New Album, New Essay, New Adventures In Art Making

I’ve just released a new live album for my subscribers – it’s the recording of my set at the Belfast Guitar Festival a couple of weeks ago.

But more than just being a live album, it comes with a 3000 word essay – a reflection on the experience of playing there, and of listening back to the music afterwards. The album is probably best thought of as the soundtrack to the essay.

The joy of all this is having the latitude to experiment with things like this – in a conventional release schedule, this gig wouldn’t have been released, and the story wouldn’t have been told even if it was… If I’d put it in on my blog for people to read, the album and the essay would’ve been in different places and only a tiny part of the possible audience would end up experiencing them both. Bandcamp allows me to bundle the two together (the PDF is downloaded with the album, though I’ve offered a Dropbox link to it for those subscribers who do most of their Bandcamp listening in the app). I have a lil’ community of relatively focussed listeners who I can invite to think about and talk about the wider experience of playing improvised music to a festival audience that are unfamiliar with my music, and to contemplate why the music ends up being the way it is…

If you want to get the album, along with 48 other albums, and a couple of other PDF books, and a load of subscriber-exclusive video, head to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe – come join the fun! 🙂

New Video Interview with Talking Bass!

Last week I did a loooong video interview with Mark J Smith over at Talking Bass and it’s just gone live on Youtube. He asked a whole bunch of fascinating questions, steered the conversation to useful places, and then edited out a lot of the fluff and waffle that inevitably ensued (maybe there’ll one day be a director’s cut with all that left in for the die-hards 😉 )

Anyway, it’s a good up-to-date exploration of what I’m up to. We covered:

  • The new album
  • Playing and improvising
  • The inspirations behind the music – what I’ve learned from hip hop!
  • Approaches to pedals and processing
  • How the subscription model works

and a bunch more besides! Thanks Mark for taking the time to do this, I really appreciate the opportunity to talk!

The Arctic Is Burning – New Steve Lawson Album Out Today!

Hurrah! Finally, my new solo album, The Arctic Is Burning is out today – you can listen below, or click the link to listen/buy/download/share 🙂

In case you missed the pre-announcements, this is my 30th solo album in 20 years. It is, as with everything I do, live single unedited performances. I’m playing bass and Quneo – a MIDI control surface that allows me to play drums (and in other situations, piano and anything else I choose 🙂 ) You can see a couple of videos of me recording the tunes below.

My Bandcamp subscribers have had the album for a month now – if you enjoy the record, it’s worth considering the subscription. With your first year, you get 49 existing albums, plus everything I release in the next 12 months. In the last 12 months, that’s been TEN albums. Lots of the collaborations on there are exclusive to the subscription, and it also comes with a ton of video and a couple of eBooks! Head to the Steve Lawson Bandcamp Subscription Page to find out all about it.

Anyway, here’s those videos for you :

“Start Everywhere” – Second Video from The Arctic Is Burning

The second video from my new album, The Arctic Is Burning, is now up on YouTube. The album is out on Sept 2nd, but can be had right now by subscribing at stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe.

The delightful humans at No Treble wrote about it here.

The title, Start Everywhere, is taken from an anarchist manifesto – ‘to change anything, start everywhere’ – in terms of our story about catastrophic climate change, it’s an invitation to think realistically about the scale of transformation needed in how we live on the planet in order to extend the viability of sustaining human life at the current scale. How that gets translated into improvised instrumental music is the topic of a much longer post than this, maybe we’ll get into that soon…

The track list for the album is:

  • Business As Unusual
  • The Arctic Is Burning
  • Wildfire
  • Start Everywhere

…so after contemplating the scale of the problem and the permanence of the change to how the world’s climate behaves, we then need to think about the scale of the response.

For now, here’s the track – enjoy, and if you want it now, along with 48 other albums, two books, and a whole ton of exclusive video – plus EVERYTHING I release in the next 12 months, please check out the subscription.

First Video From Forthcoming Solo Album

Right, two bits of news. Firstly, here’s the first video from The Arctic Is Burning. This is the opening track, called Business As Unusual:

The video angle is NOT ideal – so here’s how and why it exists…

My entire process of recording, gigging, practicing, developing ideas, collaborating is pretty much the same. I play with a view to the end result being a thing that’s worth listening to. I spend VERY little time just ‘noodling’, and if I find a thing that needs work, or a new technique or idea that needs developing, I’m constantly shuttling backwards and forwards between focused training on that thing and putting it into contexts by playing actual music with it. Same when I’m playing with other people – I’m not really down for just jamming for fun, when the alternative is to play stuff that other people would want to listen to as well, and have just as much fun doing it! 🙂 improv≠jam.

