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.

Two New Solo Albums + “Bandcamp Day” News

Last Friday, Bandcamp – the music sales and streaming platform that I use for all my music distribution – donated all of their revenue share back to artists for 24 hours. This was an amazing gesture, resulting in several million pounds/euros/dollars ending up directly in the bank accounts of musicians struggling to pay bills and find ways to replace lost live income right now.

I released two new albums on Friday to celebrate – a public release of February’s subscriber only album, Better Living Through Technology, and the brand new (dis)order. Listen to both here, and click through if you’d like to buy them for just £2 each :

The feeding frenzy of sales was extraordinary, and ground the Bandcamp servers to a halt at various times through the day. Still, the headline stat for me is that when you add up all the new subscribers, sales of my entire catalogue and all the people who bought one or a few albums (at the new £2 price per album across my entire Bandcamp shop), I sold just under 900 albums Between Friday and Sunday. If those had been individual copies of the same album sold to separate buyers, that’d be enough to land me in the lower reaches of the UK album charts…!

So firstly, a massive THANK YOU to everyone who bought anything during the day, or even listened to it and decided it wasn’t for you – I’m grateful you took the time, and you found something else that was more to your liking elsewhere!

These are perilous times for musicians, and my decision to focus my release strategy around the community of listeners on Bandcamp 10 years ago has made me a fair bit more resilient to these changing economic times than my friends whose strategic success plan was for a viral hit on Spotify. I really hope they find it, but I’m insanely grateful for the compact community of curious and caring music lovers who sustain me via the Bandcamp subscription.

If you’d like to join us, please head to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe – the community aspect is going to be ramped up through this time of isolation with subscriber video hangs and some creativity inspiration videos. If that sounds good to you, go check out what’s on offer…

And if you’re looking for a new soundtrack to these uncertain times, please go check out my fan account on Bandcamp – I bought more music in the last 3 days than in perhaps any comparable period in my entire life (matched maybe by a trip across the US in 2004 when I ended up throwing away clothes so I could fit more CDs in my suitcase 🙂 ) – it’s all there. <3

 

Further Thoughts On Streaming Gigs And What To Do When You’re Quarantined

Here are some extra thoughts on streaming gigs and beyond (culled from a thread I wrote on Twitter yesterday, so this may read in a slightly stilted way!):

Streaming gigs are great for capturing a moment. The sense that you’re watching with other people can be wonderful. But that requires a critical mass of whatever size you’re looking for. They aren’t so great for building a new audience AND getting paid. But let’s face it, almost nothing is good for building an audience AND getting paid.

The other big problem with running a live stream gig is that they don’t ‘fail gracefully’ – there’s no cascade of it ‘sort of working’ – if you’re trying to play live online, it either works or it doesn’t. A dodgy connection kills it, a faulty webcam kills it, sound problems kill it… It can take quite a few attempts to get right and you may not have the time or resources to properly trouble shoot your tech and platforms…

SO, here are some alternatives to just streaming a gig, that you may find useful to modify based on your own situation:

  • Recording a live-off-the-floor session, filming it properly, upload to YouTube, release the album on Bandcamp.
  • Doing a covers EP swap with another band. Do each other’s songs
  • Collaborating, filming the sessions, compiling it, putting it out as a mini-documentary with the track(s) for sale.
  • Hosting an album live stream with a live ‘director’s commentary’: talk through it, play acoustic versions of the songs, explain the lyrics. Gather your tribe
  • Host a fan Q&A – make it PWYW, or attach it to a track/album download. Chat to people, take questions via twitter, answer them on a stream.
  • Give a masterclass on how to play one of your tracks. If musos dig your music, do a live breakdown, with Q&A.

Here’s the thing – for YEARS, so many artists have been giving away premium fantastic-ness as free stuff to try and get people to listen to our music on a platform that pays almost nothing. That’s a terrible strategy, but y’all have trained your audience to think it’s OK. If you want to unwind those assumptions, TALK TO YOUR AUDIENCE.

Your fans are NOT to blame for listening to you on Spotify if that’s where you put your music. If the streaming economy is failing you at this time, you need to go back to your audience and talk to them about the realities of trying to make the music they love.

We’re facing a situation where there’s literally nothing about the Spotify economy that’s going to help us. We’ve bought into the idea that competing for the lottery win of a viral hit is motivation enough to make & release music on poverty wages, & we’ve had gigs to plug the gap. That’s not the case now. The task at hand requires us unwinding some of the assumptions that we’ve made, and some that our audience has made, and perhaps embracing the smallness of an audience that give enough of a shit to help us stay afloat…

building that tribe is a totally different strategy to hoping for 200,000 active streaming listeners a month to help make your recording career work.

