In Memoriam: Rick Turner

Rick Turner, one of the greatest and most influential bass and guitar builders of all time died yesterday, aged 78. He was a very dear friend, and I’m still trying to come to terms with the idea that he’s gone, but I wrote this this morning on Facebook, so am reposting it here.

I’ve been trying to piece together the timeline of my friendship with Rick Turner. I’d read his column in Bass Player for years, but we first connected, as did so many other bass players, via The Bottom Line – the legendary email discussion list for bassists from the 90s. Rick started posting in early 1998, answering questions and in his usual prescient way pointing out in a discussion about the gender and racial imbalance in bass magazines, that if you don’t like the way someone else is doing things, do it yourself and post it online.

I dearly wish I had my email archive from back then – looking through my photos from NAMM in 1999 and 2000, it’s clear that I made connections with a whole load of bass builders and companies through TBL and then visited them as soon as I got to NAMM. Doing a little detective work, I can see that the two portraits of Rick and I here with the Renaissance fretless were taken on the first day of NAMM (I didn’t have a razor with me and I’m clean shaven 😉 ) – I took the one of him, he took the one of me.

In my head, I’d always thought I did my trip up the coast to SF in 1999, but reading through the archive.org version of my website, I saw that my first year I just flew in and out for NAMM. Did a handful of interviews for Bassist (including Leland Sklar) and went home. I can tell a lot of this from the photos too because in 99 I was clean shaven but after meeting Rick that year I grew the soul patch that I still have. It’s never had any other association in my head to anything other than copying Rick…

So in 2000 I extended my California trip after NAMM and arrived in LA intending to get a train up to SF from LA (ha!!) I told Rick about this and he initially tried to work out if it was possible, then helped me plan a totally different itinerary involving a rental car and the need to learn VERY quickly to drive on the opposite side of the road (and an unbelievably lucky turn of events that meant I found the Michael Manring and Trey Gunn gig at the Last Day Saloon without a map!). Rick helped me sort out where to go, routes between Modulus, Zon and his factory, even tried to hook me up with a visit to Alembic, and then invited me to stay. Which meant I got to meet his then-wife Jessica and their child Juniper, and thus began an annual trip to visit the family after NAMM, to hear new music (I bought SO many records at his insistence), to hear stories, to find out new facts about Geckos and whatever other creatures Juniper was discovering at the time, to go into the classroom with Jess to talk to her students. Over the years, Rick would come out to my shows, to house concerts at Bob’s or shows at the much-missed Espresso Garden with Michael Manring. He’d stop gigs in the middle to tell me how special he thought it all was, including one amazing speech about the individuality of intonation and how much he loved mine. He’s the only person ever to turn round at one of my gigs and tell the people talking to ‘shut the fuck up’. When he heard Lo and I play together he talked about her skills as an independent entity, not as ‘my wife’ or ‘the singer’ but about her guitar playing and songwriting.

In California I have SO many friends. Amazing, lifelong friendships, people who went the extra mile to impact my life in many, many ways. But in those formative years of the 00s I had two families – The Turners in Santa Cruz and Doug Lunn and Vida Vierra in Santa Monica. Places of sanctuary where there was always a spare bed or couch, always a place to decompress, to not be ‘on’ but to be fully myself. Now Rick and Doug are both gone, incredible figures in my life who taught me so much, encouraged me in ways that kept me doing what I’m doing at times when I might’ve ended up going a more conventional route.

That Rick was the co-inventor of graphite necked basses with Geoff Gould, pioneered so much in bass electronics, custom design, piezo pickups, and that he made my beloved Renaissance bass (and that’s officially the first time I’ve ever spelt Renaissance right without spellcheck) was all secondary to the friendship, support, encouragement and love he showed me over the years. We’d been planning a holiday together here for years – initially a canal boat trip, then a visit to Warwick castle (Rick was short for Warwick) and a trip to Scotland. I’m absolutely broken that neither happened.

Rick was arguably the most important figure in the development of the bass guitar after Leo Fender. He knew more and shared more about building instruments than anyone, inspiring generations of luthiers. I got to play the guitar he built for Henry Kaiser to take to Antarctica and it blew my mind. Lindsey Buckingham is still playing his Turner Model 1 guitars to this day – one of the most iconic guitar designs in history. I once played one of his absolute top spec steel strung acoustics and it’s the closest I’ve ever come to switching instruments away from bass. I’ve never felt any instrument resonate like that.

I’ve heard from people over the last few days some of the things that Rick had told them about me, times he’d complimented me or used me as an exemplar regarding fretless playing. I knew it was happening through the years thanks to all the people he would connect me with. I spent an absolutely magical day once with Evelyn Glennie, after Rick had built her a marimba pickup and in the conversation had been talking about looping, with Rick telling her that there was no-one else better to talk to about what was possible. A bunch of you reading this are friends here purely because Rick introduced us either at NAMM or online. He was in my corner to a degree that’s incredibly rare and my life is different because of it.