As such, I record – and film – pretty much everything I do. Lots of it gets deleted, lots of it is kept. Because it’s improvised, there are no do-overs. If the recording is great and the video is so-so, I don’t get to redo any of it. It is what it is. That’s not a bug in the system as much as it is a feature – the purpose of the video is less about making a slick promo for a release and more about inviting people who are interested into that process. Pretty much all the video I’ve got on YouTube is just a camera pointed at me recording a thing. Some of them are onstage, some of them are here in my ‘studio’ (AKA bedroom), but the purpose is something akin to what Brecht called ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ – or ‘the distancing effect‘ – the idea with that was to have the ‘playness’ of a play as visible as possible to prevent people getting lost in the work and instead helping (forcing??) them to maintain the sense that they were watching a theatrical production and engaging with it in that frame rather than with the fiction of the characters. So he had stagehands moving scenery around in the middle of scenes, not hidden in between, and actors addressing the audience. These videos function as though you’re just watching me play, and rather than being a ‘behind the scenes look’ at a thing that then gets turned into a big show, or gets polished up for a production, this is what it is. The only level of translation that goes on is mixing and mastering (generally EQing, compressing and de-noising, though I do occasionally level out particular notes in a recording by drawing in a volume curve – if you’re a subscriber, you’re most welcome to compare this video with the much less mixed version uploaded for subscribers a couple of weeks ago, the day after I recorded it ) 

So, it’s a document of me playing it, an invitation into the process of it happening, and hopefully enough of a curiosity to be an entertaining addition to listening to the music 🙂

…Failing that, feel free to put it on in a background tab and carry on reading Facebook while it plays. 😉

Which brings us to news number TWO, which is that subscribers have received their exclusive prerelease of The Arctic Is Burning today, a month ahead of the release date. So muggles get it on Sept 2nd, but y’all can join our band of merry makers of magic by heading over to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe and signing up – you’ll immediately get the new album, plus 48 (I think!) others, access to a ton of video, two books, and a bunch of other discussion about where the music comes from and how it’s made.

The subscription is how this music is even possible. There’s no sustainable model for this kind of practice either in an old school ‘release everything to shops and do radio and magazine promo’ kind of way, or by dumping it all on Spotify and seeing thousands of listeners result in a couple of hundred pounds a year and no way of justifying the time it takes to do any of this. The subscription offer is ridiculously cheap in a ‘per album’ kind of way, and offers great value for money in an ‘access to a streaming catalogue’ kind of way, only instead of you renting access to that catalogue, it’s yours for life, whether you continue to subscribe or not. Bargain, huh? Go check it out. And I hope you enjoy the video x

Steve Lawson releases 30th Solo Album in 20 years, The Arctic Is Burning

[Here’s the press release for my new album, which will also serve as a blog announcement, because hey, why write two different versions of the same thing? Ergo, Steve would like to apologise for egregious use of third person, if you’re not reading this with a view to cannibalising it for your review or the news page in your magazine 😉 ] 

The UK’s leading solo bass guitarist, Steve Lawson releases his 30th solo album, The Arctic Is Burning on Sept 2nd 2019. The album thematically picks up where 2018’s celebrated Beauty And Desolation left off, once again weaving a narrative relating to climate change around a set of improvised, unedited solo performances.

“It’d be tough to demonstrate in a concrete way how the theme and the music are linked, if someone was being cynical about the presence of a narrative,” explains Lawson, “but improv is always about something, even if you’re just responding to the things you’ve been recently practicing and how they sit in relation to other music that you consider meaningful. For some people, those ways of relating are technical or genre-specific, but for me the desire is – at least until the technical side falls apart – emotional. I want to make music that makes me feel the way the artists who move me make me feel.” He continues, “I want the brokenness of The Blue Nile or Talk Talk, the sense of place of Bill Frisell, the honesty of Joni Mitchell, the anger of Bruce Cockburn, the wilful naivety of The Minutemen, the pristine poetry of Jonatha Brooke, whose music is such a natural and flowing extension of whatever she’s singing about…”

Indeed, across the four tracks on The Arctic Is Burning, Lawson’s melodic turn is towards a slightly more straightforward rock-based language, in contrast to the some of the obtuse harmonic complexity of Beauty And Desolation. The album is not without it’s moments of dissonance and angularity but they tend to be crescendos to otherwise more pop-oriented melodic adventures, rather than the backbone of the entire track. “I’m not entirely sure how that happened – the subscriber-only album I released in the run-up to making Arctic… has plenty of the more angular freaky melodic stuff on it, as well as some very prominent field recordings that are entirely absent from this album. One of the joys of being ‘pan-idiomatic’ is that I have a dialectical relationship between the continuity of my own voice and the disparate range of genre signifiers I can drop in and out of.”

The role of the Bandcamp subscription is never far from Steve’s explanation of his music, frequently inspiring extended Twitter and Facebook commentary relating to the ongoing sustainability of making niche music.
“It’s SO obvious to me,” he says, “we just don’t have a streaming model that offers anything like sustainable economics to niche artists. It’s a world that doesn’t reward artists who form communities, just those who chase ubiquity. It’s great for people whose music-making aspirations are towards producing fodder for playlists or chasing pop stardom, but if your music practice has no path to a couple of hundred thousand listeners a month, forget being able to feed yourself with it. The Bandcamp subscription is absolutely the economic and social lifeblood of my music making world. The subscribers provide not only the financial resources to make the music, but an orientation – a direction in which to project musical ideas. The myths around creative freedom can end up with artists spouting all kinds of nonsense about just chasing our muse, but ultimately there’s a direction to what we do, whether that’s our peers, radio, our existing audience or the malcontents who post abusive comments on YouTube. For me, it’s been vital to cultivate a space where people who are materially and psychologically invested in what I’m up to get to encounter more of it than I could ever release to the wider public, and where we get to talk about it and go back and forth over its meaning without it clogging up more generic social media forums. The subscriber community is growing steadily and provides a level of continuity to my practice of documenting all the music I make. I get to release upwards of 8-10 albums a year because of them, plus extra video!”