So, you need to find your audience, talk to them, and make the music available in places where they can help AND feel a sense of belonging

right now there are two places that do that better than all the others combined – Bandcamp and Patreon. It can be a massive struggle to get your listeners to care. People with huge audiences that are vaguely interested in you can find that their core audience who actually care is tiny

Focussing on that audience and its growth can feel insane. Like, why wouldn’t you try and reach out to the 500,000 people who’ve watched your stuff on someone else’s channel YouTube? Because the clickthrough rate to buying music from YouTube is appalling. It happens, but it’s not a solid strategy.

If you want and need a bunch of people who will sustain you, you need to work at it, and that may initially be really small. I have a HUGE diffuse audience of people who know my stuff through YouTube, ScottsBassLessons, Bass Guitar Magazine, radio etc. But I have 250 subscribers who sustain me, materially and spiritually.

Growing that 250 is what matters to me. Feeding them, nurturing them. So almost all my output is subscriber only. I could stick it all on streaming platforms or YouTube and it’d be worthless. There’s enough stuff of mine on YouTube sending people my way. I’m building the tribe. So many things about what I do are utterly specific to how and why I make music. They’re things that rely on me having had a 20 year career, an incredibly high rate of production, being a writer and audio engineer, collaborating widely. NONE OF THAT HAPPENED BY ACCIDENT.

Bottom line: Your process and intended output need to match. I’ve spent 20 years getting to here, because I made the music the most important thing and build a life around making it possible. So now that so much of the infrastructure around the expected way that musicians operate is threatened, I don’t need to do a u-turn to talk to my audience…

So yes, you need technical strategies and know-how for streaming gigs etc. But you REALLY need to think about how you’re going to talk to your audience, where they are & what you’re asking from them vs what you’re offering them in return.

I really hope you find a way through this – let me know if I can help.

Steve’s Top Tips For Running A Live Stream Gig

In the midst of all venue shut downs and tour cancelations over the COVID-19 pandemic, lots of people talking about streaming gigs while quarantined. It’s a great idea. The bummer is that most of the best platforms to have emerged over the years got shut down eventually through lack of a funding model (or acquired by tech-berks who wanted the tech for something else)
 
Anyway, this document has a bunch of info about the ones that are still in play if you want to get your stream on…
 
 
If you’re going to do it, here are my top tips, from the last 13+ years of doing live streaming gigs:
 
  • Get the audio as good as you possibly can. That’s way more important than multi-cam complexity. Use a desk/soundcard to mix it, or quality mics if it’s just acoustic. If you have to use a built in mic on a webcam, spend some SERIOUS time getting the levels and positioning right.
  • Lighting really matters. Get it right so people can see you. A fairly crappy webcam can look great if you can get something resembling daylight happening in your house. Practice this the day or so before you actually do the stream.
  • Get someone else to man the stream. Trying to monitor the stream while playing is really hard. It can be fun on an IG live stream, but if you’re doing a paid event, get a family member or friend to help monitor the stream and respond to comments etc.
  • If you can, film it with better cameras for later upload. Archiving a stream is fine, but if you can get an HD version for upload, you can even upsell it to people who watched the original gig for some extra $.
  • As with everything like this, if you want people to do this, plug everyone else’s live streams too. I can’t stress enough that every aspect of our attempts to keep the arts economy alive HAS to be communal. No-one has the luxury of just wanging on about their own shit as though they’re the only thing that matters. If people get into streaming gigs and buying on Bandcamp, we all benefit. Just plugging your own stuff over and over means you’re trying to do the conversion to new platforms and new experiences all on your own, so it’s not only selfish, it’s stupid and laborious.
Please feel free to share this around if it’s useful to you… 

Brand New Career-First Live Video :)

It’s been quite a while since I last posted here. Sorry about that, will try to be a better blogger in future 🙂

Anyway, big news – for the first time, an entire show of mine has just gone live on YouTube. It’s the middle one of the three gigs from Italy a couple of weeks ago, the album of which has just been released too, for Bandcamp subscribers. Watch the video here – it’s pretty moody and atmospheric, but the wider angle shot gives a good view of what I’m up to!

If you want to get the album of the show – called Half Life – along with the first Italian show, released two weeks ago, called The Aesthetics Of Care, and 55 other albums from across my career, PLUS everything I release in the next 12 months, you can subscribe via Bandcamp.

