Keeping Your Soul In An Algorithmic World

First up, an acknowledgement that I haven’t written anything here for a year. That makes me a bad blogger. As well as this being the longest break in gigs since I was in my early teens (I literally played in more school orchestra gigs  when I played violin than I’ve had actual shows in the last 18 months) it’s been one of not writing here either. For those that know, you’ll be all to familiar with the story of my ongoing PhD and how that’s taking all my writing time, but as I need to do some thinking about this topic right here, I may as well do it out loud. That said, this may be a very long post! 

Sheila Chandra just shared this post to Facebook: “Jessamyn Stanley’s ‘Yoke’ Breaks Down Being Black In The Thin, White Yoga World” – I read it because I read pretty much anything Sheila shares. She’s a brilliant source of thought-provoking articles, news and commentary. And for whatever set of reasons, the FB algorithm actually lets me see a fair amount of what she posts…

There’s so much in the article that’s a vital read, so many areas in which people are marginalised and then looked at like they’re insane for raising it as an issue. Her story of being (in her words) a black, fat, queer woman in the world of yoga is as sad and enraging as it is depressingly predictable in the all-consuming fact of white supremacy and the extreme cultural appropriation of a millennia old Indian practice co-opted by rich, thin, white people.  Read the whole thing…

However, the bit I want to address here is the quote in the extract from her book about social media, which though written about Yoga could just as easily have been written word for word about music. Here’s the extract:

“Teaching yoga on social media means fighting with your ego every day. Praying that it doesn’t eventually swell so large that you turn into a blimp. It means checking, constantly checking. It means posting, constantly posting. It means creating, constantly creating. But always with the other person in mind, always with your followership riding shotgun. The follower begins to color your inner sight. It becomes hard to see yourself without them. It’s hard to know yourself without them. It means constantly thinking of ways to do better, to do more than the other guy. It’s a never-ending state of comparison—no amount of work is ever enough and the idea of “good enough” becomes a fantastical myth. I don’t think it’s possible to work in social media without these feelings eventually rising to the surface. Frankly, I don’t think you can engage with social media at all without eventually arriving on this page.”

The horrendous contradiction between making ‘content’ to try and boost all those social media metrics that hopefully eventually lead to you getting paid (and may be part of the reason why you get gigs in this age of Numbers), and trying to put forward a presentation of self that speaks of your artistry, your integrity, your creative flair and passion… That absurd conflict between the need to self-promote and the idea that the stuff you’re promoting is free from the corrupting influence of the mess that is social media… The blandness of so much commentary on Facebook and Instagram, the obviousness of so much that happens politically, and the simple observation that the most radical of choices are the ones we don’t get to see, because the radicalism is in the choice to post things that don’t feed the algorithm, or even more so, to refuse to engage at all. The choice to be ignored rather than present an algorithmically-defined  version of ourselves.

There is in this a second layer of corruption, that of our perception of audience. This is, I imagine where yoga and music might diverge. Perhaps not. There is some degree to which no matter how far we desire to de-commodify our practice as musicians, we’re ultimately making things that have a value, and we’re hoping to amplify that value, whether it’s the value of listening, the value of buying, the value of our audience branding themselves with merch and logos, the value of a concert ticket and the experience it represents as well as the value of talking about it afterwards, often resourced by us sharing the fumes of the experience and allowing them to circulate to extend the life of the show beyond its temporal constraints… We’re in the business of creating value, but we’re also in a far more complex relationship with our audience than that of supplier and consumer.

Stuart Hall wrote 40 years ago about the way that audience response feeds back into mass media, about audience reception being cyclical not linear (he broke it down into four stages: production, circulation, distribution/consumption and reproduction.) and it’s clear that audience reception and ‘use’ feeds back into our work, how we understand our work, how we relate what we do to our peers. Not just in terms of ‘success’ metrics but in terms of utility, the observable use that people find in our work. So that duality of ‘unfettered creation’ and ‘grasping desire for bigger social media numbers as a representation of audience and meaning’ is nonsense. The audience for our work is a vital part of the work itself, but perhaps we’re misunderstanding the degree to which they are actively present in the feedback which influences the kind of art we make.

In social media contexts, sharing is an act not just of re-distribution, but of alignment (sometimes in the inverse – sharing awful things to highlight our awareness of their awfulness…), and public reactions to things can hold multiple meanings and carry multiple layers of significance, depending on the context, the thing being commented on, the person commenting and our understanding of their relationship to us and the field we’re working in, our anticipation of how other people will interpret what they’ve said, even the use of specific emojis (yup, there’s a whole field of theory devoted to the semiotics of emojis, go look it up). And the thought that someone might share something without our knowing is.. well, unthinkable. Imagine somebody talking about me and me not being able to track it?? This is why so many of the native sharing tools have been added to networks, so we can generate more metrics with which to assume and interpret the meaning in those actions. Which in true Pavlovian style can lead us to replicate the successful patterns, a mode of engagement that leads inexorably towards a feed of selfies (smile and look into the camera, you’ll get more likes) and memes (who cares that they have literally nothing to do with your art, life, values or even sense of humour they get HUNDREDS OF LIKES!) The signal to noise of social media appears to worsen year on year as all the old memes stay in circulation (occasionally diminishing in fidelity as native shares become screengrabs in an attempt to remove a watermark and falsely imply originality…?) and new memes arrive.

