20th Anniversary Gig on Dec 15th!

Twenty years
Twenty years of solo shows
Twenty years of explaining that no, I don’t have a band, and no, none of it is pre-recorded
Twenty years of curious sonic adventures
Twenty years of playing all over the world, in all kinds of venues, to all kinds of people
Twenty years of refinement – of getting better, of going deeper, of exploring the edges
Twenty years of wondering when I’ll run out of inspiration and do something else…
Twenty years of recording and releasing music – 71 albums so far!
Twenty years – a milestone worth celebrating! 

December 15th 2019 will be a really special show for me, here in Birmingham. I’d love for you to join me. Here’s why: 

December 15th 1999 was my first proper solo gig. I’d played solo before that, but never a whole set to an audience coming to see me. I’d done product demos at Guitar Shows, and solo tunes in gigs with Ragatal, but a whole gig? That was the first.

Twenty years often feels like an impossibly long time in music. When I went to music college aged 18, anyone with a 20 year career would’ve started in 1971, and been at it for longer than I’d been alive. 20 years in music is inconceivable from the start, but feels like the blink of an eye from the other end… I still feel like I’m just getting started with my creative path, I feel like there’s so much more I want to do, so many more ways to explore what the bass can do, the kinds of music that I can make within this set of constraints that were set in motion at that first gig – everything is live, everything is me and it’s all based on improvisation.

At that first gig, I had start points. A handful of loop ideas that I could play and then see what happens… The versions of the tracks that became my first album that were played at that first gig had completely different melodies – the only fixed part was the chord progression. Over the years I went back and forth between playing tunes from the records like that, and playing all-improvised music.

The point where I stopped playing those tunes was after my tours with Daniel Berkman, listening back to the recordings of our first 10 shows, which became the FingerPainting set – the low point of every single gig was my solo tune. Because it was the one thing that was set in stone before the gig, and wasn’t made FOR that moment. It existed so I could let people know I had new music out and maybe encourage them to buy it. That’s not a terrible motive, but it really stands at odds with the kind of dangerous, in the moment music making that Daniel and I were up to for the rest of the gig. Everything else that was happening was about what was happening. Our conversations were the score, the audience were the score, the room was the score. And we played to that. Across the 10 albums of the FingerPainting set, there’s a massive range of musical territory that we got to explore. It all sounds like US, but it sounds like us in all those different spaces to all those different people.

So, soon after that, I gave up on revisiting old tunes. I was just much better at playing new music rather than recreating old music. And that was the origin of all of this – those ‘starter loops’ that were present in the first couple of shows and eventually had fixed melodies and were given names were just launchpads for improvisation. Training wheels for this fledgling improvisor.

It’s a tough sell to promote a gig where none of the music that you’re playing has names that relate to the music that’s gone before. But weirdly this improvised work is perhaps more connected to the journey because it contains EVERYTHING – everything I’ve played and loved is in the toolbox. Everything I’ve played and failed at is there as a cautionary tale. Sometimes I revisit old ideas thinking I may have a new take on them, sometimes the spirit of those ideas is manifest in whatever it is that I’m excited about right now.

Five years ago after a week of jamming and experimenting with Divinity Roxx I added a MIDI controller and a laptop to my live set up and started playing percussion and keyboard sounds along with the bass stuff. Still there were no pre-recorded loops, no beats that I could just trigger at the same tempo and feel every night. Everything was played FOR the event, every sound was made with tonight in mind. On one level it felt like a transformative step – ‘SoloBassSteve’ had been a brand identity for a long time, and I guess this wasn’t strictly solo bass anymore, right? But on another it made perfect sense. The all live all-for-now constraint was way more central to the musical ideology than the all-bass bit. Bass is my voice, my language, my vernacular. What I’ve chosen to avoid isn’t a character, it’s a script. The story begins anew and builds on the last episode.