As we’re staring down the wrong end of the entire live music sector facing several months of cancelations for touring and shows, now is a really good time to have a think about how the music you care about is financed – the streaming economy just isn’t equipped to respond to a crisis of this magnitude, especially for the thousands of niche artists for whom there is no one form of income. Everything is piecemeal and everything is precarious. So album sales, merch and subscriptions via Bandcamp or Patreon provide a source of more instant cash to both live and carry on making music when the gigs that often keep us going week to week have fallen through. No-one plans for a pandemic when thinking about the economic framing of their music life, so almost no-one has any savings or a back-up plan. As this runs into festival season, even those musicians who teach during term time are going to struggle.

So as well as inviting you to buy my music or subscribe at music.stevelawson.net, here’s a link to my Bandcamp collection, where all the music I’ve bought on Bandcamp lives – a massive amount of music that I love and recommend to you to investigate and buy what you dig – bandcamp.com/solobasssteve

2010-2020 – A Decade In (My) Music

Decades are interesting markers in time. 10 years – however boring or eventful – is a MASSIVE chunk of any one person’s life. You change, whether you want to or not. The world around you changes. People are born and die, kids become adults, people who could previously see their youth over their shoulder are now glimpsing retirement and old age on the horizon. And whatever your work is, you do A LOT of it.

For musicians, 10 years is unfathomable. Careers are often shorter than that. Untold numbers of legendary musicians have died, and people who were pre-teen at the start of the decade are in rehab dealing with the ravages of years of toxic fame by the end of it.

10 years is enough time to become an AMAZING musician from scratch. If it’s your life, your calling, your passion, and you haven’t progressed, something has gone WAY wrong… It may be that you got trapped in the economics of playing other people’s music for decent money, built a life around that and couldn’t then afford the time and focus to work on your own thing. It could be that teaching became an option, and as is so often – tragically, and mistakenly – the case, you lost sight of yourself as an artist, as a creative entity. I see that a lot, and it breaks my heart… Or it could be that you made something beautiful, and spent 10 years being told that that one thing was going to be The Thing, and it held you back, hanging all your hopes and dreams on the one thing… There are loads of ways that people get lost in time, and for musicians, the commercial context is a veritable Temple Of Doom of traps and pitfalls.

So what of my own decade? Well, it started – monumentally – with a one month old baby. Flapjack was born during the dying embers of the previous decade, and obviously cast our entire lives in a new light. But I still entered the decade with dreams of spending my life playing music with Lobelia – our house concert show was pretty damn great by that point. Two solo sets, a bunch of stuff together at the end mixing her songs and cool covers (before that become the Kudzu weed of YouTube 🙂 ) – we had an amazing show, and I dreamed of us touring as a lil’ family building our mini-traveling-circus, even talking about home-schooling Flapjack half the year so we could tour more… What became clear many years later was that that was never going to work – it was way harder on Lo than on me, and despite two really successful summers spent touring with a baby in tow (and a godsend of a mother-in-law making it all possible), as the early years of the 10s progressed, we had to let go of touring together…

We also started the decade living in London, but again, escaping became more and more inevitable as the cost of being there was ever more starkly out of step with the kind of life we wanted to lead. So, thanks to a one-off incredible gig in Thailand, we were able to afford to make the leap to Birmingham, kicking off a whole load of work with Andrew Dubber and New Music Strategies, and a bunch of other work looking at social media in the arts, charities and the 3rd sector… stuff that was WAY less precarious than being two full-time musicians with a baby…

Photo by Rob GroucuttThe first massive change after that came when Andy Edwards rang me out of the blue and offered me a teaching job at Kidderminster College. I hadn’t taught weekly in a college for well over a decade, and wasn’t at the time looking for that, but the social media work with Amplified was slowing, and the opportunity to start to develop some of the New Music Strategies ideas in a college setting was a good one… I wasn’t aware at the time how much of the rest of the 10s it would influence, but it ended up being transformative, and my musical relationship with Andy became one of the most significant of my entire life.

Photo by Don AlbonicoTalking of significant musical relationships, a chance invite online to play some music with a Californian multi-instrumentalist called Daniel Berkman was the other great transformation of the early 10s… Daniel and I met to both play solo on a gig, but immediately decided to play improvised duo material for the entire show, and over the next three Januarys did, I think, 27 shows, the first 10 of which were released in their entirety, and set off a path towards bringing together performing, recording and releasing music that stepped WAY outside the normal economic and temporal constraints of the recorded music economy… Daniel also sowed the seeds that grew into the decision to start using percussion, keyboard sounds and field recordings in my music, that was eventually sparked by a collaboration with Divinity Roxx in 2015.