But dealing with the fact that to hold onto your creative uniqueness might mean you have to be ‘bad’ at social media, to miss out on the stuff that gets other people views and likes, that leaves some of your posts languishing in ways that feel ignored despite the fact that they are connecting with exactly the people they need to reach in ways that are far more significant than a 1000 memes to try and game the algorithm – none of that undermines the rest of the ways in which your audience are absolutely vital to your work and your understanding of it. That audience may even arrive with you through social media, they may find you thanks to those same hateful algorithmic fuckeries that leave us feeling exploited or worse, ignored.

The mistake is to see social media as the end goal, to see the numbers as enough. Nowhere is this more apparent for musicians than YouTube and Spotify, the twin destinations for people craving viewer figures that are indistinguishable from phone numbers if you hope to make a living from the direct financial return. Both reward quite specific modes of creative work, both have led to changes in the modes of creative practice for musicians through the kind of actions they foster. In the case of YouTube, that’s been an explicit aim, to foster particular kinds of engagement in order to show people more and more ads, and to gather more and more data about those users. With Spotify, the consequential shifts in the way people make music seem to be largely be driven by hard economics (people need not to skip in the first 30 seconds for the track to get paid, so better not have a 63 second intro, eh?), as well as listening happening in a context where the next thing is always a click away. Add to that the promise of riches if you land on a genre or purpose-specific playlist (the sweet, sweet easy money of landing on a sleep playlist!) and you’ve got yourself a context in which the invitation to use ones creative skills to meet the needs of the market is there for all to see.

And, let’s be clear, that’s not a bad thing to do. There’s nothing remotely evil about musicians making music for a market. Music as professional craft is the same as any other skill at work in capitalism, whether it’s customer service or accounting. We can use musical training and the skills of cultural observation to make music for specific requirements. Music libraries the world over are full of work by people who excel at doing just that. Many of those tracks you hear at the end of hit use TV shows are written by people targeting those very slots, with publishers who know how to get the tracks to the right music supervisors. It’s a job, and it’s OK. As much as we’d like to be able to opt-out of capitalism, it’s a totalising system, so probably best not to hate on people for not starving, eh?

What’s weird about social media is that these B to B – business to business – transactions around music making get recast as B to C – business to consumer – mythologies, and music makers of all stripes get lost in the translation. And here the issues arise, when we have fewer distinct metrics of success, fewer ways of measuring meaning, we end up with a cultural hegemony of chasing social media numbers and specific forms of ‘success’ as monolithic within the creative industries. I’m amazed by the number of musicians who like the deer in Peter Rabbit just stare blankly  into the headlights of the music economy and say ‘SPPOOOTTIFFYYYYY’, then set about doing what everyone else does on Social media to find an audience. Ignoring, of course, the massive, expensive marketing campaigns that are so often behind ‘viral’ successes…

While we’re on this, it’s important to remember that non of this is new, as David Hesmondhalgh has written, the streaming economy is worse than it could be, but not demonstrably worse than what came before. For many of us, what we miss isn’t the old industry but the VERY short period, from maybe 2007-2011/12 when social media felt way more meritocratic. It wasn’t, of course, in that it rewarded pushy, confident, shouty, funny people the same as any marketing context does. And there no version of reality where music by pushy people is demonstrably better or more worthy of attention than music by introverts, but during those years when we were inadvertently training the algorithms that Facebook and Twitter and Instagram would sell back to use from 2012 onwards, it felt like we were onto something new, something that really did cut through the stranglehold of the major labels on the attention economy in music.

But it was very shortlived. So we’re back where we were before the Internet, with those independents who manage to avoid the honeytrap of pursuing virality doing their best to make work sustainably, to keep making work they are happy to have represent them in the world. And hopefully to find an audience they can communicate with and listen to outside of the toxicity of social media environments, where the meaning and context and beauty and sheer usefulness of it all is absolutely in spite of the way its been built, not because of it. We’re resourceful animals and so much that is wonderful still happens on social media.

For me, I’d be genuinely lost without my audience. Actually, not lost, just different. I’d be distracted, I’d have a far less nuanced frame of reference for what the purpose is for all this tinkering with technology, for all the technique and harmony learning and practice. It could all just end up as 20 second Insta-videos, and endless stream of flyers with no gig, as Mike Watt might say. Maybe I’d end up spending time learning other people’s music rather than making my own, in the absence of any way to understand its value beyond these four walls. But the audience, my audience, specifically my Bandcamp subscription audience, are there as a reminder to make things, to land the plane, to tell the story of why this stuff exists, to give an account of why it wasn’t deleted, scrapped, rolled into a ball of bytes and recycled into something new. Why this? Why now? ‘Because people on Instagram like fast bass playing’ isn’t enough. it was never enough, it will never be enough. For me.

No mistake, that shit is as beguiling as it is toxic, and it’s the environment we occupy. Whenever there is a crossover in what I make and what distracted bass-owners want to see on Instagram (usually because ScottsBassLessons share it 🙂 ) I wonder if I should do more of that, if Pavlov’s chops should be flexed to gather more into the fold. But I know that it’s an over-served field. There are enough videos for people who like that stuff, whether they know it or not. It’s a space that distracts, that stops me from doing what I care about, and stops me from connecting with that audience who give meaning and context to the work, who tell me what it means to them, how they use it, who invite me to Do My Thing. One of the ways I try to keep my head clear is to have mini-manifestos for what I’m trying to do. They’re more for me than anyone else, but making them public helps with accountability – “trying to make music that’s important without pretending I’m special”, “making the music that I think should be in the world but isn’t” – that sort of thing. Even the strapline from my website started out here – “the soundtrack to the day you wish you’d had” – an invitation to myself to make music imbued with hope.