I’m now approaching the age Rick was when we met – he was 56, I was 26, and I hope I can offer a tiny fraction of the encouragement and support he gave to younger luthiers and musicians, the respect with which he spoke to people, the time he took to make people feel special and like their absurd solo bass plans weren’t so ridiculous after all.

RIP Rick, I still can’t believe you’re gone. x

 

Thoughts on Bandcamp being bought by Epic Games

So yesterday brought the news that Bandcamp had been bought by Epic Games. It arrived via a very upbeat email – from Bandcamp founder and CEO Ethan Diamond, and it kicked off a flurry of conversation on Twitter, the vast majority of it skeptical at best and heartbroken at worst.

It’s certainly the case that for the longest time Bandcamp has been the bastion of indie success against the total mess of the corporate, VC-funded, short-term gain, tech-bro world of start-ups. Bandcamp has from the start prioritised slow growth but getting things right – every time they introduce a new feature it takes ages for them to develop it and then they trial it extensively rather than throwing it into the wild and letting everyone screw up with it.

As you know, I had a fair amount of input in the run-up to the launch of their subscription service, at a time when I had an annual meet-up with Ethan in San Francisco to chat over what was working best for me and what I’d like to see happen to Bandcamp. There’s a lot of functionality in the subscription platform that is made up of things that I asked for – some of them were definitely just synergy in terms of how we thought of it and some no doubt originated with me. I was also one of the first three artists to get to trial it for a year before it was thrown open to anyone.

So I have previous form with Bandcamp, and of course have made it the sole home for my music online for over a decade. So a change as massive as this comes as both a shock and has the potential to significantly disrupt my music life if it goes badly. Almost half my annual earnings at the moment come from Bandcamp, so its continued success is something that I’m literally banking on.

So what do we make of the decision? I’ve been reading a lot of the responses to it, have privately reached out to a number of people who have knowledge of both the games industry and Epic or who work at Bandcamp. I don’t have access to any not-yet-public information, so none of this is based on exclusive info that I have, and as such represents my attempt to make sense of the decision based on previous dealings with Bandcamp and the wisdom of friends.

First up, the announcement – summarised it says that Bandcamp won’t change its mission or core function or its economic model, but will have Epic’s capital, platform and expertise “to expand internationally and push development forward across Bandcamp, from basics like our album pages, mobile apps, merch tools, payment system, and search and discovery features, to newer initiatives like our vinyl pressing and live streaming services.”

So, firstly, I believe that this is Bandcamp’s intention. None of my dealings with Ethan or my knowledge of what they’ve been offered in the past suggests that he’s in this to bullshit people. It is possible, obviously, that the sums of money involved have made him change course completely in terms of his honesty with Bandcamp’s users – let’s face it, he’s never going to say ‘BTW, you’re all fucked because I just made millions!’ But possibilities aside, I have no reason at this point to doubt that his – and Bandcamp’s – intentions are for this to be an additive experience rather than one that kills a very successful, profitable platform.

Let’s look at the list of things they want to improve:

  • International reach: this is a HUGE one. Bandcamp currently only exists in English. [EDIT as a friend at Bandcamp just pointed out to me, the fan-facing text on the website is also available in Japanese and French!] Obviously the text of the site can be translated by apps, but offering the kind of comprehensive support they try to give to fans and artists, tooling up to offer all of that in another language is expensive and complex. Assuming Epic have this capacity, that’s an immediate win for Bandcamp…
  • Pushing development: I’m not sure what Epic bring to the ‘album pages’ – there’s a possibility that Bandcamp as the sales home of a LOT of game soundtracks could give them reason to try and integrate game links back and forth with those? Total guess… The mobile app and merch tools seem fairly obvious in two ways – the tech team and integration with Epic’s current gaming platform. Which could be an add-on or could make the Bandcamp app unusable. A lot depends on how the people at Epic view Bandcamp’s current profitability (aside from any actual contractual terms in the sale, which make all of my conjecture moot). If they respect it as a going concern, they’ll perhaps try to support and enhance that functionality, but it’s way outside the way most tech companies work in that it doesn’t feature an ad-funding or data-scraping model AT ALL. Bandcamp’s uniqueness is more than just the sales platform. It’s supremely non-intrusive and non-invasive, and also gives artists an amazing level of control and access to their audience without having to rely on an algorithmic gateway. Messing with that terrifies me, frankly. If what happens is that Epic scrape a bunch of user data and use it to do A&R for UMG or Warner (also part owned by Tencent who have a 40% share in Epic), then that’s grim but won’t ruin it for the rest of us. If they cover the site in ads and start to filter what we get to see and what gets sent to us not based on editorial content or what our friends buy but some sort of gameable, chargeable algorithm, that’s a massive step away from Bandcamp’s core values. I imagine Bandcamp believe that won’t happen at this point. We’ll see.
  • Next up is Payment system. This might be one of the biggest things they’ve gone for – again, this is conjecture on my part, I know a lot of people have a problem with PayPal, myself included, but replacing it with a bespoke system was potentially ruinous to Bandcamp’s business given just how central PayPal is to the entire online financial system. They use Stripe for a lot of credit card stuff, but getting away from PayPal requires a whole other level of infrastructure and partnering. Epic is of the scale where they could build their own banking system, which Bandcamp’s experience so far with so many different types of sale could be really useful for, and the costs involved in that would no longer involve haemorrhaging money to PayPal, particularly on small payments. My (somewhat educated) guess is that, along with live streaming, this is one of Bandcamp’s biggest concerns. And it’s one that makes sense.