Indeed, being that prolific, it can be a challenge to decide what to release to ‘muggles’ and what to keep just for subscribers, especially with some of Lawson’s own personal favourites still squirrelled away in the subscriber allocation – “My album from 2017 with Bryan Corbett is easily in my top 2 or 3 favourite musical things I’ve ever done, and I’m still waiting for the right time to put it out. I should just get on with it, cos it’s not like it’s suddenly going to be a hit whenever it happens, but I do like to leave a few months between each public release!”

2019 marks the 20th Anniversary of Lawson’s first ‘proper’ solo gig (“I’d played solo tunes in other settings before,” he explains, “but never a whole show to people who’d paid just to see me!”) – so 20 years on and 30 albums in, we get to experience all over again why he’s been one of the most talked about British bass experimenters for those two decades. The musician Bass Guitar Magazine described as ‘Britain’s most innovative bassist, no contest’ is still pushing boundaries, and exploring just how far the scope of live solo performance with nothing pre-recorded can be pushed. The Arctic Is Burning reaches new heights while still being instantly recognisable as a Steve Lawson record. Here’s to the next 20 years!

The Arctic Is Burning will be out on Sept 2nd 2019,
exclusively via Bandcamp at music.stevelawson.net

For interviews contact Steve directly.
For press photos click here.

New album news – LEYlines V out now

Right, I’ve got a ton of half-written blog posts about all kinds of stuff, but here’s some news that’s exciting!

We’ve just released LEYlines V – the fifth album by me, Andy Edwards and Phi Yaan-Zek. It’s the 2nd set from the that gave us LEYlines IV, which came out a month ago, so if you want to recreate the gig feeling, just listen to the two albums about 15 minutes apart, buy yourself some very reasonably priced drinks in the break and have a chat with some likeminded oddballs about what you just heard 🙂

The gig was at Tower Of Song here in Birmingham, almost exactly two years ago, and as I said when LEYlines IV came out, represented a pretty significant leap forward (or maybe sideways!) for the band (see this blog post for more info on the LEYlines history). Everything we do is fully improvised, and so there’s no sense that any of us need to maintain any continuity gear-wise from one gig to the next, so we always turn up with a different set of sounds. Andy has his ‘LEYlines kit’ which is a hybrid set-up of percussion and small drums (best seen in this video from our duo album Over Time) and Phi uses LEYlines as an R&D space for new sounds and approaches to processing and manipulating his guitar sound… to quite extraordinary effect…

For my part, these two albums have some of the most OTT ‘fusion-esque’ playing I’ve ever done on them – there are a lot of moments where Phi and I have swapped our traditional roles, and while he’s providing texture and harmony, I’m playing crazy lead lines 🙂 You can listen for yourself here:

You’ll notice that there are two different editions of the album, with different artworks, subtitles, and even the way the tracks have been cut up… It’s one of the joys of LEYlines as a project, that we get to really mess with conventions around what an album even is (and we can’t even be consistent about how we render ‘LEYlines’ in text form! ha!)… Is the music inextricably attached to that title and artwork? Are those just emblems or avatars – metadata that helps us tell stories with it?

With a project as resolutely uncommercial as LEYlines (yet equally resolute in our commitment to its sustainability), we get to experiment without the sense that we’re somehow missing out on thousands of pounds of lost revenue to confused improv fans unable to find the definitive version of this particular music! It’s a joy to make music with people as curious about this stuff as I am. We’re all ploughing through the range of possible paths for creative musicians in the digital era, and together we get to try things out, see what works, see what’s got harder and what’s got easier… And LEYlines is one such space of the explorable.

So, if you’re a subscriber, you’ll already have the subscriber exclusive graffiti edition. If you’re not, you can subscribe within the next week to get it, or you can check out the version embedded above from Phi’s Bandcamp account, and get it as a single album from him… He’s running a special offer where you get LEYlines IV as well bundled in if you buy it very soon… so maybe hop on that.

We’ve got a couple more LEYlines recordings in the bag, and are planning some more shows very soon – now that I’ve stopped teaching at Kidderminster College, I won’t get to see Andy  and Phi on a weekly basis, so making sure we get regular opportunities to play together feels even more important than ever – they’ve been such a huge part of my musical development over the last 6 years or so, and are two of my closest friends, so I have no inclination to let go of this amazing musical sandpit that we’ve created here! Expect more LEYlines action, live and recorded, very soon! 🙂

As always, I’d emplore you to check out Phi and Andy’s music via their Bandcamp accounts – Phi’s studio record from last year, Reality Is My Plaything is truly the album of a lifetime – 10 years in the making, and just an extraordinary achievement. Likewise, Andy’s body of work is full of incredible music, and his latest project, Kundabuffa is an exploration of the intersection of improvisation and electronic soul and jazz that just keeps getting better and more remarkable.