If you make work that is for anyone but you (I’m suspicious of anyone who says they make music just for themselves, purely because if I know they make music, then they’ve chosen to at least talk about it elsewhere…) you may find yourself in need of some time to consider who it is for and how to find them. The economics of social media push ever further towards an understanding of audiences as a massive crowd of faceless avatars, who need understanding through metadata and ad revenue matrices, who can be reached through shared interests and the pages they’ve liked on Facebook. But if your tribe is small, or strange, or disparate, or heterogeneous, or you just want to say HI to them, you’ll need to look elsewhere, to do the work to swim upstream, to divert energy and attention away from the social media waterfall.

Keep your head, and if you need to talk it over, find likeminded friends to hold you to account and push you to find your soul in the midst of all the metrics. And come find me on Bandcamp.

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

Favourite Albums of 2020

As is usual at this time of year, here’s a selection of my favourite records this year. Thanks to the Bandcamp Friday initiative, I’ve bought more music this year than certainly any time since my late teens, possibly ever. Over 200 albums, in fact. Some of them came via Bandcamp subscriptions (the option to subscribe to an individual artist for a set annual or monthly fee, the same model as the subscription I offer), but many were single album purchases.

These are not the only albums I really enjoyed this year, but a selection of my favourites and the ones I listened to most…

Dishevelled Cuss – Dishevelled Cuss

Pop-punk greatness from one of my favourite guitarists on the planet. Dishevelled Cuss is Sugar to Tera Melos’ Hüsker Dü:

Jasper Hoiby’s Planet B

Jazz with electronics and speech samples from the genius Danish bassist:

Pulled By Magnets – Rose Golden Doorways

Anything Seb Rochford releases is cause for celebration, but Neil Charles’ bass on here is just extraordinary. Doom jazz? Not sure what to call this, but it’s brilliant.

Throwing Muses – Sun Racket

I’ve said quite a few times that I can’t think of another band of their vintage that are making the best music of their careers and doing it without even the vaguest hint to nostalgia. Kristin Hersh is one of the greatest guitarists, songwriters and makers of records of her generation.

Field Music – Making A New World

I bought a LOT of Field Music Music this year, filling in my collection each Bandcamp Friday. This was their new one, and it’s outstanding. The cleverest pop band on the planet, without ever sounding remotely smug.

Beauty Pill – Please Advise

Chad Clark has been making pretty much flawless music for well over two decades. I love following his journey and learning new things from everything he releases. Another absolutely killer mini-album here. He’s a sonic wizard, with some of the best production and arrangement ideas happening anywhere in music right now:

Stillefelt – Stillefelt

three of Birmingham’s (the UK’s?) finest improvisors making absolutely glorious experimental, minimalist, ambient music. Love this so much.

Liz Frencham – Love And Other Crimes

Liz is one of those artists whose self doubt drives them to be better and better. I wish she could hear her music the way we do, but I’m also grateful for the incredible music she makes being just the way she is.

Michael Manring – Small Moments

A new Michael Manring album is cause for an actual party, such is their rarity. But when it’s this good it’s so worth the weight. The absolute master of solo bass, making music that renders the bassness of it utterly irrelevant to the experience of listening to it. Just incredible.

David Binney and Kenny Wolleson – Basu

I think possibly the only club gig I went to this year was David Binney, with Billy Mohler in LA. This album with one of my favourite drummers, Kenny Wollesen, is a glorious slice of jazz, improv and electronica

Azusa – Loop Of Yesterdays

My metal album of the year, Liam Wilson on bass, incredible changes of mood and emotion. Deeply inventive, expressive metal.

Ren Harvieu – Revel In The Drama

I’ve listened to this LOADS this year. I met Ren at UnConvention in Manchester in March, bought her record soon after and absolutely love it. Scott Walker, Tori Amos, Everything But The Girl, and all kinds of other amazing influences combine into something totally beautiful and original

Lobelia – Positive Songs Project 1 and 2

For all it’s horrors, the Pandemic created space for my amazing wife to record some of the best songs of her career. I REALLY need to go back and remix a load of these (don’t mix vocals on headphones, kids, you’ll overdo the reverb something rotten), but this is glorious music.


Hope And Social – S.E.N.T Vol 1

Hope And Social making records by chain letter. Such a great idea and such genius execution.

Billy Nomates – Billy Nomates

Found randomly via a Tweet from somone at 6Music. Post Punk Electronica with some killer bass grooves.

Yvonne Lyon – Growing Wild

I’m unashamedly a MASSIVE Yvonne Lyon fan. Such a great songwriter, and here she digs into the experiences of growing older and wiser.

Colfax – The Jupiter Expeditions

Quite a few of my collaborators in different fields released music this year, and this record by Daniel Berkman is just marvellous – old school electronica with field recordings and vocal samples. Wonderful.

David Torn – Fur/Torn

A solo Torn album on Bandcamp. There ought to be LOADS of these, given how much great music he’s dropped on Soundcloud over the years. But this one is marvellous. One of the most important guitarists in the history of the instrument.

Harry Styles – Fine Line

Obviously not on Bandcamp, but special mention to Harry Styles for making an absolutely killer pop album. The first time I heard Adore You, I was blown away by its brilliance. Love this insane video:

There were other things I really dug this year, other music that I bought that I’ll spend more time with over the coming months and be in love with by this time next year, but for now here’s the Good Stuff that got me through the shittiest of years.

