The Audience As Producer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, go practice.

Creative Freedom And Your Audience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New Single – Recorded Yesterday, Out Today!

Right, I just released a single. When I woke up this morning, I hadn’t planned to. What I had planned to do was to mix the track I recorded last night. Like everything I do, it’s a one take, unedited improvised performance. All the drums are played and looped live rather than being a pre-existing loop, and everything else is bass. The field recording was triggered during the performance, rather than added afterwards. So everything is happening in response to everything else. Here it is:

I mixed it today, experimenting with getting a really huge low end on the synth and the kick, and loved the way it came out. So as well as adding it to the subscriber-only album Stepping Stones, which is gathering together all the things I’m recording towards releasing a new solo album and making them available as they happen to subscribers, I thought I’d put this out as a separate single so everyone else can have it too 🙂

All of this music is released as episodes in an unfolding story. I’m less interested in how it fares as a standalone entity, and am more interested in it as an emblem, an avatar, a signpost of where I’m going and what I’m up to. That’s why the subscription is my focus. Convincing you that a particular album is worth buying is way less interesting to me than inviting you into the process of it all happening, and forming a community around that. if that’s interesting to you too, check out my Bandcamp subscription.

It’s a ‘pay what you want’ release, so you can pay or not as you feel able/inspired, or you can subscribe and get everything I put out in the next 12 months, plus 48 albums from my back catalogue. And if you subscribe before the weekend, you’ll get the new LEYlines album, LEYlines IV, included. After that, you’d have to buy that separately...

I love living in a world where music can be made and released in a matter of hours – it’s about 14 hours absolute start to release with this. If you want to play it on the radio, or do anything else with it like that, please feel free – let me know if you need more info…

And the title? That came from a Tweet by Vernon Reid. 🙂

New LEYlines Album Out Now – LEYlines IV – with Two Ways To Get It

Phi Yaan-Zek, Andy Edwards and myself are LEYlines. Or we do LEYlines. I’m not sure whether LEYlines is an entity or a process, but whatever it is, LEYlines is us and/or how we make music 🙂

And we have a brand new live album out, recorded at Tower Of Song in Birmingham in 2017. This is the first set, and the second set will be out next month, as LEYlines V! And there are two ways you can get it:

Firstly, it’s out as a stand-alone Bandcamp release via Phi Yaan-Zek’s page: that’s where you can listen to it and buy it, and Phi’s running a special offer to get LEYlines V with it too (when it’s out next month). Here it is, hit play and stream it while you read the rest of this:

Alternatively you can get it as a subscriber to me on Bandcamp – it comes with different artwork (pictured), and as a single track instead of being chopped up Phi-style, but it’s the same music.

BUT you’ll need to subscribe this week, cos next week, it’ll cease to be part of the back catalogue offer for new subscribers – all existing subscribers will keep it (there’s no mechanism within Bandcamp for taking stuff back – it’s yours forever once you’ve got it!) but this won’t be part of the bundle you get for signing up after the weekend. If you want it then, you’ll have to buy it from Phi even if you subscribe at a later date…

So, go check it out, then have a look at stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe for the rest of the info on the Subscription. It’ll be more than worth your time and money 😉

Photos From The Second Stourbridge Festival Of Improvised Music

I had the great pleasure yesterday of playing at the Second Stourbridge Festival Of Improvised Music – I went to the first one last year as an audience member, and took Flapjack along. We had an amazing day, so I was delighted to be asked to play this year. I got to play alongside some absolutely stellar musicians, including Paul Dunmall, Steve Tromans, Bruce Coates, Sarah Farmer, Xhosa Cole, Trevor Lines – people whose playing I’ve been a fan of for a long time.

Of course, I also took my camera, so here are a few pictures – hopefully I’ll have more gigs with these amazing musicians soon 🙂

2nd Stourbridge Festival Of Improvised Music

The End Of The Age Of The Guitar?

This is a thing that’s been touted in the music press (and apocalyptically amongst music gear manufacturers) for years but it really does feel like we’re at the end of the age when guitars are the dominant icon of popular music. It’s not that people aren’t still playing them, and making both brilliant and utterly tedious music with them, just that they no longer play the totemic role in the visual semiotics of what ‘rock n roll’ looks like any more.