The bit that makes less sense is the political side of this, going from giving money to PayPal, owned by an epic billionaire douchebag, to Epic, also owned by a billionaire, but with a 40% stake owned by Chinese tech investors Tencent. So there’s something about this that made Bandcamp do this deal rather than another deal, something bigger than just ‘getting away from systems own by billionaires’ – I know they’ve turned down a number of offers from within the music industry over the years, so it’s notable that they went with this. It could just be timing, but it could also be that Epic offered something meaningful. I’m not discounting that possibility/likelihood.

  • The last two ventures are also interesting. Vinyl pressing is possibly the most capital-intensive aspect of all of this, in that to do it the way they want, they need to build their own pressing plants, which also means having the machines built to press vinyl – if they do this, there would be a level of innovation going on within the music economy that could serve indie artists incredibly well. Vinyl is still a growth market, but the pressing plants are backed up and monopolised by the Majors for reissues. Getting new vinyl pressed as an indie in anything other than wholly boutique quantities is frustrating and slow. Bandcamp scaling this could change things for people who want to do that.
  • And live streaming – again, this could be a point of synergy or the parasitic collapse of Bandcamp’s team of ninjas. Bandcamp has started to offer live streaming of gigs. Epic does streaming, including of films, within Fortnite. Both have infrastructure and skills the other could want. Bandcamp obviously has no scale to offer Epic, but taking over Bandcamp’s streaming service and incorporating it with a gaming one would make sense for Epic, given that they are very much minor players in the streaming game. Twitch and YouTube would be obvious competitors here, so pairing a new gaming streaming platform with a music-specific one would make a lot of sense if they were going for that. The fact that they’re also streaming movies inside Fortnite hints at much bigger ambitions – something suggested too by a friend in the games industry who offered a WAY more pessimistic assessment of what all of this means than I’m writing here (her perspective is backed up with years of experience and insight, so I’m not in any way discounting her sad appraisal of what’s likely to happen, but I am trying to factor in what I know of Bandcamp’s dealings so far)… A lot of musicians are using Twitch. A Bandcamp-led campaign to get indie musicians onto a new platform would be massively more effective than Epic trying to do that themselves and just poach people from Twitch…

So where does that leave us? My desire for Bandcamp to remain that lovely bastion of independence is gone. I don’t get to have that any more, and complaining about them doing what they’ve done doesn’t help. What I’m concerned about and will be monitoring closely is whether any of this impacts the functioning of the subscriber community – easily the most important aspect of my music making life, and the subject of my soon-to-be-finished PhD – but also how people find music within Bandcamp – when people describe Bandcamp as a download delivery system, they miss out the incredible amount of internal traffic that is involved in how people discover music. That plus an ongoing familiarity with Bandcamp is worth far more than the percentage of my Bandcamp gross that they take as fees. It’s a net gain for me to have them take that money and invest it in infrastructure, coding and development. Inasmuch as the deal with Epic helps them to do those things, I’m OK with it, even while preferring indie things. I’m an ideological purist but a functioning pragmatist.

But I am also concerned about the ethics at the heart of the company. Ethan says that Epic shares their values. The way Epic is structured and funded reveals that to be at least partially not true. Bandcamp’s way of operating up until now is markedly different to Epic’s, and it will be interesting to see what happens to Bandcamp’s annual fundraisers etc. They’ve chosen some pretty great causes to support in response to political happenings in the US over the years, and I’d hate to see that stifled by concerns from Epic’s investors. It’s a distinct possibility that they will clash head on and how that plays out would tell us a lot. I operate my business on fair trade principles. Bandcamp have always branded themselves as a fair trade music company, and that is now less clear than it ever has been. It’s not necessarily gone, but it’s not clear cut the way it was.

But outside of that, I am going to be watching developments in the space that has just opened up to the left of Bandcamp as people with a concern for free and open tech tools are re-energised to look at what’s happening with fresh impetus. Maggie Vail who was one of the people behind CASH music – an organisation who developed a bunch of super cool and experimental tech tools for artists – and has already tweeted (perhaps semi-sarcastically?) asking about people wanting to explore that space again. It will be interesting to see if anyone just seeks to build a new version of Bandcamp. As much as I’ve been perfectly happy to have my music available in one place, it’s not healthy to live in an ecosystem where your financial viability is in the hands of one company.