shop.pyzmusic.com is Phi’s Bandcamp page
andyedwards.bandcamp.com is Andy’s.

band photo of the trio LEYlines

The Audience As Producer

[preamble – this is an emerging line of thought for my PhD, so I wrote this down as is today by way of getting the thoughts out… make of it what you will… It’s a pretty long read… 🙂 ]

The traditional economic arrangement within the music industries throughout the pre-digital age of mechanical reproductionwas for record labels to pay (as little as possible) for the rights to record music onto a physical format, promote the music via radio, TV and magazines, and then sell that product via distribution to shops where the public bought it. The role of the artist was as both originator of the music (though the idea of artist-composer was, in pop music, a relatively late development) and the object of the marketing/promotion, where a version of the artist was presented to the public, often as a heroic figure, a figure of aspiration or of sexual desire, and the music associated with that image.

The role of record producer was to mediate between the creative work of writing and performing songs (after an A&R person had helped connect the artist to the desired song) and the demands and constraints of the market, as well as the immovable requirements of the format – a vinyl record, be it a 78, 7” single or 12” LP, could only hold a specific length of music, and so studio production was as much as anything else an exercise in enforced brevity, particularly for makers of music that relied on improvisation. Jazz performers at the end of the 50s and into the 1960s were known for stretching out live, and playing single tunes that would extend beyond the constraints of one side of a 12” LP (first introduced in 1948)

CD extended that limit to 74 minutes, and with the advent of digital-only releases, the limitations on durational audio works became looser and related to file size upload limits for particular platforms (Bandcamp, for example, only allows up to 600Mb files, which for a 16bit 44.1Khz FLAC file is approx two hours in length) or the endurance of the audience… Which neatly brings us to the audience’s role in production. Stuart Hall in his seminal work on mass media reception and semiotics Encoding And Decoding In The Television Discourse, outlines the concept of the audience reception of a production being part of the production cycle, in that TV as a commercial format (or one with a public service broadcast remit like the BBC) is deeply influenced in its production decisions by the ways in which an audience has received similar work, by broader trends in TV viewing, and by projections based on other social and cultural observations about changes in behaviour.

In music, this historically led to structural orthodoxies in pop music, especially in songs that were designed as ‘singles’ and therefor focused on acquiring an audience through radio and TV exposure. From the length of the song to a set of assumptions about what the introduction should be, or when the chorus should arrive – as well as all the more recent discussions around the loudness war – we have a varying set of arrangement and production constraints that have influenced music makers for the best part of a century. This is a trend that continues into the digital age, with changes in the model of production for music works targeted specifically at the economic and attention-based affordances of streaming services.

So, what happens when you remove yourself from some of those constraints? A shift in constraints happened to some degree with the emergence of the LP as THE dominant format rather than the single – bands and artists started to produce works whose constraint was the length of music that would comfortably fit on one side of a record, or multiples of that (progressive rock albums such as Yes’ Tales From Topographic Oceans revelled in the perceived opulence of recording a four track suite over a double album, each song lasting an entire side – as a young prog fan in the 80s, this was the pinnacle of the anti-commercial gesturing of progressive rock’s positioning as the antithesis of ‘pop’ music (despite it reaching number one in the UK album charts).) This coincided with a bunch of other changes in radio (in the UK, John Peel brought to BBC Radio 1 a wholly unconventional approach to what was considered good radio programming), in studio techniques (multitrack recording and more extensive editing made it possible for artists to do far more complex work by layering themselves multiple times, rather than just playing with a more-or-less live band set-up for the full 20+ minutes) and in listening patterns (Yamaha introduced ‘hifi’ speakers in the late 60s and the trend grew through the 70s for more pristine listening equipment in homes, before the cassette revolution changed listening again into the 80s)

The mechanisms for shifting the focus (in relation to commercial purpose, target audience or cultural context) of creating musical artefacts, whether physical or digital, are now broader than at any time in history. As much as we’re being told that the old industry is ‘dying’ there are still major record labels, still a machinery in place for the production and marketing of music and its makers in an evolved but recognisable version of the model built in the 50s and 60s. There are still bands of mostly older white men who define themselves as other by following the production conventions of those 70s progressive rock experimentations (such an interesting development for ‘progressive’ to be a term of comfort for those seeking a nostalgic experience within known and safe idiomatic parameters…) and there are still ‘audiophile’ listeners who consider the extreme fidelity of a recording as a value factor in whether something is worth listening to (and buying).

But there has also been an explosion in the development of community-based music production possibilities. Again, these are the extensions of existing models of production – independent record production has existed for as long as record production has been a thing, with artists making their own product to sell, and local labels forming around scenes as an entrepreneurial character saw an opportunity to make some money or at least build a sustainable community around local music making. With the advent of cassette, entire global networks of tape traders built social and creative capital for artists with no resources for distribution, particularly in the worlds of the ‘jam band’ scene in the US (where completists traded live tapes) and in the nascent 80s metal scene, where ‘zines played an utterly pivotal role in getting the word out about geographically localised scenes in places such as Brazil, Scandinavia, Florida and The Bay Area.