So this 20th anniversary gig will be a celebration of that journey, of the evolving newness that includes its own story in every note. Where the names of tunes are not the locus of familiarity, but the sound and the adventure offers a point of remembrance, of revisitation. A space to hear sounds and ideas that are woven through 20 years of live and recorded music, are embedded in my head and that of my longer term audience.

Please join us on Dec 15th…

Five Years Of The Bandcamp Subscription!

This last weekend, I went to a gig by Richard Lomax AKA Granfalloon – a singer from Manchester. He was explaining where the band name Granfalloon came from – its origins being in Kurt Vonnegut’s book Cat’s Cradle. A Granfalloon represents a false or absurd sense of connection felt between a group of people who aren’t really connected in any meaningful way. And its meaningful opposite is a Karass – as Wikipedia puts it, ‘a group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial links are not evident.’

Which obviously got me thinking about the strange and wonderful group of people that make up my subscriber community on Bandcamp, having just reached the fifth anniversary of the subscription’s inception!

The people who subscribe to me represent the last 20 years of my solo career in breadth and depth, with some old friends and very long time listeners in there alongside people who’ve found my music more recently,  and even a few who I imagine are there because they think the venture is worthwhile even without having a particularly deep connection to the music… Those ‘superficial’ links are absent purely because of the diversity of their backgrounds and ways of relating to this central community – they’re from all over the world, of a pretty huge age range, and I’d be hard pushed to pigeonhole the interests of the typical Steve Lawson subscriber, beyond there being a statistically significant number of bass players present in the sample 🙂

We are a Karass, gathered around a bunch of music and a way of making it available that cuts across so many of the assumptions about how and why recorded music is supposed to exist, it’s relationship with live concerts, the economics around how musicians are supposed to leverage some value from their work, and the balance of significance given to the actual recordings vs the conversations, discussions, questions and contextual ramblings that frame their existence.

The exchange is, from where I’m sat, very much two-way in so many ways other than the economic sustainability that is so evident at the heart of it. Releasing live recordings throughout the year gives room for the development of my music-making ideas and focus to be influenced by the discussions and responses that happen in between those gigs – earlier this year I released three live albums in the space of a month or so, giving the subscribers who wanted to dig into it the space to consider how my set of tools and ideas manifests itself differently across multiple nights of what in any other context might have been part of a tour, but which almost none of my audience would ever be able to attend across multiple nights.

The kind of exalted status any artist needs to have in order to inspire their listeners – fans – to turn up to multiple nights on the same tour is neither a desirable state to be in nor a practical one if I want to continue to play in small-scale, intimate, community spaces in the way that I do. Recognising that the upper ceiling on my audience size for doing things the way I really want to is actually pretty small has been a huge relief in terms of letting go of many of the expectations of scale that go with having any kind of music career in the age of streaming.

How do I get to make loads of music, release it, and find a community that are willing to engage with it, be present IN it and shape it by giving me permission to keep experimenting (as opposed to withholding their economic support from what I do until I do a farewell or greatest hits tour)? Those were the big questions I set out to try and explore when I launched my Bandcamp subscription on Oct 23rd 2014. FIVE years ago this week.

I’m so, so grateful to everyone who has subscribed over the years – whether or not you’ve since unsubscribed. This was never meant to be a social engineering project, aimed at trapping/tricking people into remaining subscribed beyond the point where it’s useful or meaningful for them to be so. The first year’s offering is by far the biggest if you bring normal industry metrics to bear on things, because you get some crazy number of albums from across the last 20 years immediately. And they’re yours to keep, not contingent on you remaining subscribed. Unlike so many other platforms, Bandcamp doesn’t do access rental. The music is yours to keep.