Three tales from Glastonbury to make the point – 0n Friday night, Stormzy headlined (BBC iPlayer link if you’re in the UK). His set was alternately a classic MC+DJ Grime set and a MASSIVE theatrical soul/gospel/grime/funk extravaganza with live band, dancers, dudes on mountain bikes, and an irony-free appearance by Chris Martin with a real Fender Rhodes. The music was heavy, complex, beautiful, and more rhythmically advanced than ANY guitar band that have ever headlined the festival. Grime is a music form developed in bedrooms, clubs and pirate radio stations. To transfer it to a festival headline slot took some monster skills and vision. The first Grime star to cross over like that was Dizzy Rascal, but he took on the predominantly white festival audience by working with shred-guitar-genius Guthrie Govan. He met them half way. Stormzy gave no quarter. It was an astonishing show, but there was no pandering to the expectations of a white rock-loving crowd.

Two – The Comet Is Coming, (iPlayer link) a sax, drums, keys trio featuring the great Shabaka Hutchings. Heavy riffage, ecstatic posturing, drum solos, hypnotic grooves. Not a computer gig at all but not a guitar-shaped instrument to be seen.

Three – Kate Tempest: performance poet and rapper, on stage with just a keyboard player/DJ, controlling all the beats and playing the most sublimely responsive minimalist keyboard parts. Utterly compelling, engaging, enthralling, and HEAVY in the broadest sense, but with nothing of the visual semiotics of a rock gig at all. Just talking/rapping and mellow keys. Brilliant and brave.

I’ve just finished teaching the first year of a creative performance technology course at BIMM here in Birmingham, in which students get to explore a wide range of ways to enhance their performance with technology (or completely upend their preconceived ideas about what performance even is). In amongst the final pieces we only had one ‘band’ performance, and two that used guitar as part of an otherwise electronically/digitally mediated performance, making use of the Ableton Push 2 controller. Gone are the days when ‘tech’ meant either decks or a DAT, with software and hardware options existing to create interactive performance tools for creative artists, and allow for as much improv and spontaneity as you could have with a ‘normal’ band.

My own performing set up is built entirely for improv, around choices, differing vocabularies and a variability that means I can choose from a suitably wide and nuanced range of places to start, and nothing can ever happen the same way twice. Despite bass still being my beloved instrument, the role of the bass is now as a component within a larger instrument, comprised of all my tech. It’s not the iconic emblem of rock in this context (I sit down to play, FFS! 🙂 ) It’s transformed and manipulated, and those vestiges of expectation become a useful foil for surprise and intrigue for an audience hopefully encountering sounds and ideas that are both entertaining and stimulating…

It’s weird, in a field (literally, at Glastonbury) that they used to OWN, bands with just four white dudes playing guitar, bass, drums and singing often feel almost hopelessly anachronistic if they don’t have something else to set them apart, and just standing there holding a Les Paul no longer seems to carry the same social or cultural cache it once did…

The value proposition has changed, and the range of possible start points for music making presented to young people who want to make pop music have expanded immeasurably. Arguably, it’s been that way to some degree since the advent of turntablism and sampling in the 80s, but guitars were still the orthodoxy, still the icon, the emblem, the badge, the logo.

Not any more? Not in my world. And I’m glad for the change. Western culture has moved on, we just need to make sure all of music education and retail keeps up!

(That said, I’m still REALLY looking forward to The Cure on Sunday night 🙂 ) 

Music For Patient People In Hurried Times – An Exercise In Futility?

As part of a module that I’ve just finished teaching, I’ve had to spend a fair amount of time thinking about the ways that the context within which we experience music impacts both how people listen and how musicians make their art.

Streaming services have provided one of the biggest changes to the way many, many people listen in modern times, for a number of reasons. Lowering the barrier to access such vast quantities of music brings with it the potential for option paralysis – not knowing where to start when looking for music – and also the desire to browse, either through a lack of trust in your ability to make a worthy commitment to a particular album (‘what if I’m listening to the wrong thing??’) or just ‘because it’s there’ – the world is full of incredible music, why not try and hear as wide a range of it as possible?