The primary novel affordances brought to these practices in the digital age are the ability to replicate the recordings with no loss of fidelity and at zero marginal cost (tape trading resulted in perpetual degradation of the original recording, and relied on an injection of capital at every stage as tapes were purchased and sent through the mail with photocopied artwork and information), and the enhanced capacity for the artists to be the originators of these recordings, and thus leverage both financial and social capital from those works, whether they are studio or live recordings. The tools for recording have become orders of magnitude cheaper in relation to equivalent production quality over the last 30 years, with the capability to produce works that are aesthetically indistinguishable from expensive commercial recording studio productions at ‘bedroom’ level.

One of the most interesting affordances this creates is for the mediation process between artist and audience to become diminished to the point where it is largely experientially invisible as ‘commercial exploitation infrastructure’, beyond the activities it makes possible. External mediating infrastructure is still required by means of web hosting for the recordings/media, communications technology that exact a price in either money (a paid email list host for example) or the extraction of data from our transactions and our (artist + audience) exposure to advertising (eg Facebook, Twitter), the use of those same advertising tools and their algorithmic infrastructure to tell the story of our art and reach new audiences that solely relying on word of mouth won’t reach. Add to that the need for physical devices – computers and mobile devices on which to listen to the recordings and to communicate with audiences – and for communication between audience members.

That the technological means for receiving the music are already in place for many of our audience members removes one barrier to their engagement with the music and the community around it, but does create a situation in which the ways that attention is transacted around music are now competing directly with all the other attention-acquiring activities that those same devices are capable of, from social media activity (reading/posting/media interaction), video watching, gaming, gambling, private conversation, media production and the management of many areas of our personal lives such a finances and health. That my CD player was never needed to be repurposed as a conversation tool or to check my bank balance made it a far more stable environment for the experiencing of music, once I had oriented myself to it with the intention of committing time to listening to music. I also in that instance was only able to choose from the music I owned, or had borrowed and was currently in my possession, rather than it being juxtaposed within the same listening device with the potential to seek out an unimaginably huge amount of music from across the entire history of recorded audio.

So what does all this mean for my initial question about the audience as producer? Well, those roles associated with a record producer – the person with the technical skills (or who would hire a person with those skills) and who connects the project to the commercial context by making aesthetic suggestions regarding the degree to which the work would ‘fit’ – are heavily modified by an environment in which the audience

  • are in direct contact with the artist,
  • are potentially party to the process of making the recordings,
  • are present at the gigs where live recordings are made, and
  • are – in the case of subscription models for pre-paying for the work – already the ‘funders’ of the work, creating an economic cushion for the time needed to work on the music.

So many of the various roles that a record producer might have exclusively occupied in the age when music making and music discovery/sales were connected by the machinery of a label are now possible to be distributed between artist and audience, making it a distinct consideration that the artist might conspicuously include the audience in the process of making the work.

This invitation to be a part of the work might be as forward as allowing them to democratically choose the songs – the first artist I saw experiment with this was American bassist Seth Horan, who ran a pre-pay option for his album Clang And Chime, released eventually in 2009, and uploaded a large number of demo recordings of songs inviting the project’s backers, referring to them explicitly as producers, to choose the ones that went on the album – and thanks to my habit of archiving everything, I’ve just found one of his emails to his mailing list about it, from December 2008

“Since this past July, I’ve written 20 songs, recorded the first-draft versions, and sent them to a group of mailing list members who invested in this new album; they became my Producers, and have been providing valuable feedback in determining which songs are going to make it on to the album, and how to make those songs that DO make it as good as they can be. It has been awesome, awful, intense, funny, and candid, and the result is that I have been held to some surprisingly exacting standards.”

Alternatively, the audience inclusion may be a more general invitation to offer comment/support/conversation around the making of work, or organising meet-ups for listeners to connect with the artists, and through that more flattened hierarchical relationship, invite the audience who might consider themselves friends to comment on the work and express preference for particular activities.

The history of record production is littered with legendary stories of artists making work that labels hated, and these were very often self-produced (though historically it seems more rare for an artist to self-engineer the projects, so some level of quality control in the process was professionally mediated external to the band themselves), the tension existing over the perceived commercial value of those records (apparently Talk Talk went so far as to ban EMI representatives from the studio while spending a year – and an untold amount of money – recording Spirit Of Eden – a record the label hated, but which has become one of the most celebrated and influential records in of the last 40 years…). And tensions can still arise between artists and audience-producers, as any number of missed deadlines for crowdfunded projects via Pledge Music or Kickstarter will demonstrate.

In my case, the audience as producer mechanism is one that involves influence going both ways – I’m hugely grateful for the patronage, friendship, commentary, suggestions and conversation with my Bandcamp subscribers – and I quite often discover new music through that that influences my music-making – and in return, I invite them into a much more involved conversation about the value of a decommoditised process for releasing recordings, framing it more as an episodic, documentary project with each “album” building into a bigger story, rather than being an atomised product with a budget and a commercial placement. The amount paid by subscribers doesn’t change based on the amount I make, so there are times when I have to consider the real possibility of them feeling overwhelmed by the volume of music I might release at any one time if I happen to be in a really productive stage, and then their feedback becomes a significant factor in how and when I decide what to release (along with my own interpretation of the aggregate listener stats I get from Bandcamp, where I can see which albums have been most downloaded and most listened to in the app across a given time period, so can make some deductions about the likelihood that engagement has tailed off when I’ve put out too much music at one time).