But that initial offering is the raw material needed to get caught up with Where We Are Now. My own focus is not ‘how can I leverage value from my back catalog?’ – this isn’t my retirement fund in any way, shape or form – my focus is forward-looking, and the back catalog is all context for where we are. I’m deeply proud of all of it, and am happy for people to listen to it in a focused way, to dump it all in a folder and listen across the two decades represented on shuffle, to have favourites and to have projects that don’t work for them…

The most amazing thing for me about the subscription, other than the friendships and conversation perhaps, is that I no longer need to think about the direct marketable ‘value’ of any one album. I don’t prepare music for release thinking ‘will people buy this?’ My thought process is episodic – I make music that advances the story, I release music that builds on where we’ve come from and where we’re heading. I have favourite episodes, for sure, and certainly the guest stars are an absolute joy for me, but it’s the totality of it that feels like ‘the work’ – that 20 year story arc that shows no sign of stopping or slowing.

Just under a year after I launched the subscription I was inspired by a recording session with Divinity Roxx to add a MIDI controller to my set up and to start playing drums and keyboards and later to incorporate found sound and field recordings into my music. Even at that stage, the sense of cushioning that the subscription gave me from the raw economic impact of wrong-footing my audience gave me the creative latitude to try things out, to in one sense trash the ‘solo bass steve’ brand as an accurate descriptor of what I did as a music maker, but to significantly broaden the sonic scope of my work. The ‘all live, no edits’ rule is still in place – not because it’s an ethically superior state for music (that’s a wholly absurd notion) but because that particular constraint focusses my thoughts around a kind of music making that results in the gradual and constant evolution of my language, my ability to construct compelling and meaningful stories in sound, and to perform in a way that allows for every gig to be at the same high standard as the recordings, but also to then be released as a unique event for those who couldn’t be there.

There is in music scholarship a large amount of energy and effort given over to people’s perceptions of the relative merits of the experience of live vs recorded music – the idea that a live recording has no value because it doesn’t capture the atmosphere and the experience, or the idea that a live gig can never scale the heights of the production of a well conceived recording. That, to me, is an entirely false dichotomy that misses the interrelatedness of liveness and the documentary process. A record is different from a gig, in the same way that a meal is different from going to the park. They serve different needs, and the availability of the experience means that they have wholly different levels of exclusivity in terms of who may experience them.

A gig is geographically and temporally bound to the where and when of its happening. A recording is wedded to the technology required for its experiencing and the emphasis that tech brings to the sound as envisaged by the person recording, mixing and mastering it. A live recording isn’t comparable as an experience to a gig because one is repeatable and relocatable and the other is not. But the possibility of RE-hearing an improvised show you were at is a magical one. The option to experience and compare multiple nights across a fixed time period, to compare, to listen again, to even transcribe and learn the music if you’re a performer – to do that without the frankly ridiculous limitations to the time required to manufacture product, distribute it, market it, promote it and then focus ones energies on drawing attention to it – that is an amazing, breathless liberty.

There’s no such thing as ‘creativity free from influence or constraint’ – the mythology of the entire liberated auteur magicking music from the ether is a marketing construct like any other, elevating the creative path to that of the alchemist. Instead, if we’re aware of them, we can deliberately curate our influences and shape our context to best create the affordance for the kind of creative exploration that feels most meaningful to as at any one time.

My own path requires me to stay as unburdened by my own history as possible. ‘Solo bass’ carries its own set of expectations and distractions that I try to remain conscious of. I’d hate to have a hit record that brought with it an audience offering the promise of economic enrichment for my willingness to tread that same ground over and over. It’s not that songs are bad, or that touring with a setlist is some lesser creative path. That’d be both offensive and wholly disingenuous to try and elevate small scale improvised performance to some loftier creative plain.. But it is MY path, it’s where my curiosity leads, and it’s the area within which I can best explore how to soundtrack the world in all its beauty and desolateness.

And the Bandcamp subscription is UTTERLY vital to not only me being able to do that, but to helping define that emerging sense of it even being a possibility. It’s a very different way of thinking about the purpose and value of performing and recording, of developing my creativity and presenting it to people for their enjoyment, edification and often bemusement 😉

So thank you. Thank you subscribers, thank you Bandcamp, and well done if you’ve read this far. Send me an email and I’ll send you a download code for my latest album as a reward for actually reaching the end of this 😉

Subscribe now at stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe

On Reaching Milestones, and The Virtue Of The Small

So, last month my Bandcamp subscription reached a milestone – for the first time, the gross income from *just* the subscription was bigger than our annual rent on our house (which is also where Lo and I make music). That doesn’t include Bandcamp’s portion that gets taken off, but milestones are still fun to acknowledge and give us a sense of movement, progress and a way of benchmarking the journey towards creative sustainability.