Why DIY is a Methodology not an Ideology

Two things have recently inspired me to get this concept out in the world. One is the number of artists who have jumped headlong into doing things on their own in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the other is a flurry of questionnaires I’ve received from music degree students exploring ‘DIY vs signed’ as an undergrad thesis topic.

My place in all this is that, for the last 20 years, my career has looked like the textbook example of how to be ‘DIY’ in music – I’ve been self-recording, self releasing, self-managing, self-booking for pretty much all of that time. I even do my own photoshoots, my own album artwork. I’ve yet to interview myself for a magazine, but it’s surely only a matter of time, eh?

So it looks – from the outside – like the life of someone ideologically committed to a DIY ethos. To a life of keeping everything in-house, to the innate value of – literally – doing it all yourself.

However, that’s not the case. At all. I have no particular attachment to being DIY. It is, as the title of this post says, a methodology, not an ideology. It is the route by which I execute the things that I AM very much ideologically committed to, in the absence of any other route revealing itself as I go along.

I do, in fact, have a real issue with the idea that DIY should be an ideology. As far as I can tell, to be committed to DIY contains no particular meaningful ethical consideration of other people, of their wellbeing, of the potential for collaboration helping everyone out, of the ways in which music projects and identities can scale in  relation to public recognition in ways that can start to support micro-economies and build scenes. DIY as an ideology says that – for no apparent creative or humane reason – doing literally everything yourself is objectively purer than hiring other people, or working in larger teams.

What’s odd is that this being the dominant view of DIY is a pretty new occurrence. The DIY punk scenes of the 80s, perhaps best described in the extraordinary book Our Band Could Be Your Life, were very much DIY out of necessity, and became increasingly collaborative and, in some notable cases, structured as their visibility grew and required a greater level of infrastructure to manage the various implications of that success. DIY was the start point, it was a way to stop blaming a lack of ‘support’ for not making art, and it was definitely weaponised culturally to create a sense of ‘us against the world’ – easy enough to do in the fairly binary pre-internet record releasing world of ‘Major or indie’. But the mechanisms by which things got done – at least by those who weren’t epically inhibited by drink and drug addictions – were notable for their practicality. Everything seemed to be geared towards making the next thing happened. The frustration documented in Our Band Could Be Your Life around having to recoup on one record before being able to afford to even press copies of the next is an indication of just how practical they needed to be. There wasn’t really much room for ideological purity, but there was also precious little room for ‘selling out’ – for most of the bands in the punk scene in the US, ending up on a major was deeply unlikely before Nirvana moved to Geffen.

But back to our idea that DIY is a method. Because if it is the method, what is it that we’re working towards? What is the ethos, the ideology, the creative aim that is being served by a DIY method? For me, it was a commitment to productivity, to knowing my audience, and to creative freedom. Not that I wanted to be wilfully obscure, just that it always struck me as deeply reductive that labels would try to squeeze artists into a category that they felt best able to market. I mean, I understand the desire to make back the money that was invested, but I don’t understand the lack of trust in the artist to make the music that matters to them. So even at a small indie level, back when I started out in the age of all music sales happening via physical media, the economic need to recoup placed creative strictures on what any given artist could do on any given label. (as an aside, I first began thinking about this LONG before I began my solo career – working with various artists in gospel music/CCM in the early/mid 90s, I’d come across a number of artists who felt completely unable to write honestly because their label demanded a lyrical adherence to a pretty moribund and juvenile set of theological benchmarks. On US Christian radio at the time, there was literally a ‘JPM’ count – ‘Jesus per minute’ – that required artists to name check the big guy a certain number of times to get played. These artists I’d come into contact with were severely hampered in their professional growth and ended up living lives completely out of whack with the trite bullshit on their records… An object lesson at a time I didn’t realise I needed it).

So, I needed the freedom to make the music that mattered to me, to not ‘make it funky’ or ‘do an all-ambient record’ or any of the other things that angry bass-splainers would email me in those halcyon pre-social media days. I needed to be able to make the music that I cared about. That doesn’t require me to professionally isolate myself from other people, but it does require them to demonstrate a significant understanding of my creative priorities before jumping in and getting involved. Or alternatively, for the interaction to be short-lived enough that they provide a service, I provide music, and we move on. So I would occasionally play gigs booked by other people, and had a couple of quite significant supporters of my early live work (Sebastian Merrick in London, who now runs kazum.co.uk and Iain Martin of Stiff Promotions on the south coast), neither of whom ever tried to tell me what to play, or in any way hindered or hampered my music progress. I also had a co-producer for Behind Every Word – Sue Edwards – who had demonstrated over and over that she completely understood what I was trying to do and why, and her advice was always geared towards me making the best version of what I do, not moulding it to anyone else’s notion of what it ought to be… Sue’s continued to be a valued collaborator over the years, having had vital input into aspects of my music life at various times.

So my DIY method has continued in the absence of anyone or anything coming along to fill those roles more effectively and in an economically sustainable way without impacting my creative aims. I’ve had various offers over the years, from production companies wanting to put together tuitional videos, an early offer of a nationwide CD distribution deal, and the unsolicited occasional expression of interest from a producer evidencing zero awareness of what I do or why I do it.