So the audience mitigate volume of work, they feed into the direction I might pursue in that I’m consciously responsive (as well as occasionally being conspicuously antagonistic) to their preferences as expressed in the subscriber discussion area, but also more apt to provide additional narrative/contextual support for ideas that I feel the creative desire to pursue but for which there appears to be less existing enthusiasm! They also show up at gigs, and we get to talk about things before and after the show. There are even some who on occasion send me (unsolicited!) more money because they feel that the subscription cost doesn’t reflect the degree of value they get from the work. That’s a pretty extraordinary position to be in.

As an artist, I feel both a commitment to follow my ‘muse’ and a need to acknowledge that the idea of ‘creative freedom’ is mostly a bogus myth and the big concern is what particular set of directives we hook our wagon up to, be they commercial, cultural, historical, community-based, academic…

There are loads of ways we can interpret the quality and direction of our own musical output, but making myself to some degree accountable and available to the people who are willing to put money and attention behind music – as well as performing the emotional labour of being conspicuously supportive and attentive to the production of that work – including paying an annual subscription fee for work that doesn’t yet exist, feels like a far more meaningful expression of those things than I would perhaps find with a label and the whims of someone’s sense of my music’s commercial value…? The label/artist/audience divide is nowhere near as clear-cut in the age when performing those roles requires so much less access to manufacturing equipment or companies, far fewer logistical considerations revolving around the distribution of plastics to far flung corners of the world, and many labels actually function as a structured extension of this idea of audience as producer, many originating with people who were frustrated that the musicians who made the music they love were unable to carry on doing it within a system perceived as venal and anti-art. That positioning for a label, that of patronage and an art-first aesthetic has significant cross over experientially with the audience as producer notion, but ultimately relies way more heavily on the opinions of a much smaller number of people – often one person – than the shifting and evolving community that may afford an artist a level of perceived economic headroom to experiment further, inviting the existing audience on that journey, and perhaps marketing the subscription to people assumed to be more in tune with the changes in direction… For me as an artist whose stylistic frame is a dialectical exchange between having a very highly developed style and vocabulary but a commitment to exploring how it can be expressed across a wide range of idiomatic contexts, the affordances of the audience as producer notion are rich and rewarding. I’ve yet to hit on the limits of it creatively, in that I’ve never recorded something that I loved but felt was unlikely to be received well by my subscriber base… I’ll update this post should that ever happen 🙂

Getting Good With What You’ve Got – A Manifesto For Creative Progress

“If only I had that pedal, I could do what I really want to”
“When I can afford a new mic, I’ll start recording some stuff”
“I can’t do what I want to do without Logic X, so I’m waiting til I can get it before I start my new project”

Musicians are so great at coming up with reasons for inactivity. And the vast majority of them are gear-related. We are so apt to mistake access to technology for skill and knowledge that there is a huge percentage of musicians at any one time sitting dormant, wanting for some tech solution. And meanwhile, so many of us don’t get on with the other half of that formulation – the skill and knowledge part.

I recently taught a tech-related module in which almost every student went through some kind of period of inactivity due to a tech-related delay. Very few of them took a sideways step to explore the concept behind the thing that tech was meant to be allowing them to do, or came up with a more affordable version in the mean time. And inevitably, a lot of them ended up rushing towards the end of the year to get their projects done (caveat – the resulting performances were REALLY great, so this isn’t some kind of blunt ‘people who procrastinate will never achieve anything’ post 😉 )

The skills involved in music production can be practiced on the most rudimentary tech. learning how to position your phone to get the best audio recording via the built in mic will teach you a TON about acoustics and the directionality of mics. Positioning duvets and cushions and other stuff around it to soak up reflections will teach you about materials that are acoustically absorbent or not. Reaper is a DAW that’s available for super-cheap and on an extended trial basis if you’re super-broke (note: using Reaper perpetually without paying for it is a dick move. Don’t be that person) – it has virtual instruments, midi programming and the most incredible audio routing of any DAW I’ve ever come across. Taking audio recordings from your phone and learning how to improve them in Reaper will teach you more than waiting til you can afford Logic will ever do. (NB. I’ve used Reaper for all my recording, mixing and mastering for over a decade and can’t ever imagine going back to Logic or ProTools)

My current studio/live set-up (they’re the same) is the process of 26 YEARS of upgrades. In fact, I started 32 years ago with a borrowed distortion pedal, worked out what I could do with that, and moved on from there. My first album was recorded on Minidisc with an external mic – because THAT’S WHAT I HAD. I could’ve complained and waited til I could afford studio time, but the music wasn’t going to wait. I spent HOURS learning how best to position the mic, I sat with my friend Jez while he mastered it in the very first version of ProTools LE, getting him to explain everything he did so I could learn from that. My 2nd solo album was recorded into a trial version of Soundforge (hint – not designed as a recording program, at ALL!) via a Soundblaster gaming card. because THAT’S WHAT I HAD. My looping set-up changed over time, swapping things out, trading them in – I have multiple albums recorded with a broken (only worked in mono) DL4, and later on with a broken (produced intermittent weird digital glitches, and only worked in mono!) Looperlative, because THAT’S WHAT I HAD. I kept the same basses for decades because I didn’t expect new toys to fix problems that only practice could deal with.