Then yesterday, I reached 250 subscribers. Or rather, 250 concurrent subscribers. Over the last 5 years, people have subscribed a total of 362 times, but some have let their subscription lapse (quite understandably feeling that they have enough Steve Lawson music by that point 😉 ) and others (a very pleasing percentage!) have let it lapse and then resubscribed later on when the new material looked too tempting to miss.

Now, what’s super interesting here is that the first stat – paying your rent with digital music – is the kind of statistic that’s often used to denote the viability of a musical enterprise… The most commonly used benchmark is ‘minimum wage’, but we’re always looking at real-world representations of music earnings. And in the age of streaming revenue, the point of those stats is generally to suggest just how far out of reach the size of audience required is for most artists. That to get US minimum wage solely from Spotify – according to a deeply flawed and probably out of date infographic from Information Is Beautiful – an unsigned artist (read: owns everything) would need 170,000 streams A MONTH. And that’s gross earnings, not net. There’s nothing in there factoring in the kind of ad-spend required to actually build that audience, or the way pursuing streaming audiences screws with touring economics, and how many other (properly paid) people we’d need to take with us on a tour that would help us build that audience… So my first stat about paying rent is one that plays well into the metrics of success that we’re wrestling with in the wild west of the digital music economy.

The second one, however, is ridiculous. 250 subscribers. an audience of 250 is tiny. A YouTube video that’s had 250 views doesn’t even register on our radar. A tour that had 250 people in the audience across it would be great if it was less than 5 dates, but as a gross figure for a longer tour, nah… 250 people isn’t a great deal…

So why is it that both numbers make me so happy? Let’s take a break to hear a tune:

This is the third track from my first album. Recorded live at the Troubadour in Earls’ Court in early 2000. My second-or-third gig there… The title is a reference to an idea explored in Benjamin Hoff’s book The Te Of Piglet – the follow up to the best-seller The Tao Of Pooh. The Virtue Of The Small is a pretty central Taoist notion, and invites us into a new (old) way of thinking about things. About specific things, but also about generalities. Valuing smallness runs counter to the economics of capitalism, and obviously to the attention economy of the digital music era. Smallness can be understood as advantageous in many ways, but for me in relation to the size of an audience, it’s about two things: community and expectation.

The community part is about managing relationships and being available to the people who are interested and invested in what I make and the how/what/where and why of it all. Realising that ‘the music’ as in, the recorded sounds, are only part of the experience was a pretty big moment. The build up to it started with my first album, and what was happening on this website before my blog – I had a news page (see image 🙂 ) that started out as gig dates, but soon started to feature commentary on what had already happened, trying to create a context, an expectation, and to explain what people were about to hear – both in order to help with the imagining of it all (this ‘everything live’ approach to music making was there right from the start, and all but one of the the tracks on the first album are single live takes – the last one was still single unedited takes, just one of them was an overdub – a fact I took great pains to explain…) but also to create an interest in it – back then, looping was a circus trick that had its own magic, so the explanation wasn’t just so people who were already listening would get what they were listening to – it was the ‘roll up, roll up, see the amazing looping bass guy!’ bit of the story. And in those nascent web-days, it played well. I had my fair share of angry email from dudes with Big Opinions about what you should and shouldn’t ever be allowed to do with a bass, but by and large it was a successful process.