That said, Corey Mwamba tweeted this morning ‘Don’t let businesses trick you into thinking they’re your friends.’ but for me it does work the other way round – my friends run this business. They’re not making decisions based on what I want, obviously, but they are friends whose intentions and ethos have consistently been in line with my own up until now. Again, it’s possible that my friendship with Ethan was merely a way for him to extract information from me. I think it would be absurdly hubristic of me to assume that my conversations with him were valuable enough to be worth faking a friendship! We hung out and chatted and he built some of my suggestions into the way Bandcamp works, and as a result my earnings from Bandcamp over the last decade have been roughly the same as if I’d had 20 million streams on Spotify. Not band for a subscriber community of 280-something people, eh?

Bandcamp currently remains unique in providing the infrastructure for the kind of community I value, for centring music recordings within a space where I can charge an annual fee, give my subscribers WAY more music than they’ve nominally paid for, and gather around that music a discussion of caring, insightful, literate and fascinating opinions that informs the way I understand what it is that I do as an artist. That community is unique and is formed of the people in it, but the affordances for building that and maintaining those relationships are absolutely essential to the ethos behind the subscription engine within Bandcamp. It’s genuinely brilliant, and in my case genuinely life-changing. I’m not about to jump ship because someone else is funding it, but the possibility of it ceasing to function the way I need it to to maintain what is important to me is significantly higher today than it was two days ago, and I’ll be keeping an eye on what’s happening at Bandcamp, and what else is developing outside of it.

So What’s Really Wrong With Spotify?

[This is an epically long post – over 3000 words – it ought to be at least two or three posts, but I’m far too busy writing a PhD to give this the kind of attention it needs and deserves in terms of editing, tidying and whatnot. So make of it what you will… that said, it may be helpful if you’re trying to get your head round the various arguments about Spotify]

With the recent increased scrutiny placed on Spotify thanks to their tendency to give millions of dollars to berks who give a platform to conspiracy theorists and transphobes, it has also amongst my musician friends reignited the discussion about Spotify’s economics. Something on which I’ve been pretty vocal over time. So I’m going to try and summarise that here, and then offer some thoughts on streaming and why the argument against Spotify is not an argument against streaming. And therefor why I hope that any collapse in Spotify’s position in the market (it’s WAY too early to make that call, but we can hope, right?) would possibly offer us a chance to rethink the economics of streaming.

So, Spotify’s problems, summarised – Spotify began by realising that they needed two things to get an edge over everyone else in the race to be the first ‘all you can eat’ streaming service – a catalogue and a platform. The catalogue they kickstarted by doing equity deals with the Major labels and the platform they got (I can’t find the reference for how this worked, but I definitely remember it being talked about at the time!) by – I think – doing a deal with 7 Digital who built the first version of Spotify in exchange for the being the exclusive ‘shop’ within Spotify – yup, when Spotify first started, you could buy most of the music that they played inside the browser window. So the idea that Spotify pointed you to a sales opportunity and had no mobile app made it a very different proposition with a very different set of affordances. At that point, the ‘Spotify is more like radio’ argument was a whole lot more compelling that it is now. Which is not to say that there aren’t millions of Spotify users who use it like radio, just that the number of prior experiences and economic transactions that it has subsumed is way, way more complex than it was in Year 1. (it’s worth noting that Spotify weren’t the first to try the same thing – an almost identical app called Datz was built, and had a press launch but it turned out their attempts to get the majors on side involved a whole lot of lying to each of their negotiators who rather awkwardly actually talked to each other ahead of the launch, and the whole thing collapsed spectacularly).

As Spotify evolved into some kind of ‘total music solution’, removing the sales platform not long after the deal with 7 Digital ran out, and adding a mobile app and offline storage as soon as they could, their economic model (which made sense in relation to radio, but was problematic in terms of cannibalising sales revenue) didn’t evolve. It just got more opaque. News emerged of bands and territories and labels negotiating different deals, of Spotify lobbying to reduce statutory royalty payments for streams, and despite having been to at least three talks where it was explained in depth, I still couldn’t tell you in any great detail how Spotify calculates who gets what. However, there were winners – it became a new form of ‘viral’ success to have a playlist hit, one track that landed on a massively subscribed playlist and made good money for the artist. What was also apparent, perhaps like radio in this respect, was that there was minimal lateral movement from playlists to wider awareness of the artist. Spotify itself didn’t really engender that kind of audience building.

