material with completely different line-ups. It’s brings new life to the work and tells new stories about the world.

      The revisiting work idea is one I’ll keep in mind! That could be fun.

  3. This catches my experience as a subscriber. As a music lover with a long history of listening to albums, making mix tapes, following radio curation, and, with digital platforms, following the traces of artists and fellow users, directly or through algorithms, I find it fascinating to try to wrap my head around what music listening even is today.

    Listening to “Resolutions” I host a chorus of voices in my head, about what this track means to me (much in the same way that this track features many different voices, some in conversation, others in ignorant shouting matches). Here’s an attempt to pin down that ongoing debate, on my end:
    – There is so much going on here, I need to hear this many times over to digest it all.
    – Hurray, no drum machine on this one! (The wonky beats experiments ARE interesting, but I tend to leave them behind sooner.)
    – Is this journalism or art? Together with the written notes, definitely both!
    – The opening and closing of this track is beautiful, but that distorted chaos in the middle will make it unfit for my listen-over-and-over-again lists. But then, would I like to listen to the end of 2020 / beginning of 2021, over and over again?
    – That MOD Device delivers so many different voices. How to keep track of them all? I can’t wait to get my hands on one!
    – How will this sound played as the B-side of “With Trepidation” (the previous release)? I better try.

    1. Thanks so much for your thoughts, Marc – it’s such a luxury to read this level of in depth reaction to the music. And you’re right, the DuoX is dizzying in terms of what it will do (the patch here is one that intentionally has almost no controls assigned beyond switching between the three pad sounds and the melody sound. On the melody sound I can turn the pitch on and off and the distortion, plus have a CC pedal for the whammy stuff. Beyond that, I was using the MXR Tremolo a lot, and making good use of the granular delay on the KP Mini, plus a little bit of gnarlyness from the Pigtronix Mothership 2! 🙂

      The observation re: wonky beats about interestingness vs repeatability is super-interesting, thank you! Will ponder that.

      1. I think I have a similar reaction to the wonky beats. I enjoy the challenge/stimulation of the unexpected patterns. But the human response to music seems in part built on repetition and rhythm that one can internalize and sync with, which is hard with the wonkier stuff. To me the deeper interest of your music comes from the textures (timbres, I guess) and their combinations: as McLuhan said in The Medium is the Massage (sic), “When information is brushed against information… the results are startling and effective.”

      2. “But the human response to music seems in part built on repetition and rhythm that one can internalize and sync with” – I wonder what a historical musicologist would say about this, and how much of that expectation is entrained? I certainly find that wonky beats that are looped are ‘learnable’ in a way that more rhythmically disassociated free improv isn’t – I love that journey into the landscape of a rhythmic pattern, when it feels slightly out of reach at first but over time makes sense. It’s the wonder I felt when I first heard D’Angelo and Slum Village, and something I started training my brain with very early on, doing loops of a couple of minutes long and listening to them for HOURS at a time until I knew every part of the landscape. But that extra ‘work’ is something that requires an anticipation of the pay-off to feel worthwhile, and to apply that level of attention to that task, when music listening resides elsewhere in the brain… So it’s really useful to know how you respond to the beat driven stuff… 🙂

Comments are closed.