In 2002, I did a tour opening for Level 42 – some of you reading this blog will be here either wholly or in part because you found out about me around that time. If you want to connect with a massive global audience of bassists, opening for Level 42 is probably in the top 5 fastest ways to do that. But it also brought with it a bunch of quite unwelcome constraints. Opening for a big band like that made the rambling long-form improvisatory approach that has been my gigs up to that point untenable – you have to connect straight away or people wander off (interestingly, I heard Zoe Keating, who I knew back then through the Loopers’ Delight mailing list, tell exactly the same story about opening for Imogen Heap) – there was a need to be condensed, immediate, to grab people. And across that tour, I got pretty damn good at that! My between song chat became sharper (some of it was really terrible early on in the run, not really knowing that the kind of nonsense you can say in a venue to 20 people doesn’t connect at ALL in the Royal Albert Hall) and the tunes became way more focused… And the music lost almost everything that was fun about it.

I remember finishing the tour, and a month or so later getting my first PRS (Performing Rights Society) cheque for playing my own music on those gigs – in the UK, whoever writes the music that’s being played gets a percentage of the ticket price, support act and headliner both. So while the tour itself did OK thanks to some really good CD sales nights (the small fee for each gig just about covered my travel and the amount I was required to pay the soundman for turning up a fader at the start and off at the end 😉 ) the PRS cheques were huge… I think over the next 18 months or so, I was paid about £11K for that one month of touring. So the temptation was to think ‘wow, two of these a year, and I can pretty much live on that and not have to scrabble around from month to month eking out a living!’

But, as I said, it pretty much ruined the music. It was so great to have the bigger audience, and there is a real buzz to having played those places. But the reality of being that far away from the people listening to me, and being that disconnected from any of the context (I, obviously, wasn’t booking the venues, wasn’t in any way involved in any of the organising, and only really got to hang with people by heading out to the merch table after my set – so the encounters all came with a commercial undercurrent) was a long way from everything that I really cared about as a performer. I’d got used to chatting to my audience, not shouting ‘Good Evening Bristol!’ at them.

My response was to spend the next few years trying to find the balance, and my records were a mixture of massive spacey improv and shorter melodic improvised pieces that I could re-learn and perform as a setlist. And that stuck for most of the next decade. That tension between wanting to just improvise – the records (except maybe Behind Every Word) being almost entirely improvised (I recently put out the first version of Grace And Gratitude as a subscriber release, which I didn’t have the tools to mix and master properly back then, so it was re-recorded) and playing tunes live because that expectation of a set list and the desire to sell CDs at the end of the gig of the tunes that people had just heard – that tension was present in all that I was doing then, but given that I was still recording everything live and allowing things to evolve in a live setting, it was all fine.

The turning point for me was touring with Daniel Berkman on the shows that became FingerPainting – our 10 album set of literally everything we’d ever played together. On those 10 shows, the only thing that didn’t get released was the solo tune that each of us did at each gig. We did them partly to give each other a break, and partly from that commercial thing of letting people know what else you do so they’ll buy stuff at the end of the gig. At the time my most recent album was 11 Reasons… and I played something from that at each gig.

When I came to listen back to the gigs, with a view to mixing and mastering the music, it was startling just how consistently my solo tune was the creative low point of every gig. Daniel and I have a quite extraordinary chemistry – he’s one of my favourite musicians anywhere on the planet, and our taste and improvisatory impulses overlap in some near-telepathic ways. So that point when I go back to remembering a piece of music, and disengage from that flow-state of being in a place at a certain time with a specific group of people and making music FOR there and them, that was a moment of ‘meh’. I played the piece OK each time, it just wasn’t music FOR there. It was music to sell other music. And that’s a shitty reason to make music. I get why people do it – we don’t have the option of ‘escaping’ capitalism or its demands on us – but in the moment, it was so stark, that contrast between the spiritual/metaphysical experience of soundtracking an encounter and exploring all the things that had to go on between Daniel and I to make it possible, and that moment of ‘now I’ll see if I can sell some music with this nice tune’. Nope.

So I made a commitment at that point to go to all-improv shows. No more playing my own pre-written tunes. I’ll occasionally do a cover, if it’s something I don’t know too well and the improv impulse is still strong, but mostly, I’ll do whatever the space we’re in asks of me.