There’s a phrase that I picked up from photographer friends that’s used to shut down erroneous conversations about new tech – “The best camera for the job is the one that’s in your hands”

So for us, for today, we need to remember “What you have is enough, so what are you going to do with it?”

One of my music production heroes (and favourite music makers all round) is Andrew Howie, formerly known as Calamateur, who has made records with THE most basic tech you could possibly imagine. A lot of his gear has come from car boot sales and junk shops, or originally been designed as toys. And yet, he’s continually made extraordinary work. He turned whatever he had into the aesthetic of the project. I’ve been inspired by his records for nearly 20 years, and not once have I wished he’d had better tech (though he’s also now going through and remastering his ENTIRE body of work and reissuing them – go check it all out here, and subscribe! https://andrewhowie.bandcamp.com )

So, get good with what you’ve got – learn how to fix things, learn how to set up your instrument to get the absolute best out of it, find out what free software is out there (srsly, YouTube is THE GREATEST LEARNING RESOURCE IN HISTORY – watch tutorials in every spare minute you have when you’re not playing). If you’re making electronic music, sign up to pluginboutique.com emails and find out about amazing deals on stuff that’ll help you, and save up for the things you need. But while you’re saving WORK ON YOUR SKILLS. Your skills are not tech-dependent. Your dexterity using an MPC controller can be developed on the cheapest of USB interfaces, your understanding of mixing and mastering can be learned using built in plugins in Reaper, your harmonic and melodic ideas can be developed on a crappy instrument…

It’s OK to want and to save for great gear – at this point, I feel insanely blessed to get to make music with the tech that I have. But I didn’t wait til I had this to get to work. I used whatever I had and learned skills as I went along, upgrading when I could afford it, and working round it when I couldn’t.

Now, go practice.

Creative Freedom And Your Audience

[Warning: LONG read] I’ve just got back from a properly brilliant academic conference exploring Audience Research In The Arts – Audience research crosses a whole ton of disciplines and sub-disciplines, from sociology and anthropology to musicology and the science of memory. It was so invigorating to be around a massive group of people much smarter than me all trying to understand and illuminate different research angles on Audiences – who they are, what they do, how to reach them, the spaces they occupy and what those spaces mean, how they influence artists, and what kind of things they like, dislike and respond to… A dizzying array of magical goodness. If you want to see exactly what was on, here’s the conference program.

The main thing I brought away was a huge pile of methodological considerations that I now need to research and write up in the hope of getting back on track with my PhD, but there are a couple of things I want to think out loud about here. The first of them is this idea of creative freedom.

There was a really interesting paper given about contemporary composers and their variable perception of who their audience was and whether or not the only opinion that mattered was actually that of their peers. The starting point for it was this essay by Milton Babbitt that suggests ‘normal’ listeners aren’t sufficiently clever to understand the arcane workings of contemporary classical composition and that’s OK. The research project in question found a spread of opinion amongst the composers in its research data, but the bit that most intrigued me was the prevalence of uncritical takes on the concept of ‘creative freedom’ as an active state explicitly free from audience consideration. Given the many other research projects being presented that looked at imagined audiences, ad hoc audiences, that explored some of Bourdieu’s theories on how culture operates as an audience context for work created within that culture, and the 50 year history of reception studies acknowledging that even in broadcast media, the audience reception of a piece is an aspect of its production (creating a feedback loop), the uncritical lean towards the concept of artistic freedom seems particularly odd.

All the more so because it is utterly central to what I do to consider my audience and their relationship with the work, with the context within which the work is produced, even seeing our community of makers and listeners as ‘the work’. I have pretty much no interest in ‘purity’ as an artistic aim, and even authenticity I interpret in an Erving Goffmann sense, to be about consistency of messaging and intent across different “presentations of self” rather than as relating to some fixed notion of creative agency.

Because, of course, I have by the standards of contemporary music making, a ridiculous amount of creative autonomy – I have no label, no manager, no band, no commissioner, no funding body, no institution… I’ve built a set of tools and skills over the last 30 or so years explicitly designed to get to the point where I have the absolute minimum marginal cost for music making. I get to do whatever it is that I feel is interesting and worthwhile in my creative life. So when I started on the path to funding that journey through a subscription, it was with the explicit intention of becoming MORE accountable and visible to my audience rather than more independent of them. There is now a community of people numbering only a few hundred who are collectively responsible for the financial viability of my current work mode, but who are also the social context for me understanding what it is that I’m up to. Because, as anyone who has spent any time attempting to uncritically discuss intention with musicians will know, musicians with any degree of success are mostly terrible at articulating the honest/real/material/social context for how and why they do what they do. I have so many dear friends whose explanation of their process, aims, career and relationship with the culture and economy that they operate in bears zero relationship to anything you could actually measure.