The finite nature of paid-for record, CD, tape and MP3 collections came with a built-in slowly expanding set of music that we got to know over time, and the financial commitment often led to us spending more time on an album that we maybe didn’t connect with immediately, but had spent the money on so we were really going to give it time to settle in before admitting we’d wasted a tenner on it… That’s less of an issue when everything else is just a click away for no additional cost, and those albums are co-present with thematic, generated playlists that can often be experienced as more appropriate for a particular activity or context than whatever the motivation was for a particular band to sequence their album a certain way.

The social utility of music has always been a key factor in both its commercial success and the amount of time we end up committing to a particular recording, but now that those social functions can be outsourced to an algorithm, we can pull up playlists for writing, sleeping, partying, exercising, walking, driving and anything else that comes to mind…

On the other side of this equation, we have an economic environment where Spotify (and I’m assuming the other streaming platforms) pay out ‘per track’ rather than based on a per-minute royalty allocation (which is how radio works), and that you need to get 30 seconds into a track for it to be paid out on… So for artists, it makes precisely zero sense to make 40 minute ambient songs and put them on Spotify. That’s a single royalty payment for one track for a person listening to your entire album. Which when compared to an album with 20 or more tracks on, as is the case with many artists from grindcore (the reissue of Scum by Napalm Death has 56 tracks on it, though 8 of them are too short to get paid for ) to hip hop beat tapes and mixtapes ( J Dilla’s legendary Donuts beat tape has 31 tracks) – trends towards loads of short tracks paying way more than artists who record long tracks are inevitable, and deeply understandable when the payouts are already perceived as so small. It also stands to reason that packing the front end of a song with hooks is more likely to keep people listening who are browsing than a song with a long intro might. I can’t really imagine Halls And Oates’ She’s Gone being considered a smart production choice for a single in 2019…

So, is it insane to still record and release long, involved, complex music in the age of 45 second songs on streaming platforms?
Of course not! For a number of reasons – firstly, your art is your art, and you (I!) need to make the music that you feel needs to exist in the world. I’ve already massively limited my potential audience by being an improvising instrumental solo bass guitarist. That’s pretty damn niche however you slice it. And because it’s niche-by-design, I only need a TINY number of people – in the grand scheme of things – to make it viable. I’m not trying to top charts, win awards, get on the cover of magazines (that happened by accident 😉 ), I just want to keep making the music that matters to me. And the few hundred people I need to be interested in what I’m doing in order to make it viable are statistically insignificant in terms of the wider music industries. The demographic that will find what I do interesting, and have the patience to listen to music that requires time and attention to full encounter is not the same that is skipping through the 25 tracks on the new Migos or Kanye album while deciding which playlist to skip to next and showing up in the data analysis that Spotify are doing of the top 40 most listened to artists that month…

Global trends in music are of almost no significance to what you do as an artist unless you’re trying to have hits. While Bandcamp are still paying out over $9 Million dollars a month to artists, that’s an album buying audience that you can pursue strategically, while ignoring the bits of the economy that patently don’t work for you. Lots of artists have seen a drop in sales over the years, that’s true. But my observation is that VERY few have tried to meet their audience in the middle in any meaningful way. Charging £10 for an album is hardly a strong enticement to steer towards download sales instead of that same £10 providing access to Spotify’s vast catalogue ad-free for a month… And of course, the best way to talk about fandom is to demonstrate what fandom looks like. My Bandcamp fan account is as much a part of my Bandcamp economy as my artist page…

What you may find you have to do is make the case for people listening to you before they actually listen to you. That’s the job that used to played (and is still to some degree played) by radio, magazines, reviews, etc… But there are way more artists than there are media outlets, so you need to be prepared to tell that story yourself. It may be that you use streaming platforms to build that interest in your work – there are a ton of strategic uses between ‘all’ and ‘nothing’. I chose to put nothing on streaming platforms because the context for my work is deeply important to me – it needs to have the writing and the conversation attached. I’m genuinely not interested in having a faceless, unknown audience. I like being in a position to talk to them, and get to know what they like… That’s not the only way to be, it’s just what works for me, and I’ve found my tribe of patient, curious listeners, and I test their resolve by releasing more music than most of them can keep up with 🙂