That coincided with the emergence of the Bandcamp subscription which became an affordance for a completely different way of thinking about the purpose and method of releasing music. I had had some input in the run-up to the Subscription service being launched – meeting every January with Ethan Diamond, Bandcamp’s founder, and making suggestions and requests (many that were taken on and others filed away for when they have time for my esoteric demands 😉 ). When they came to launch it, I was one of the three (I think) artists who got to trial it for a time before it was rolled out as an option.

And all of a sudden being an improvisor was a HUGE advantage. I wasn’t in the business of spending months in the studio writing, crafting, sculpting a set of songs that were then recorded with session musicians and engineers. I’d specifically spent the previous 15 years learning how to turn my studio and live set-ups into the same thing and learning how to mix and master my own music. I even did a course in mastering to be able to do it properly. The confluence of creative intention and platform affordance was properly amazing. I could record every show, and every show’s music was different. I could generate a huge amount in terms of value, and I now had a space in which to tell the story of why and how to an audience who weren’t being blocked from seeing it and engaging with it unless I paid for every message. (this was another thing I first did properly with the FingerPainting project, writing long sleevenotes to accompany the release that gave context to everything that was going on with it). There was no disconnect between access to the messaging and access to the music. It was all happening in the same place and the access mechanism was subscribing.

So in setting the price of subscription and the minimum offer, I tried to find a place that made sense of what I was offering in relation to the value concept of ‘albums’ but also which allowed me to be really generous with my subscribers. I really didn’t want people to have to pay more just because I was on a roll. At the time, Patreon had a thing where people paid you for each thing you did – each track or YouTube video… That was so far from what I wanted. I wanted a fixed annual subscription, a minimum offering, and the opportunity to release anything that was worth releasing. I didn’t want to feel pressured to release stuff just to meet a quota, but I wanted to space to be prolific when my creative life afforded it. So the offering is, I think, two public and two exclusive albums a year, and last year I actually released 10 albums. Plus video, and a whole load of amazingly useful conversation with my subscribers. And because there are currently 250 of them, I can reply to everyone. I can handle them replying to things in multimodal ways. My last question to them about doing limited run CDs resulted in me getting replies on the subscriber thread, tweets, FB messages, email, email-via-Bandcamp, conversations in person at the Bass Show this weekend, and a mention in a phone call… We can work this all out as a community.

Which brings us to our second point – the first was community, we get to talk about the music, and there’s a palpable sense that each person is a meaningful and measurable influence on how I get to make music, and is part of an ecosystem that makes a very specific and non-standard kind of music possible. The second – closely related – point was expectation.

I recently visited the FB page of a friends’ band. They’re in a thrash band in the US, and were trailing their new album by posting videos from the studio. Almost every comment (over 90% of the comments) were expressed in the form of demands relating to the kind of music the poster wanted from the band… ‘yeah! It better be brutal!’ ‘hope you’re back to the heavier shit you used to do’ ‘man, that sounds great, hope it all sounds like that!’ ‘I’m not buying it unless it’s heavier than the last album – that was some lame shit’ etc…

Literally zero sense that the band are creative people making their music available, instead an incredible expression of fan entitlement to demand that the band conform to their expectations.

I occasionally get YouTube comments that drift into the same area. Back in the 00s I used to get a LOT of ‘you know what you should do…’ emails – ‘hey, Steve, do a record with a drummer!’ ‘dude, you need to do an all ambient record’ ‘hey, do a whole thing of tunes from films!’ ‘Why don’t you do a jazz standards album?’ – just nonsense that – being generous – came from a place of people enjoying what I did and wanting to engage with it, but mostly felt like people I didn’t know telling me how to do my job. I mean, those are LITERALLY the conversations you’d have with a record producer if you had one. Not the kind of thing that’s useful from some numbnuts on a bass forum.