Developing the know-how, the skills, the competencies and assembling the tools and resources – as well as refining (often downsizing) the external benchmarks of success – has been an ongoing daily discipline for 20 years. Getting better at everything every day. Taking every opportunity to learn about the skills needed, iteratively improving my skills at playing, recording, writing (words and music), photography, design, web design (my current website design is another example of someone coming along and offering to do the job WAY better than I could, without impacting negatively on the big picture – thanks Thatch!), mixing, mastering, social media, videography… Every element improving daily. I never whinge about having to do a multitude of things because not doing them would require me to pay someone else to do them, skill-swap, or rely on someone else’s generosity for personal gain, and if I CAN do them it means that the offer that comes in to replace them needs to be significantly better than what I can do myself.

At any moment, any aspect of my career is open to help/support/collaboration/advice/learning/outsourcing. But if it messes with those core aims, if it suggests making less music so I can make more money by focussing my attention on marketing one thing, if it removes me from the audience community that sustains the work, if it starts telling me the kind of music I should be making to reach more people, it’ll be cut off straight away. I don’t have time to spend explaining why those things are bullshit in my context, why I’m not interested in any of those metrics of success or why I’m way more happy in my obscure corner of the internet making ridiculous amounts of music for people who are actively invested in its ongoing viability than I would be landing a track on a Spotify playlist then touring off the back of the listener data it generates having to play the same music each night… Those are not sustainable practices.

So where does this leave us? Sadly, there is no simple binary that says DIY=good, record deals=selling out. That’s a fairly childish nonsense and belies the complex reality of how and why music gets made, marketed and funded. People’s purposes are different, and people’s sense of what validates their art is different, and the discussion about the implications of those validation strategies is separate from the acknowledgement that the infrastructure needed to sustain different types of music career is complex and varied and requires completely different levels of outside support.

However, what is universally true is that any skill you acquire is one that someone has to actively demonstrate they can improve on to be of value to you and the pursuit of your creative or ideological goals. If you can make your own recordings, you have a concrete benchmark for what someone offering to help would need to improve on to be of value to the project. If you can design artwork, you can then connect with people whose vision and ideas are demonstrably more in line with the aesthetic you’re looking for than your own attempts. If you’re sat waiting for someone else to make your art happen, you’re far more open to being exploited or coerced into doing the things that will meet the commercial aims of the other party rather than finding a win/win that benefits everyone.

It’s also important to acknowledge that seeing the acquisition of support as a sliding scale enables us to innovate in how we think about the exchange of value between creative and business entities. Skill swaps, collectives, short term collaborations and the distribution of labour amongst a community can all be replacements for more hierarchical economic structures around the production of art. As they get more complex and have more invested in them they may require more formal structures (the forming of a legal co-operative for example), but they are all possible ways to explore the extending of input into our creative lives without seeing the world in falsely black and white ‘DIY or signed’ terms.

The mantra is the same as it’s always been. Keep making your art, keep practicing, get better, seek knowledge wherever and whenever you can, and find ways to collaborate on meeting yours and others’ creative goals. Everything else is just method.

New things for Bandcamp Day!

Today is Bandcamp Day – the day that Bandcamp waives their revenue share, giving it all back to the artists and small labels who sell their music on the site.

Bandcamp, in a paragraph: 

For those that don’t know, Bandcamp is the Farmer’s Market of music online. Music and merch from independent artists the world over, in glorious HD formats, with the vast majority of the money going to artists. Counter to pretty much every other digital music business model, they don’t make a penny until we make many, many more pennies than they do. There are no fights to pay musicians less, like the Spotify lawsuits, no attempts to take rights away, or keep musicians away from their listeners. It’s the perfect Fairtrade music platform. It’s also where I host my subscription offering – that’s the best possible way to support what I do and get everything – head to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe for more on that.

Anyway, I’ve released a few new things for today. The first is one of my favourite projects I’ve ever been involved in. Beautifully Disturbed is a duo live album with trumpeter Bryan Corbett. Bryan is an incredible musician, and a truly brilliant improvisor. I feel deeply inspired every time we play together. Here’s the album – it’s only £2 on Bandcamp, so you can use the rest of your money to buy other things, or you can pay more if you feel so inspired.

Next up, I asked my subscribers which of the three albums I should release from my recent Italian tour, and because the spread was across all three of the albums, I decided to make all three available Pay What You Want. PWYW means you get to decide what you can afford. You can spread your money out across whatever it is that you want to buy. Give it all a listen, and see what grabs you:

There you go. A ton of new stuff from me for your lovely ears.

If you want some recommendations, my bandcamp collection has everything I’ve ever bought there, and will be updated through the day as I buy new things today! I’ll be reinvesting 20% of everything that comes in to me in new music.

Mini-Lesson Series for 6 String Bass Now On Instagram!

One of the things I’ve been doing while cooped up at home is making little lesson videos for Instagram – at the moment, I’m in the middle of a series of lessons of under a minute looking at some of the things that 6 string bass makes possible. I’ve gathered them together under the hashtag #DownWithThe6ness and you can see the first four of them below.

But before that, here’s a tune I recorded using many of the things that we’re looking at across the series:

And here are the first four lessons in the series – follow me on Instagram to see the rest of the series. I’m posting one a day. If you film yourself trying any of the exercises, do tag me in your post!

 

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Trying To Make The Most Of Quarantine Time…

How are you holding up, really?

These are such spectacularly weird times, absolutely unlike anything else we’ve ever faced. Part of me feels OK with it all, but I’m noticing that there are certain tasks my brain can deal with and others that I’m REALLY struggling with. How about you? What’s the canary in the coal mine that tells you your brain isn’t quite as on board with this scale of change as you thought?