The third great musical moment of the early decade was meeting Chris Thorpe, and then Lucy Ellinson and forming Torycore – Torycore was initially inspired by the three of us going to see Cannibal Corpse and Triptykon in Birmingham (the night I met Lucy) and from there, she came up with the idea for using the visceral rage and anger of metal as an amplifier of the brutality and evil at the heart of the politics of Austerity. As an instrumentalist whose rationalisation for his music had always been deeply political, it was an amazing release to get to do something so explicitly focused on social justice, a performance that became incredibly significant to a whole lot of people trying to make sense of the death and destruction at the heart of the Tory Decade Of Austerity. We were seeing people die, people made homeless and services for the poor and disabled decimated, by people in suits smiling and talking in posh accents about difficult choices. True Compassion Means Tough Decisions. It was bullshit, and Torycore allowed us to give voice to that rage, by taking their words and putting them in context. It also threw me into a world of theatre makers and performers who had a HUGE influence on the next step for me – the start of my PhD.

Having first talked about doing a PhD in 2010 at Leeds Beckett Uni, in 2015 the conversation got a little more serious just at the time that a number of galvanising conversations made it clear that my focus was actually about the intersection of improvisation as a practice, as a method of music-making, and the experience of audiences. I was fascinated by how aesthetics and expectations and experiences came together around music made in the moment, about familiarity, responsiveness and indeed the theatricality of performance in that context. So that became the PhD project. And I’m still at it 5 years on, the idea still as inspiring as ever but the work harder and more complex than it really should’ve been thanks to a bunch of interruptions along the way…

Meeting Andy Edwards span off into a ton of collaborative improv settings. He’d been out of open/free improv for a long time, so creating space for him to discover that, and for me to get right back into playing with an incredible drummer was a marriage made in musical heaven. We started to play with our incredible colleague Phi Yaan-Zek as LEYlines and also did a bunch of other collaborative improv shows and put improvisation at the heart of the course at Kidderminster. My music life has Andy’s fingerprints all over it, but I’m still not going to start listening to Zappa 😉

At the start of 2010, I’d JUST started to sell music on Bandcamp – it was a very new platform, but looked to be way more artist-friendly, and it didn’t take me long to realise that it was the *perfect* platform for me and what I wanted to build. Releasing the albums with Daniel Berkman on there, the option for us both to release music, for Artemis to compile albums of the vocal tracks and release them too… that portability of music seemed so much better attuned to what the art was meant to be and meant to DO. And then in 2015 I was invited to trial Bandcamp’s subscription platform. Three artists (I think) got to try it first before everyone else, to iron out kinks and see how it worked. And for me it was another line in the sand. This was exactly what I needed, to completely step off the album/promo/sales cycle and be able to release all of these amazing live collaborative recordings in a way that accumulated value through being prolific rather than diluting or decimating the commercial viability of any one recording… It was 180 degrees away from the economics of streaming, of trying to have a ‘hit’ track on a playlist, or trying to second guess commercial viability. Nope, give it to the audience, let them decide, hand them agency over it, tell stories about it and build a community of practice where the audience are able to invest in what’s going on not just by buying finished work but by funding the entire project, but talking about it, but encouraging the bits they particularly enjoy, but asking questions about the stuff they don’t understand… A transactional approach to the accumulation of social value in the recordings themselves… (see, PhD 😉 )

Back to 2015, and that project with Divinity – after a number of conversations and a rough plan to improvise and do shows with a lot of story-telling, we got together for a week, recorded some ideas and did an amazing freewheeling show at Kidderminster College… And after it, I realised that the way Divi used a keyboard to play beats (woven into her Beatboxing!) was the next thing I needed to explore in my own music. So I got hold of a Quneo – an instrument I’d first heard Daniel Berkman use a couple of years earlier – and start to build their influence into how I played as a solo artist. Keeping the principle and practice of improvisation for and with that particular audience, but playing beats and keyboard parts on the Quneo, and seeing where that lead. It changed everything for me, and over time I started to feed it into the improv duets and into LEYlines… It was a massive change in terms of the range of sounds I could produce, and how obvious the hip hop influence is on my music, but the process and performance brain has remained pretty much the same…

Eventually, my Kidderminster job came to an end – to make more time for my now-massively-behind-schedule PhD – and by route of a couple of other teaching jobs in between, I’ve ended up teaching one day a week at BIMM in Birmingham and LOVING it. A new and amazing bunch of colleagues, though I can’t ever imagine anything replicating the creative energy of making music with Andy and Phi (LEYlines is still very much a thing!)

