Nine Years Since This Gig…

Yesterday was the ninth anniversary of the gig where Lobelia and I recorded this video:

…I say ‘we’ recorded the video. Obviously we played the music, but the video was actually shot by our friend Brian Wilson (not that Brian Wilson…) – he’d invited me in 2007 to play a house concert after I’d talked about my plan to do a tour of them. He and his wife Michelle obviously got the bug, because after that they became exquisite house concert hosts, even going to far as to buy the grand piano you see in this video!

Brian is now a pro photographer (not much of a surprise when you see the quality of the video), and no longer lives in the house where we played these shows, (we played again almost exactly a year later, with the great Tiger Darrow opening for us – here’s a vid of an improv trio from that show) but they hold some incredibly dear memories for us.

This year, Lo and I have got back into doing gigs together (parenting kind of knocked the wind out of our duo gig sales for quite a while!) and we played a gorgeous house concert in Hackney, London in April. If you want to host one, please do drop me a line!

The tour where we played this show back in 2010 also became our album Live So Far – an album that grew progressively as the tour went on and I mixed and mastered the tunes on our days off… Check it out here:

Everybody Needs A Manifesto

Yesterday, I came across a gorgeous thing on Twitter. It’s the manifesto of Gate Theatre in Notting Hill:

It’s a beautiful mix of ideals, ethics and concrete commitments. It lays out what they want to do, how they want to do it and the moral standards that are to be held to while they do it. And none of it commits to making a particular amount of money for shareholders, or to meet funding requirements, or to getting a certain amount of reviews or any other typical metric of success. It’s not that none of those things will happen or are even necessary, it’s just that with the manifesto in place, the mechanisms for making them happen are now subservient to the operational code laid down in the manifesto. They are now people of The Way. They have a document to refer back to whenever they make decisions. (I have a deep love for Gate Theatre anyway, as it’s the first place we ever did Torycore 🙂 ) 

And it made me think about how little of what we do in music is based on any kind of meaningful thought-out foundational principles. I mean, EVERYONE has things they are working towards, but most of them are based on the received wisdom of ‘the industry’ (spoiler alert: there is no ‘the industry’) – and way too many artists let go of what they assumed were their artistic goals in order to meet a set of commercial ones imposed from outside. Again, if that’s your aim, cool, write it down, commit to it and do it honestly. But for a huge number of musicians, there’s a massive disconnect between what they think they’re trying to do, and what the mechanisms they are pursuing are for, or what they almost always bring about.

Let me tell you about two manifestos I’ve been involved with. The first is an easy one – when I was a part of New Music Strategies with Andrew Dubber, we first convened in The Netherlands in January 2010 to decide what we wanted to do. There were five of us, and we stuck post its all over a wall and talked a lot about what we thought we had to offer. But at the heart of it was a very simple manifesto that we agreed on – “to help bring more music to more people in more places”.

It gave us a focus that was about what was good for music in its widest sense, rather than getting distracted by individual quests for ‘success’ or a particular sector of the global music economy’s obsession with the numbers in their spreadsheet. It helped us decide what we did and didn’t want to do, and led to us turning down a very well paid offer to shepherd the career of a teenage starlet whose overbearing uncle (I think) was utterly convinced that we were the ones to help her become a star. Our response? Go to college, do things you love, make the music you care about and stop worrying about being famous. Not something anyone was going to pay money for. But we ended up doing all kinds of good stuff with NMS during the period in which it was a 5 person team. And none of it compromised that central manifesto.

The second one has only ever been seen (before now) but a couple of people – it was borne out of a joke project with a friend, but contains so much ridiculous truth about how I think about music that I really need to cannibalise it for a manifesto of my own. The project in question is an imaginary band called The Steveness, with my friend Stephen Mason (out off of Grammy-winning, multi-million rekkid selling pop stars Jars Of Clay) – the unique situation in which the Steveness find ourselves is that we’re so good we can’t actually make any music or everyone else will just give up. We’ve never played a note, out of kindness to the rest of the planet. So back in 2015, no doubt after spending a little too long on Bill Drummond’s website, I decided that The Steveness should exist as a Manifesto, and so I wrote this, and sent it to Steve for his birthday:

A Steveness Manifesto

Music Is Not A Product
Music Cannot Be Bought, Sold, Taken, Manufactured or Contained.
Music Is An Experience.
Music Is The Context For Experiencing The Experience.
Music Exists Only In Time as Expectation, Experience And Memory.
Music That Is Sometimes Never Was.
Music That Will Be May Not Be.
The Home Of Music Is The Memory.
The Chorus Remembers The Verse. The Bridge Remembers The Chorus
You Do Not Hold Music. It Holds You.
You Do Not Own Music. It Owns You.
Music Is Fleeting And Eternal.
Music Is Made Possible By Ideas, Aided By Performance, Shared By Recording.
Music Is A Conversation.
A Conversation About Music Is Music.

The Steveness Is Music.

The Steveness Is
The Story Of Music
An Encounter With Music
The Idea Of Music
The Soul Of Music

The Steveness Is Dangerous, Beautiful And It Exists In Your Memory.
The Steveness Is A Memory Of A Reality That Never Was And May Never Be.