One thing I’m trying to do – as well as develop strategies to eventually get some PhD writing done – is to get better at all the things that I’m doing to distract myself. Mostly that’s making music (obviously), and photography. I bought a new lens about two weeks before we got locked down, so it’s been good getting to know what that makes possible. And for my troubles, I end up with a bunch of new promo shots. Next up: video! Going to film some stuff for my Bandcamp subsribers soon…

Hope you’re finding enough ways to stay in touch with people and get space to be honest about how all this is impacting you. Stay safe, friends. x

Here are some of the pics from Tuesday:

Blue Hair Don't Care

Why “Follow For A Follow” On YouTube Isn’t Helping

A few thoughts on this YouTube subscriber swap thing that’s going around… (in case you’ve missed it a LOT of musicians have been promoting the idea that we should reciprocally follow one another to help reach the 1000 subscriber limit so we can start monetising YouTube channels, and then play each other’s videos on mute to gain revenue) 

FWIW, I’ve been on YouTube for 14 years, have just shy of 2K subscribers, have other videos on there posted by bass accounts that have generated hundreds of thousands of views, but IF I’d been monetising my account from the start (that wasn’t even possible back then – at least a third of my views on there were from before there was ANY money in YouTube), my total number of views would’ve made me significantly less than $500. In 14 years. Maybe a few bucks more if I could’ve persuaded people to watch ads on them.

See, you get paid almost nothing on YT for your music. Like, effectively nothing. You get paid for people watching ads. So you’re asking the people who are watching your videos to spend hours and hours collectively watching bullshit so you can make pennies. If that’s a byproduct of you doing what you do anyway, knock yourselves out. Go for it.

But making ‘content‘ so that you can somehow start from scratch while quarantined to make any money at all through YouTube views, AND trying to get that happening through a network of other people who are also trying to make content and aren’t even following anyone based on whether they actually like what they do??? Are you high? If your understanding of who you are is that you are an artist trying to sell your work, this is not your business.

I get that you’re trying to come up with strategies to make this work at a time when we’re REALLY struggling to stay afloat, but getting people to spend hours watching stuff they aren’t invested in so you can make pennies is not a good use of our time in quarantine. It’s not good economically and it’s not good spiritually, and it’s not even remotely likely to make any sensible money for anyone but Google.

If you already have stuff on YouTube and want to earn some scraps for it, sure get registered for ad revenue. But honestly, it’s not worth anything unless THAT’S YOUR BUSINESS. Like, a full time job. A quick google search suggests that 7 MILLION views a year (it’d be a hell of a production/marketing task to get 1% of that on content you own the copyright on – remember, you won’t get paid for videos of cover versions unless you license/register them, the writer will) will pay you LESS than I make a year from 260 Bandcamp subscribers.

I’ve said it god-knows how many times, the streaming economy has no response to this. The major labels and streaming companies COMBINED initially donated less to help musicians through this than Bandcamp earned for them in one day of waiving their fees and promoting it as a day to help. One day. Rihanna has donated more than her entire industry combined, just because she gives a shit. (Spotify have since announced $10M of matched funding donations to three music-focused charities )

An economic model designed to massively prioritise paying people for already-famous music that doesn’t require a marketing or production budget is never going to be a sustainable ecosystem for a mass of creatives to earn a living. Stop trying to make fetch happen. If you’ve had a viral hit on a playlist or two on Spotify and have made some money, that’s brilliant. I want my friends and colleagues to make money, but it’s not sustainable across the system, and trying to game YouTube with some ‘follow for a follow’ nonsense is not going to suddenly get you all the kind of resilient audience who are willing to watch ads to see your stuff that is needed to make money off this.

Last thing – every person I know who is making SERIOUS money off YouTube (or is using YouTube as a significant part of their marketing funnel to a business that makes money – not the same thing) has studied this stuff to a significant level. They aren’t just great musicians or teachers or gamers or whatever. They are deep into marketing techniques, into the kind of video they need to make to get views, they study click through rates and patterns, interpret YouTube stats about viewer retention, they are constantly tweaking that shit to make it work.

My advice? Make the best art you can. Focus on the art right now. YouTube aren’t throwing anyone a lifeline. Everyone’s at home watching video, and you’re competing with people who’ve been in this game for a decade, have teams and a strategy. Just make great art, and make a case for the people in your audience who REALLY CARE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO and have the means to pay for it to help support it.

Reciprocal follow-me-back strategies have been around since MySpace, and they always suck. They are never pro-art, and result in a bunch of pushy, aggressive people seeming way more popular than their art deserves because they chase the follow-backs, not because they have anything worthwhile to share.

In short, the massive problem with this is that it assumes the the number of followers that it says you have on your YouTube page is more significant than the community of interest that the number is supposed to represent. Follow for a follow is a low-grade simulacrum of an actual community that are invested in what you do and care about it. It represents how many people were needy enough for their own follower count to go up that they would also click yours. You and your art deserve much, much better.

Do your art
Shout about the stuff you love
Invite the people who can afford to to support art – not just your art.
Stay safe.
Wash your hands.

Helping Artists When Money Is Scarce – Thoughts From Isolation

I’ve talked a lot on social media over the last few weeks about the ways in which music fans who have been fortunate enough to maintain some level of financial stability through the beginnings of the pandemic lock-down can help artists out. Primarily through buying music, and using this time to reconsider where our economic relationship with the people who make the music we love has ended up after a decade of the streaming economy dominating the conversation.