But the community is growing every week – it’s steady growth, and it went past the point at which it was sustaining of my music practice quite a while ago. It’s never going to make me rich, and may never end up being a thing that I can live on exclusively (though it would only take another few hundred subscribers a year for that to be the case… 🙂 ) but it makes more music possible, and that’s what matters. To me. To make the same amount on Spotify as I have on Bandcamp over the last decade, it would’ve taken over 11 million streams. That would’ve required landing tracks on high ranking playlists, which would require making music targeted at high ranking playlists… That pull towards algorithmic homogenisation is not one I find useful or interesting as a listener or a music maker, so I’ll continue to experiment in other directions, and invite listeners to come with me.

If you want to find out more, head over to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe

Streaming Exclusive – Steve Lawson and Michael Manring album!

Yesterday was Michael Manring’s birthday (Happy birthday Michael!)

To celebrate, I’m making our duo album – which is still only available to own via my Bandcamp subscription – streamable for a limited time. Here it is:

“Language Is A Music” was recorded at a house concert in San Jose on January 29th 2012 – it was, like everything Michael and I have ever played together, entirely improvised – no discussion of start points etc. (I wasn’t even sure we were going to play an entire duo show – when we got to Bob and Kelly’s house and were setting up, I said ‘shall we do solo sets and then some duo playing at the end?’ and Michael said ‘nah, let’s just play it all duo!’ – I think we did a solo tune or two each somewhere in there, but this was the bulk of the show!) 

If you want to get this album, along with 47 (or so) others, and everything else I release in the coming year, subscribe via Bandcamp.

 

The End Of An Era- Finishing A Teaching Job

So yesterday was my last day of one of my teaching jobs. It’s one I’d had for about 6 years (my longest ever non-self employed job), and one that was the beginning of my return to teaching actual courses rather than one-off masterclasses after a break of over a decade.

The real joy of it was working with these guys:

Phi Yaan-Zek and Andy Edwards are both such excellent teachers and musicians, and between us I don’t think we had a single conversation in the 6 years I was there that wasn’t on some level about how we could making teaching better. It was such a joy to work with these guys on trying to come up with innovative methods to help music students connect with their creativity in ways that were conscious of the cultural and economic environment they were moving into, but not deterministically bound by those constraints when considering the role of creative practice in changing culture… We were constantly looking for ways to inspire the students to dig deep into themselves and pursue something other than purely commercial measures of meaning and value for their work. And, judging by the parade of extraordinary creative people we helped release back into the wild, we did OK.

The context wasn’t ideal – HE in the UK is a tough area to work in right now wherever you are, all the moreso in a provincial college with no underlying commitment to creative practice or focus on the arts. We, like everyone else around the country in the many, many institutions like ours, were constantly trying to make something worthwhile for the students. There were times when we were REALLY good at that, and times when we struggled, but we still punched (and the course continues to punch) WELL above our weight in terms of the circumstances we were (are) in. The course wasn’t reliant on me for what made it good (Andy’s extraordinary legacy in inspiring music students in the West Midlands stretches back decades before he met me!), so will continue to provide a worthwhile education to the students there. And, while there’s a ton of nonsense that I won’t miss at all about being there, I’ll dearly miss these guys, and Meldra, who more recently came on board to teach the vocalists, and brought so much wisdom and experience to the team.

If you’re paying attention, you’ll know that Phi, Andy and I are LEYlines – so it’s not like we’re not going to be working together still making music, and I’m probably going to end up Skyping the pair of them to argue about Wittgenstein and Heidegger, Phenomenology and Aesthetics, and how the hell we turn this or that scheme of work into a course worth studying…

But for now, we’ve got a LEYlines album coming out this weekend, gigs to organise, and I’ve got a PhD to write that I’m 18 months behind on (the real reason I quit my job there). And come September, I’ll still be working at the one college teaching gig I’ve kept on, at BIMM here in Birmingham.

(BTW, this also means I may have more time for some more private Skype students, so if you want a bass lesson or two get in touch…)