Which brings us to the problem of communication – Spotify for a long time gave no analytic detail to artists. Following a campaign by, amongst others, Cellist Zoë Keating, they eventually made some available, but it still wasn’t all that easy to access depending on which aggregator you used to get your music on the platform, and there was still no way to converse with your audience. That aspect of fan/audience/community building has always remained well out of reach of the platform itself. There were many stories of artists leveraging Spotify to build audiences, and for those who owned their entire catalogue and publishing, the economics were in some cases quite reasonable.

However, the simple fact remained that the purpose of Spotify, economically speaking, was built around the re-leveraging of IP/value in existing catalogue. Getting people to pay again to listen to works they’d already bought. For the Major labels, almost all the value they have is in music we already love. They are looking at a humungous volume of songs and albums that we already love, that have already made, collectively, billions of dollars in sales and royalties, that have been milked via reissues, reformatting and remastering for decades, that can now without any manufacturing at all, be turned into a steady trickle of income that collectively amounts to a hell of a lot of money, especially if you have equity in the company, get a preferential royalty rate AND a shareholder payout. You get paid for your own work, and a cut of the profit on everyone else’s, as well as – I assume – a much deeper access to analytic detail across the entire economy.

So bands that had effectively made all their money and for the last couple of decades were making extra on licensing and CD reissues, suddenly had a way of not only reselling, but monetising usage. Experience pricing is what it’s called in some circles. You’re not paying for a product, you’re paying to access an experience. Paying by the amount of time (or, crucially, the number of times) you access a particular piece or song. It’s notable that Spotify pay per play, not by minute of play – this has both increased the number of tracks on an ‘average’ album considerably, and shortened the length of pop songs too. Affordances, eh?

So, there’s essentially no meaningful way to contact your listening audience on Spotify, the money only works at scale, in an economic model that was designed to leverage back catalogue value not recoup recording and marketing budgets, the calculations were opaque and favoured the majors (meet the new boss, same as the old, coked-up, wanker boss) and throw in a few scandals around fake artists and arms dealing and you’ve got yourself one toxic fucking stew of wholly untenable ethical wrongness. Except because of the deals with labels, many, many artists were unable to extract their catalogue, and because of the near-monopoly Spotify had on the conversation around streaming (if not the entire market – they’re the biggest player, but Apple, Amazon and to a lesser extent Tidal have a chunk too, as well as some other smaller players) a lot of artists were terrified to pull out and were in no position to actually talk honestly with their audience about what was going on and why the economic model was potentially ruinous for their creative endeavours.

As someone who was in control of my entire audience, who knew virality was a ridiculously long shot, didn’t want to make music designed for playlists and NEEDS to talk to his audience, I pulled my music off Spotify almost exactly a decade ago – the basic argument is a fair trade one – the company sucks in every imaginable way, and I didn’t need to have anything to do with it. I also pulled all my music of Amazon and a host of other platforms, and have refused to use either service for the same amount of time.

But, alongside that has been an ever increasing level of frustration with the nature of the argument against Spotify and the way that it becomes a bunch of essentialist garbage about ‘streaming’. I’ve almost certainly stumbled into this particular mess myself on more than one occasion. So let’s talk about streaming.

Spotify’s model uses streaming as its technological foundation, but Spotify is not synonymous with streaming. Streaming at its most basic just means that the file that is being decoded into music is hosted elsewhere. That’s all. To that extent, Bandcamp is also a streaming service – the fact that most of my Bandcamp listening happens through either the web browser or the mobile app is made possible by Bandcamp’s essential nature as being in part a streaming service. That streaming in no way undermines their economic model, in fact it’s pretty integral to it given how easily it makes accessing the deeper recesses of your Bandcamp collection, as well as browsing other new work with a view to buying it.

Where Bandcamp and Spotify diverge in their use of streaming is the economic model around that streaming. On Bandcamp, the music that I’m streaming is either free for me to hear because the band or small label have made it so I can hear it, or it’s music that I’ve bought and I own. And by own I mean it’s mine to access and play over and over again for as long as I want without paying any more money to keep accessing it. I can download the file in as many different formats as I want, play them on any device without interference, and the amount I paid for it in the first place is the only exchange of money needed for that to continue.

In contrast, Spotify sells two things – first of all it rents access to the catalogue – you can either pay for that with time by listening to adverts, or you can pay to remove those ads and have access to it all for a monthly fee. That money you pay doesn’t go directly to whoever you listen to, but it goes into the central pot of Spotify earnings that is then divvied up amongst the rights holders, with the Majors getting their bit first and everyone else getting theirs based on a pecking order and the percentage of the total Spotify streams that their work represents.

What you also get for your money is a cloud of metadata built up around you and your listening habits. Some of it you control –

  • playlists,
  • bookmarks,
  • previously listened to work,
  • stuff you’ve favourited,
  • curated playlists that you’re subscribed to

and a load that you have less direct control over –

  • the content of those curated playlists,
  • other data scraped from your social media profiles and traded for the targeting of ads or music promo,
  • the ways in which Spotify maps your music community and includes their preferences in what it recommends you listen to,
  • and people just buying access to your ears in various ways.