However, one thing that’s apparent in all this is that the economic impact of this upheaval is so spectacularly uneven, and not sliced anywhere near the usual economic faultlines. I have some relatively poor friends who have been able to shift their work online who are stable for now, and some others who were doing astonishingly well up til the cancellation of all their work who are facing financial ruin and some incredibly tough decisions.

The financial support that those of you who’ve been able to have already offered to musicians – particularly through the massive uptick in Bandcamp sales, as well as through the many GoFundMes that have been set up – has been SO helpful and so hugely appreciated, but I want to make it extra clear that no-one should feel bad about not being able to help anyone else financially at this time. The uncertainty is real and terrifying for so many, and in many instances it would be deeply unwise to be buying music when your own next paycheck could be months away…

Instead, here are a few simple things you can do if you want to give back to artists who are struggling right now, without spending any money:

  1. Send them a message. I’ve had a number of emails from people saying that specific bits of my music are helping them get through this, and honestly, that shit is worth its weight in gold. It’s an incredible feeling to know that you’re able to help in tangible ways just by doing your art as best you can.
  2. Make it public – reviews on Bandcamp are always an absolute treat to read, and really do help with sales etc. Now, they feel like the universe reaching out and affirming the reason we’ve all done this stuff for so long and allowed ourselves to live such economically precarious lives. Quite a few people I know have taken to Tweeting their quarantine soundtracks, either with or without tagging the artists in. I’ve both been deeply encouraged by the ones listening to me, and have discovered some great new music from the ones who are including links. If you’re able to shift the focus of your Facebook conversations about music away from yet more nostalgic promotion of 70s rock stars and instead give a shout to some struggling current artists, that would be hugely helpful.
  3. If the artists you care about are involved in any online activity to try and rebuild their creative identity without the clarity that gigs brought to that process, help them spread the word. I’ve watched some fabulous live streaming gigs, and have where possible been sharing links to the artists’ other work in the chat. Just give them a nudge – a surprising number of artists are playing catch-up with the potential of the internet to build actual audiences and communities beyond just Facebook event invites and instagram carpet bombing…

In short, encouragement can mean a whole lot to a musician sat at home wondering what the fuck they’re going to do for the next two months and how they’re going to last til this ridiculous government decide to finally give the self employed some help…

Go and declare your gratitude, and thanks again for all the music shopping. It’s been a lifeline for so many. 

Thoughts on Starting a Subscription

Right, these thoughts come from a place of having had a subscription running on Bandcamp for over 5 years. I was one of the first three artists on there to get to trial it a full year before it went public. I was also consulted on what features it should have before they went live with it, so there’s a load of my thinking in there.

I also subscribe to a whole bunch of people on BandcampThomas Truax, Corey Mwamba, Andrew Howie, No Treble and Julie Slick – and a range of stuff on PatreonDivinity Roxx, James Chatfield, TheLitCritGuy, Double Down News and Jay Smooth.

I’m seeing a ton of people set up subscriptions and Patreons in the wake of the Death Of All Gigs thanks to COVID-19, and I thought it might be helpful to offer some advice. Take it or leave it, but at least give it some thought:

  1. Think about the value of what you have to offer. This may seem obvious, but it’s really easy to get caught up in what you think it’s worth to you to make it. But what you’re offering is a service. It may well be that people who sign up to it are doing so because they care about you and want to help maintain you through difficult times, but you’re doing that via the mechanism of a subscription to your art, not a begging bowl. So give a good thought to what you’re providing for the money.
  2. This is a marathon not a sprint – be realistic about the work rate you can sustain when declaring what you’re going to do for people’s money, and don’t over-stretch yourself. I’ve seen so many people burn out by over-committing themselves to Kickstarter pledges, and it only gets worse if every month you’ve got to make a whole bunch of postcards or cakes or whatever and mail them out to people to keep your subscriber commitments. If you’re really into making stuff, that’s absolutely fine, and if the quality of what you make is consistent, and acquiring a lot of it is valuable that’s brilliant, but give some serious thought to what you promise. My own Bandcamp subscription promises 4 new albums a year – two public, and two exclusive. Last year my subscribers got 11 albums. The promise hasn’t changed. I love being able to over-deliver and not having to charge them more. It means people are way more likely to stick around, and you can have hilarious conversations with them about not being able to keep up. I’ve also included a couple of eBooks as extras, and as much video as I can produce that’s of high enough quality to deserve their time. All at no extra cost. The key concept is under-promise and over-deliver.
  3. Think about how what you’re asking impacts their ability to support other artists. I keep going on about this, but if you’re asking someone to spend the same on you as they would on their Netflix account, you’re leaving little room to support other artists. If any of the people I support in the list above were asking for £10 a month, I’d have had to decline. Because if they all did, I’d be broke. My subscription started at £20 a year, and has gradually increased until it’s now £30 a year. It’s still an absolutely ridiculous amount of stuff you get for that money – and the original subscribers are still on the £20 rate cos they get grandfathered in – and a lot of people have chosen to voluntarily pay more because they want to support what I do. That’s great, but I fully support them also being able to unsubscribe and resubscribe at the lower rate at any time so they can use that money to spend on other people. At the very least, it’s wise to have various tiers so there’s room for people who aren’t loaded to subscribe to you and not have to miss out on everyone else.
  4. Talk to your subscribers. This one is more about sharing some of the value I’ve got out of this. I’ve never had any interest in the idea of “fans” – I don’t want a bunch of fans who just get my music and dig it. I want a community of listeners who are actively engaged in the how and why of the music’s existence. So much so that I’m doing a PhD exploring what that means. (I’ve often described my grand project as being ‘how do I make music that matters without pretending I’m special?’) A subscription is an incredible opportunity to get to know the people who dig your music. Your subscribers aren’t a cash cow that pays your bills. They’re people who for whatever reason believe in what you do and the value proposition of the subscription offer. Do not disrespect that. Talk to them, find out about them, what they’d like, what else they’re into. Point them to other people’s work, build a wider community of people whose work your subscribers can share in.
  5. Think about the production values of what you can put out. Hearing crackly tape recordings of the Quarrymen rehearsing in the late 50s is amazing. Hearing your poorly thrown together demos for your next album is less compelling. Live bootlegs can be fun, but an endless supply of hissy recordings of the same tunes loses its interest pretty quick. If you’re an improvisor, or are constantly remixing and rejigging your material, or regularly learning cool covers, that’s tailor-made for a subscription model. Plenty of value, plenty of surprise. If you can collaborate, so much the better for adding variety to what you have to offer. If you’re going to do video, work on making it better and better over time. Running my subscription is an invitation to me to get better at every aspect of what I do – music, mastering, artwork, videos, story-telling… My subscribers aren’t a necessary nuisance that I’m putting up with for the money. They’re the most brilliant context within which to make work without having to come up with a marketing strategy for every album. If you’re not an improvisor, you need to work out how to tell the story of the one album you make a year in a way that is compelling enough to get people to pay for the privilege of being a part of it, or just charge way less so it’s basically an album pre-order thing that spreads out the money through the year. I’m surprised there aren’t more of those, to be honest…
  6. Don’t judge your own artistic merit by how prolific someone else seems to be. The way I make music, and the world I’ve built around me to make it possible is all 20+ years in the making. None of this is accidental. The actual terms of my Bandcamp subscription offering makes sense because I’m an improvisor who records every gig and collaborates as much as possible. I can make a LOT of music of a consistently really high quality and release it without any extra overhead. I did a mastering course to get better at it, I constantly practice the artwork side of it, I’m a journalist so the writing part of it is easier than it might other wise be. Your subscription doesn’t have to look like mine! If you want to have a really low stress, low impact one that just lets people support you in exchange for a new live track each month, it’s fine to charge 8 or 10 quid a year, and not pile on the expectation. Those people will hopefully stay with you, and as your offering increases, you can up the price. It’s also OK to make one album every so often and make the subscription about some other aspect of your work – lessons, or a studio documentary. Get the best camera you can, do it right, but telling stories is a brilliant use of a subscription. Beardyman has set one up that’s mostly about his process. You get his weekly songs, but also the chance to get deep inside how he does what he does. That’s a much higher value offering than most, because it’s lesson-based. Tuition has a different value metric to documentary work or finished art. People often have different budgets in mind for art-stuff and learning-stuff.
  7. Choose the right platform for what you want to do – Patreon and Bandcamp offer completely different sets of affordances for your art and storytelling. Bandcamp is, not surprisingly all about music. You can upload photos and video in the main message feed to your subscribers, but if you want to offer PDFs or any other file type, it either needs bundling with a single or album, or your need to host it elsewhere. On the other hand, Patreon is really rubbish at metadata on music files. And as far as I’m aware, still doesn’t do conversion to other files types for you. If you want it available as MP3, Flac, ALAC, AAC etc. You need to upload them all. The files can end up all over the place, with bogus formatting and variable quality. I couldn’t deal with that at all, so it would never work for me. That said, you can have a Patreon for storytelling, and just send your Patreon subscribers download codes for Bandcamp when the album comes out. Think about how the flow of media and information works and which offers the best platform. Neither is gofundme, neither is a begging bowl, both place you in an ecosystem where the people offering similar things around you become the standard against which your output and value will be measured to some degree. So think about it, and check out how easy it is to change the offering as you go along…
  8. My recommendation would be to start really cheap. Especially if you don’t have a ready made audience that have expressed a desire to support you like this. Get your initial backers in at the ground floor at a low monthly or yearly rate. These are the people who will be with you for the long haul, get them onboard ASAP for a low price and keep them close. You can increase it over time as the offering gets more polished and the value is reflected in the size of your audience. But don’t price yourself out of existence to start with. We have two main things against which we measure ‘value’ here – subscription costs to everything services (Spotify is $10 a month, Netflix a little more these days) and the cost of ‘albums’ – a similar amount for a single non-discounted album on iTunes or Amazon. Work out how to make your offering look like unmissable value. Then go to town telling people the how and why.
  9. Talk about it a lot. I’ve been on board with Bandcamp since almost day 1. I took all my music off almost every other platform 8 years ago because I was committed to what Bandcamp had to offer me in terms of the relationship with my listeners. I’ve been talking up its benefits for a decade, and the subscription specifically for 5 years. It never stops, you need to make a case for what you do. You need to make it compelling, and you need to do it over and over. For some of your audience, they’ve been told relentlessly that ‘no-one pays for music any more’ and that Spotify is how you ‘support music’. That’s clearly bollocks, but don’t look down on people who’ve bought into it. Spotify is horrible, and you may have to explain repeatedly why you’re not just putting all your music on there or the video on YouTube. Make the case firmly but gently.
  10. If you’re unsure how it works, subscribe to someone else for a while. There’s no better way to know what it’s like for the end user than to become one. Try some subscriptions out, support some other artists, see what you like and don’t like about what they do and how they do it. Research your project like you actually want to get it right!

Now, go do your research, and if you’ve got any questions, hit me up in the comments below.