So, how does this work out with the subscribers? You may think that given their level of investment in the music, they’d be pretty entitled about their role in it and make demands. But no, the nearest that gets is ‘oh I love it when you do music like that!’ – I do know which of my subscribers dig which of my modes of music making the most. I have one friend who’s been part of my solo music journey since the very beginning who *hates* samples of vinyl crackle. But has never said ‘don’t do that!’ because the expectation is that it’s all part of a community enterprise and the commitment on both sides is to making the art and the relationships around it possible. There’s no unit price on each album so if there are things on this album that someone doesn’t like, they’re not going to go ‘this wasn’t worth my money’, because the value is across a year, and includes the experience of making music possible, not just acquiring an artefact…

Many, many of my subscribers are friends – a significant number are people I’ve met at gigs after they’ve become subscribers. Some have studied bass with me, some are colleagues, music makers, people whose music I love, even people who are on some of the albums. There are even journalists on there who’d have a better claim than anyone to actually requesting download codes for it all, but get that being a part of it matters.

The reasons for people jumping in and being a part of this are rich and varied, but that range makes for an incredible space in which to create – it gives me a degree of economic latitude not to have to think about how to market a particular thing (I even get super-lax about the public albums – I lined up basically no reviews of The Arctic Is Burning 😉 ) And I get to imagine the subscribers as an audience even when they aren’t present. Everything I record at home is video’d – the camera is the proxy for the subscribers. They get to see it if it comes out, and that’s their eyes as much as the laptop is their ears. I could livestream it, but they’d have to tolerate a lot of faffing between pieces 😉

So, sustainable economics out of micro-communities. I’m so incredibly grateful to get to do what I do, but so fearful that we’ll end up in a place where everyone expects to get ‘music’ from a streaming app and loses sight of the value of small-scale, low-stakes, community-based music making – the wider experience that Christopher Small named Musicking. The space to creatively explore within the bounds of a curious community instead of targeting a specific playlist, the space to tell little stories instead of grand gestures. The space to put out things that are interesting but broken because they have a story that makes them valuable, even if they’d fail on the radio or a recent releases playlist… I have some music on YouTube, but none of any of the commercial streaming platforms. It just doesn’t make any sense when my entire focus is this community. I really wouldn’t *want* 170,000 monthly listeners. I wouldn’t want the expectation they’d bring, the admin, the inevitable sense that they were supposed to be there and that I had to do things to keep them. Nope. I’m way happy with this life less ordinary 🙂

If you want to join the subscriber family, we’d love to have you. If you’re already in it, or have been at one time, thank you. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. All this music exists because you made it possible x

One last thing – December 15th is the TWENTIETH anniversary of my first ever solo gig at the Troubadour. So I’m doing a special anniversary show at Tower Of Song here in Birmingham. Stick it in the diary now, more details ASAP 🙂

Epic New Video! The Arctic Is Burning Title Track

Here’s the video for the longest track on my brand new album – the title track, The Arctic Is Burning.

As always, this is the film of me actually recording it. I film every time I hit record, as a document of what’s going on for my Bandcamp subscribers. They get way more video than is ever made available to the wider public – new approaches that I’m working on, video for tracks that only end up on subscriber albums… I end up filming a whole load of stuff that obviously doesn’t get released at all, but rather gets deleted, but that’s OK. I’d rather do that than miss a good performance 🙂

So here it is, the video of me recording The Arctic Is Burning – one thing to keep in mind is that as you watch it for the first time, you know as much as I do about where it’s going to go. I don’t start these things with a map of what the resulting piece of music is going to sound like, or the transitions its going to take. The role of the camera is really interesting here, in that it acts as a proxy for the subscribers. They’re who I’ve got in mind when I’m thinking about the journey and how it is perceived from the outside. They play the psychological role that a producer would play in a studio, watching through the glass while I record a take, hoping not to screw it up 🙂

So sometimes the journey takes me by surprise, sometimes I have to dig deep to find out where it’s meant to go, and sometimes it feels inevitable…

Hear the whole album at music.stevelawson.net/album/the-arctic-is-burning or check out my Bandcamp subscription now to get everything I release throughout the year!

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.