These are all variously super useful or annoying depending on how well you perceive their algorithms to work at finding your taste, and how comfortable you are with their particular way of cataloging and bookmarking the work that feels like your collection.

If you stop paying, or suddenly get super tired of listening to ads and decide to delete your account, your access is gone. No matter how much you’ve previously paid, you no longer have access to that music. You are only ever renting access to that music, and there’s no point at which you have paid ‘enough’. No point at which it becomes yours beyond the walls of the service. There are myriad unlicensed ways of extracting music from Spotify, easiest being just recording the music as it plays into a DAW, but there’s absolutely no way of taking your catalogue of work elsewhere or even transferring the metadata in any useful way. (it’s worth artists being a little more aware of this when they get frustrated at people not quitting Spotify soon enough – it’s a big break to drop all of that metadata and start again elsewhere, especially if it’s a completely different economic model you’re suggesting!)

So what you’re paying for is no longer about ownership of music. It’s about experiencing music, and you pay based on what you listen to.

It’s super important to realise how hard – impossible, even – it is to usefully compare these two ways of paying for music in the short term. So much of the commentary around the economics of Spotify fails to understand who is massively advantaged in experience pricing and how much of the way we’ve always listened to music is now suddenly economically active as well as generating highly valuable metadata, in ways it has never been before. The reasons for this I’ve already explained. But what’s also ignored is how the fact that people who keep listening keep paying you impacts the longer term economics of any given track or album.

So what’s the big deal? The experience economy surely extends the economic lifespan of recorded music way beyond the extremely short shelf-life of the vast majority of music under the old system (especially when we factor in just how epically limited shelf-space was in record shops before digitsiation made it possible to access the vast majority of the history of recorded music via some means or other).

The problems for me are as follows. The first one is Spotify’s expressed and repeated action that demonstrates a desire to pay as little as is humanly possible for the rights to music. There’s no ‘how much do we need to comfortably run this service while still making the lives of musicians better?’ – the basic economics is transnational capitalism as its most fucked up, with opaque bilateral deals, lobbying and a bunch of shit that’s basically fraudulent, before we even get to the justification for giving $100M to fucking Joe Rogan to spout bullshit.

So their payment system, which works for the Majors as a way of leveraging extra money on music that people already love, makes it exceedingly difficult to justify the even modest recording and promotional budgets on which the vast majority of indie music industry machinery is built. Let’s not kid ourselves that being an indie musician has ever been easy, or a place where you’re likely to do well. But in an economic field where there are myriad ways of funnelling money into the pockets of those most in need of it, Spotify fails. If your response to this is ‘ah well, that’s how capitalism works’, then I wish you all the ill-effects capitalism has to offer. I want better than that for the world, so it’s a piss-poor excuse.

Secondly, in order to keep you wedded to their ecosystem and keep you paying, Spotify stays as an intermediary between you and your audience, making direct communication super difficult, and/or expensive. Sure you can take out ads and target your previous listeners, but there’s no reason that should be the case in a service that’s already made billions out of your work being on there. Again, capitalism isn’t a good enough excuse for shitting on broke musicians.

Thirdly, absolutely no thought has been given to how communities form around music beyond the aggregating of massive listening data. Which works to connect you with more music in the system, but it doesn’t allow human relationships to cross-over into relationships of mutual discovery. The trust relationship Spotify is built to enhance is our trust in its recommendation engine, not our trust in each other to find and talk about music, and certainly not our trust as artists in our audience to do that. This isn’t an even vague part of Spotify’s remit, but from where I am, fostering human relationships based on care, conversation, trust and accumulated experience and wisdom is vital to every context in which I’ve ever found out about music, from hanging out with friends through to what I learn from my own subscribers on Bandcamp.

So how does this reflect on streaming? It doesn’t. There’s nothing inherently bad about streaming. There are streaming services that pay masses more than Spotify does. There are other possible economic models that make experience pricing way more meaningful and viable, and there are ways to enable fan communities to function as communities rather than an algorithm-generated blob of metadata.

There are experiments with new ways of doing this that are worth looking at – Resonate, while not actually functioning in a way that I find useful yet, is a cool and helpful way of thinking about fair trade experience pricing and the transition to ownership. At least one of the bigger streaming companies has suggested it will switch to a model of dividing up what you pay to the people you listen to – no more communal pot to pay for the free/ad streams out of other people’s paid accounts. FairMus seems to be an experiment in this model – it seems like a supremely obvious one to me – I can’t see any decent reason why this wouldn’t be the model from the off, but it’s another reason to hate Spotify. I have no desire for my subscription money to go to making rich people more rich while the broke-ass band I’ve listened to for three hours this week only gets pennies.