As an avid reader of the music press from the age of about 11 – starting with Smash Hits and Number One, and moving through Kerrang and Metal Hammer, then onto the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, and eventually to glossies like Q and Vox and Word before finally ending up with online magazines and blogs, I’ve always been fascinated by the importance of wilfully delusional thinking in the self-mythologising of musicians (and of course, the enabling role that the press have played in rewarding the sensational, rarely if ever offering any kind of meaningful behavioural critique of rock excess, and building an economic model for themselves that relies on the amoral documentary work of celebrating sociopaths as iconoclasts). Indeed, that self-mythology often exists to justify (to themselves and the reader) their abhorrent behaviour towards fans and peers, but it also serves a less dystopian purpose in creating a space in which their own mythology can feed into work that desires for itself an absence of doubt and an abundance of self-confidence. It is, after all, pretty much impossible to apologetically play an arena or stadium show (perhaps providing one explanation for the prevalence of cocaine use amongst creatives, as a counter to self-doubt in an environment that eviscerates the doubtful). Even the glorious self-effacing asides of performers as engaging as James Taylor or Paul Simon rely on the reality that here is an audience made of thousands of people willing to spend significant chunks of money to hear this incredible band of musicians. There’s almost nothing to be won or proved, just a glorious legacy to be confirmed.

So what happens when your musical journey requires an ongoing dialectic of instability, questioning and perpetual forward motion on one side and a community of support and informed care on the other? How does that marry with the quite specific economies of scale that define the relationship between music as a product that accrues nostalgic magnetism over time through repeat exposure and the larger performance contexts within which it resides? Can we move beyond those growth/scale metrics of success to see the audience as the community vessel within which the work exists? In the same way that U2 or Coldplay songs can sometimes sound ridiculous robbed of the sense of meaning that 80,000 people singing along can lend to even the most banal of sentiments, is it possible to create work that only makes sense within a community invested in being the embodied vessel for the work?

The level of listener engagement required to make sense of my recorded output is at odds with both a commercial recording-as-product-to-be-marketed understanding of what recordings are ‘for’ but also with the idea that I should have a group of expert peers who should tell me whether or not what I’m doing is significant within its elite field. I mean, I DO have those reactions – I have a commentary going back 20 years from experts in the field saying nice things about what I do and how I do it, and it would be wholly spurious to attempt to downplay the significance of press and radio coverage, or the endorsement of musicians like Victor Wooten or Michael Manring or Danny Thompson – but that’s not the ongoing purpose of the work. I rarely send any of those people or media entities links to my new work. They have the same invitation as anyone else at this point to engage with the subscription for what it is if the work, the story of the work and the broad idea of the work and its processes and contexts has meaning to them beyond a request for a quote that I can use to perhaps validate the experience of another listener who likes what they’ve heard but in the parlance of High Fidelity, isn’t quite sure if they should…

So, my subscribers are deeply and utterly integral to the work. Our relationship is in one very real way ‘the work’ in its entirety. The recordings are a documentary process, a soundtrack to a community who either listen to recordings from afar, or show up for a set of sparsely attended but intensely enjoyable and communal gigs. The recordings are, by sheer virtue of the increasingly unknowable volume of the back catalogue, an unfolding narrative comprised of episodes rather than being best experienced as a series of products designed to build on the commercial success of the previous one and relate to the changes in culture and media in an explicit way.

It’s closer – perhaps – to a steady state economic model for music making, in that there’s a very low bar for economic viability (the project is viable at this level with 230-ish subscribers, and would be entirely sustaining of my family’s economics at around 1000 annual subscribers), and that is both a hindrance to growth (in that the point of economic engagement – and access to the vast majority of the catalogue – is your first year’s subscription fee of £30) but also is (in Bourdieu’s formulation) a position taken in opposition to the prevailing quest for an ever expanding streaming listenership, where 250,000 people contributing fractions of a penny per listen each is the aim. There is an affordance within that model for a specific kind of creative-economic aspiration, and it’s not one that favours the kind of thought process, time scale, work/life balance or narrative context that interests me as a creative person.

Given that ‘creative freedom’ is a mostly nonsensical formulation acknowledging the complexity of influences that we’re all consciously and unconsciously subjected to every time we even think about music let alone engage with activities around making it and learning how to make it, I’m happy to hitch my music waggon to a community model that brings with it an affordance for a more reflective mode of music making, and a more episodic, decommoditised context for the releasing of recordings. It’s not like the subscription itself isn’t still a ‘product’ or commodity – it has a price and with that price comes a perception of the value of the offering in relation to that price, but what’s beyond that as an experience both live and recorded is what my PhD is all about… I’m currently about 18 months behind where I should be with written evidence of what I’m up to, but the thinking (and non-official writing) part is pretty well developed. Hopefully there’ll be a bunch more shows for y’all to come to in the very near future…

Anyway, the one open-ended question at the end of this is directed at current, former and perhaps even future subscribers – how does that lot map to your experience of being a subscriber? Is it just an economically meaningful way to get a bunch of music that you can’t get elsewhere, or is there more to it? Answers in the comments please 😉