I finished the decade with the 20th anniversary of my first solo gig, Flapjack’s 10th birthday, and the 5th anniversary of my Subscription starting. A whole lot of time to reflect and look back. I am, at least from where I’m stood, making the best music of my life, and other than the constant stress of the PhD (such is PhD life, I guess) I’m doing pretty well. I have projects lined up for the new year, a number of things recorded but still to release and some other stuff I want to try out. I’m cycling again after 20-something years out of the saddle, and that’s meant I’m WAY fitter going into this decade than coming into the last one… Life is good.

10 years is a long time in music gear too! By the end of the decade, I’d changed amp brand (to Aguilar), String brand (to Dunlop) main effects processor (to MOD Devices) and perhaps most noticeably had an incredible new signature bass with Elrick Basses. My obsession with individual pedals grew massively over the decade, and my pedal collection grew with it…

Across the decade I released somewhere around 56 albums, not including compilations and remasters (I’m not 100% sure how many it is!) with the rate increasing massively after the advent of the subscription. If you’re not yet subscribed, you REALLY need to hop aboard!

So, everything has changed. I went from a single brilliant and highly developed musical focus (touring and recording with Lo) to this incredibly rich music making life, from playing solo bass to making music with controllers, basses and a mountain of pedals, from normal gigs to theatre shows with Torycore, from doing masterclasses in colleges to writing courses and hopefully finishing up a PhD soon…

A decade is a long time. A lot happened. Take stock, look forward, and leave the past behind while committing to putting right anything that is your responsibility to fix (I HATE the idea that these arbitrary rites of passage give us license to abandon the mess we created! I’m still dealing with mine from the last decade, forgiveness doesn’t mean abandoning others to our consequences…) – but build systems and support groups, communities and patterns of behaviour that’ll help you break cycles that were destructive in the last decade, that will drag you from the inertia, the traps that hold us, and the missed opportunities to help others. Make sure your resolutions include an outward look to how you can best influence and serve your community… artistic types are terrible for obsessing over our own work but our ‘work’ needs to include fixing the world we’re writing about and responding to. Commit to get your hands dirty, then go home and make art that illuminates it all.

Here’s to brighter days and much more music xx

A Thank You, and a Reason to Subscribe at the Dawn of a New Decade

I’ve finished off 2019 – and the decade – with a bit of a release flourish. December started with the release of my first ever Best Of compilation – a look at my solo work from the very beginning up until I introduced percussive samples and keyboard sounds into my live set-up in 2015. Then last weekend’s gig celebrating 20 years of my solo career (exactly 20 years from my first ever solo gig!) yielded not one but TWO new albums that were released this week to my Bandcamp subscribers. The first is the solo set from the show, and the second is the audio part of my Illuminated Loops collaboration with genius visual artist Poppy Porter. So at first glance they’re two solo sets, in that all the sounds made are made by me, but the contrast between the two is pretty huge, and certainly the memories attached for those who were there will be, I assume, rather different!

I want to finish the decade with a huge thank you to all of you who’ve bought and listened to my music over the last ten years, who’ve subscribed, who’ve told friends about the music, come to shows, messaged me on social media to offer encouragement, reviewed the records on Bandcamp or come and said hi at the various events where our paths have crossed. It’s such an amazing luxury to get to make music and share it with people, and this path towards carving out a sustainable ongoing way of releasing a lot of both solo and collaborative recordings would feel pretty exposed and out on a limb if it wasn’t for your encouragement and patronage. So thank you.

If you haven’t yet subscribed, or used to subscribe but are interested in getting the new music that’s been released since you let it lapse, I’d love for you to join us for the end of the decade. It would be amazing to finish the journey over 2020’s threshold with a subscriber boost, and it’d certainly give you a massive amount of music to investigate during any down time you might have over the festive period!

So head over to http://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe now and see what’s on offer. There are 50+ albums that are yours the moment you subscribe, along with whatever I release in the next 12 months, a couple of eBooks, and a ton of subscriber exclusive video and conversation to investigate in the subscriber area on Bandcamp.

The streaming economy still offers nothing like sustainability to niche music makers, so I rely entirely on the generosity and patronage of those who are curious enough to come and find out what’s on offer. In return I promise to make the best music I possibly can! 🙂

I hope you have a wonderful festive time, however you choose to celebrate at this time of year, and that despite whatever set-backs and sadness we’ve experienced on a global scale over the last decade, we’ll be able to muster enough hope and resolve to greet the new year with love and gratitude, and a commitment to being a vital and positive presence in it. Aside from anything else I’m able to do, I’ll do my best to provide that journey with a soundtrack…