I have no innate problem with experience pricing – as a man of a certain age, I am still a fan of ownership, I like the long term implications of buying things on Bandcamp and being able to download them, them being mine, but that’s a cultural thing, not an ethical one. Ownership doesn’t really matter, and I love the fact that experience pricing makes it possible to get paid for people loving your music more. It’s not true at all that the more you pay for something the more you love it – that’s another weird myth that’s totally undone by the number of favourite albums I and many other have that we bought for 50p in a discount bin – but it does make sense that the opposite is possible, that my money is somehow divided up amongst the people I listen to most.

But that’s not the whole picture. There are artists whose music I barely listen to who I still want to give money to for their work. Not by ‘tipping’ them but by buying their work. I actually really enjoy being able to encourage people who make interesting work to keep doing it even when it’s not what I am in a position to listen to all day long. I don’t think that the estates of Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles  need any more money from me no matter how much time I spent listening to them. With a product-based economy, I’m continually investing in new work, and I can do it at the point of departure for a project, and it’s not spread out over the next few years. So the economic return is front-loaded, but may actually end up being smaller in the long term than via a fairer trade experience pricing model.

So maybe what we need is both. I know a LOT of people who have told me over the years that they use streaming services to predominantly play music they already own. This points to the inherent conservatism of older people’s music taste – genuine new music foragers above the age of maybe 25 are fairly rare as far as I can see. They are a significant chunk of the music buying market, because they have disposable income, but the majority of their peers are spending their money on vinyl reissues or Sonos systems, not investing in new artists. I’m not one to put much extra weight on what ‘the mainstream’ does, simply because it’s never been a place where epically creative work has been the norm, and while it did for years sustain a middle class of performing musicians who are struggling today, that’s as much about the cost of living and the significant relative drop in the cultural standing and meaning of music against other forms of entertainment as it is any internal collapse in the music industry. If you want to campaign for musicians to live better, your energies are probably best used arguing for rent control and UBI rather than railing against the significantly less impactful internal economic squabbles of the music industry.

So streaming is OK with me, Spotify very much isn’t. Should you use another streaming service? I’ve not yet seen one that interests me as a listener, but I’m really not sure what I’ll do the next time I want to buy an album that isn’t on Bandcamp – I used to shop on Google Play, but as I won’t shop on Amazon and iTunes is a giant ball-ache to use, I’m not sure where I’ll go. It’s getting harder and harder to just buy non-Bandcamp music for a sensible amount. We’ll see where that goes.

If you’ve made it this far, well done – email me and I’ll send you a download code for something lovely on Bandcamp.

More Nonsense Music Economy Quotes, this time from Vince Gill (in 2012!)

As is the way with Internet things, just as it happened with that Joni Mitchell quote a while back, there’s a Vince Gill quote that’s circulating as a meme again after a few years away. The actual quote is apparently from an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in February 2012, and begins ‘I still want to have hit records’, which points to a slightly different set of concerns than the bit that’s circulating.

The quote in the meme is this, “The devaluation of music and what it’s now deemed to be worth is laughable to me. My single costs 99 cents. That’s what a [single] cost in 1960. On my phone, I can get an app for 99 cents that makes fart noises — the same price as the thing I create and speak to the world with. Some would say the fart app is more important. It’s an awkward time. Creative brains are being sorely mistreated.”

Now, remember that this is from 2012 – the streaming economy was in a wholly nascent form, and the idea of railing against a download costing 99¢ seems absurdly quaint in these days of micropayments and disappearing songwriter royalties. Continue reading “More Nonsense Music Economy Quotes, this time from Vince Gill (in 2012!)”

Keeping Your Soul In An Algorithmic World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subscriber Economics – The Value Of Resourcing An Expert Audience

This post was originally posted as a Twitter thread about the subscriber release schedule and its creative implications. Here’s the first one if you want to click on it and read it in its original form:

https://twitter.com/solobasssteve/status/1347492120026869760

And here’s the post edited slightly to turn it into a readable blog post. It’s more thinking out loud about my PhD (specifically chapter 3 of my PhD 🙂 ) but may be useful for those of you trying to make some sense of the various release models for music and various non-monetary considerations when trying to map value in the exchange between artist and audience.

-o0o-

Recorded a thing last night. Liked it, but wasn’t sure how much. Still, mastered it so I had a ‘finished’ version. Have listened to it three times in a row this morning, all 24 minutes of it. So I guess that’s good, eh? Subscribers, first new release of 2021 coming soon 🙂

I once read Brian Eno quoted as saying that he doesn’t read reviews of his work because it’s always years behind what he’s actually working on at that time. That disconnect from the people experiencing your work struck me as a problem to be overcome, rather than embraced. I’m HUGELY grateful for informed, generous, interested commentary on what I do. Not magazines telling us what’s hot or not, but people who are genuinely invested in the art and the artist discussing its meaning and value to them…

So having created a space in which the people who care about what I do can get it within hours or even minutes of me recording it means that I don’t rely on some delayed commentary from people who want to position my work within some much wider contextual field. (not that that’s not OK, just that it’s not interesting or particularly informative for me as an artist) – instead, I get feedback and commentary from people who understand it as the next chapter in a longer journey, people who’ve often heard more music by me than ANYONE else…

…I don’t mean many of my subscribers have spent more time listening to me (that may be true of a few, but I don’t think I dominate the listening of most of them 🙂 ) – but that they’ve heard more recordings by me, by virtue of them existing. 90-something albums, so far. 🙂

So, that body of knowledge, opinion, experience, expertise and – crucially – care becomes a resource. Not just for me but for the community as a whole. It gets shared, stories get told and I get to make more music in response to it, liberated and educated by it. And the series of recordings function not as commercial commodities with a fixed unit value but as what Jyri Engeström called ‘Social Objects’ – entities around which social interactions can happen. Interactions which accumulate multiple forms of capital and meaning through the process

So narrowing that temporal gap between recording and release, between my experiments and the response and reaction of a caring, informed community who – collectively – know more about what I’ve done than I do, becomes an act of creative liberation, enabling more art to happen.

I couldn’t do this, or extract meaning from it, if I had to record it then market it, send it to journalists and radio, harangue my extended listenership into adding it to playlists, liking and sharing & all that bullshit in the hope that someone would add it to a sleep playlist. The unit value of any one of these recordings is wholly undetermined. I’ve no idea which elements of the subscription people find most value in, or if as I suspect it’s ‘the whole experience’ that gives it meaning. Along the way, I get to document it and make more & better music

A vital comment on this came from Chris Mapp who made the distinction in relation to all this between curation and archiving. I think I’ve gradually shifted from being a curator to an archivist, the greater my degree of trust & experience of value in the expertise of the community. I have a threshold for the value of a subscriber release, but it’s not ‘will this make money? Can I recoup my investment?’. It’s ‘does this add meaningfully to the existing body of work? Will the subscribers find this interesting, enjoyable, worthwhile & value the time spent?’

All of this, of course, relies on it being improvised (or perhaps I could do it if I composed very quickly, but the lines between improv and composition get rapidly blurred there), because 200 versions of my greatest hit would be meaningless without each having its own community…meaning, when Pearl Jam released a CD of every gig on a tour, they did it not really expecting anyone to find much value in hearing all of it. Owning all if it, perhaps, for the social capital, but the personalisation of getting the gig you were at was the real value. The body of work was still those 20 or so songs that everyone knew. The value was in hearing it and saying ‘I was there’. I’m working on making the entire catalogue have cumulative value, with the added bonus that many of them are live recordings so ‘I was there’ is possible too!

[addendum] It’s perhaps worth distinguishing between this model and asking my audience what I should release, in the style of a crowd-funding vote-for-your-favourite tracks model. Cos that’s a million miles from this. The joy of the subscriber community is that their involvement is not conditional on a particular response from me. The buy-in is ‘be a part of this’, not ‘if you do this, I’ll record this kind of music for you’ or ‘let’s have a poll and see what the most popular choice is’. The beauty of this – and why I experience it as a community of practice – is that I never get subscribers saying or even implying ‘you need to do this or I’m withholding my support’. These are smart people who share their wisdom with care and concern, but let me make art, and are explicit about it. Constructive criticism is often couched in terms of ‘I don’t want you to stop what you’re doing, but this is how I experience it’. That’s never happened to me in any other context other than a gathering of fellow musicians trying to get better.

I experience it as a flattened hierarchy where I’m not being aloof, but neither am I doing a focus group to find out what the most popular choice is. I’m inviting commentary from people who know more than me about what I’m doing and then they let me get on with it.

the new thing is released for subscribers – go get it if you’re on board 🙂

https://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/album/resolution x

Favourite Albums of 2020

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

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

Dishevelled Cuss – Dishevelled Cuss

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

Jasper Hoiby’s Planet B

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

Pulled By Magnets – Rose Golden Doorways

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

Throwing Muses – Sun Racket

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

Field Music – Making A New World

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

Beauty Pill – Please Advise

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

Stillefelt – Stillefelt

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

Liz Frencham – Love And Other Crimes

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

Michael Manring – Small Moments

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

David Binney and Kenny Wolleson – Basu

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

Azusa – Loop Of Yesterdays

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

Ren Harvieu – Revel In The Drama

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

Lobelia – Positive Songs Project 1 and 2

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


Hope And Social – S.E.N.T Vol 1

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

Billy Nomates – Billy Nomates

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

Yvonne Lyon – Growing Wild

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

Colfax – The Jupiter Expeditions

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

David Torn – Fur/Torn

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

Harry Styles – Fine Line

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

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

Why DIY is a Methodology not an Ideology

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New things for Bandcamp Day!

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

Bandcamp, in a paragraph: 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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