The Steveness Is
A Memory.
The Knowledge Of Greatness.
An Experience Beyond The Senses.

The Steveness Is.

-o0o-

Download the manifesto here.

The Steveness in 2007

Now, the bizarre thing about this is that the first half of it, before I invoke the name of the Steveness, is all about music as a phenomenological proposition, written a year or so before I’d heard the term phenomenology. It also encapsulates some of what Christopher Small’s seminal work Musicking is about. Even though it was me using the frame of ‘other Steve and me mucking about’ as a way to think about the true ephemerality of music. It’s ended up as a reimagining of John Cage’s 4’33” for the Flight Of The Conchords generation.

So, my suggestion for you is, go and write your manifesto. What matters to you? What’s truly important in your life, your work, your art? Write it down, print it out, refer to it when you make decisions. Cos without it, if you’re in music, you’re going to end up doing a lot of shitty gigs and being put under a whole lot of pressure to change what you do to fit someone else’s idea of sellable.

Three Recent Bass Inspirations

I am, in general, pretty picky when it comes to bass things that inspire me. Sure, there are Instagram videos that offer up 15 seconds of cleverness that raise a smile, but I’m still for the most part a long-form listener, so am left ultimately a little underfed by social media fragments.

But there are a number of bass players around doing supremely wonderful things with the bass, and today I’ll tell you about three that have been inspiring me recently:

Ruth Goller is easily one of my favourite bassists around – she’s in a tiny group of players whose presence on a record means I’m immediately interested in whatever the project might be, such is the quality of what she brings to projects, and her good taste (others in that group include Mike Watt, Charlie Haden and Tony Levin…) – she’s recently been working on an amazing project that features just her bass and three layered voices, called Skylla. Here’s the first track from it to be released, but there’s an EP or album to follow, I gather:

Skylla – ‘M1’ (Ruth Goller, Alice Grant, Lauren Kinsella) from Ruth Goller on Vimeo.

Another player whose work I’ve been enjoying immensely recently is Björn Meyer – he’s been part of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin for a long time, and put out a solo album last year on ECM. But this album from 2016 is one that I only found on Bandcamp about a week or so ago, and I’ve been listening to LOADS since. It’s a trio of bass, drums and bass clarinet, and is full of awesome:

And finally one from earlier in the year that actually has me on one track – I’ve been a fan of Aaron Gibson’s playing for quite a few years, having discovered him through the lovely guys at No Treble. And I’d actually already pre-ordered this album before Aaron got in touch to ask me to play on it. As he says in an interview with No Treble,

“When I had finished writing “Webs”, it had this middle section that I could hear a melodic, Steve Lawson-ish, solo over. I could totally hear Steve’s tone and phrasing in that spot, but I didn’t think that I would ask him to do it. I also didn’t think that he would say yes and then get it to me within days. It’s brilliant.”

Here’s the track that I play on, but definitely go and listen to the whole album, then buy it – it’s glorious, is mostly just bass, voice and string quartet, and is available on vinyl too 🙂

Like I said, I’m funny when it comes to bassists – some of the people who are most celebrated in bass-dom do very little for me at all, and some of my favourite bassists are actually people who wouldn’t class themselves as bass players, so end up with really original approaches to our beloved instrument. Some of the others I come back to time and time again include Michael Manring, Mike Watt, Julie Slick, Rich Brown, Doug Lunn, Divinity Roxx, Dylan Desmond and Robin Mullarkey. Check out those links if you’re looking for some new inspiration – there’s quite a range of sounds in there 🙂

I don’t really divide up the things that inspire me by instrument, or even art form. Sometimes the things that drive me to create are literary or drawn from theatre or even comedy. But there’s still such a direct connection with people using the instrument I’ve committed so many years to understanding in interesting ways. I’m super-grateful for the kick in the arse all this amazing music gives me, and the challenge to make evermore meaningful music.

Got any current favourites? Stick ’em in the comments 🙂

Steve’s Sunday Summary

So, we’ve come to the end of my first full week back blogging every day. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep this up, but it’s been an enjoyable week of writing.

Here’s a quick summary in case you’re just browsing at the weekend: 

I wrote two things about effects pedals, with some tips on how I use them:

I also wrote a two-part look at how I use Bandcamp, and why I love it so much as both a music fan/forager, and as an artist:

And I wrote two posts about other aspects of making music:

One of my favourite things about writing here regularly again is the comment threads that are growing – please do feel free to add your voice to the discussions. The way that social media conversations get lost so quickly has always saddened me, whereas blog comments have a much longer life and remain attached to the article as a collaborative writing effort. I’m grateful to everyone who adds thoughts and asks questions here, so feel free to join in!

If you want to get these blogposts emailed to you whenever I write here, you can subscribe to them via email here (naturally, you can unsubscribe from them at anytime):

Enter your email address:

 

It’s also been a week in while I’ve had quite a few new Bandcamp subscribers, no doubt wanting to explore the four new solo albums (I added a new track to the unfolding album Stepping Stones this week) and the upcoming LEYlines releases.

Besides all that, I got to meet up with the great bassist and journalist Ed Friedland yesterday – he was in town to play with The Mavericks, and sadly I missed the show due to illness, but we had an amazing day hanging out and catching up on news.

And then today, still recovering from a cold, which is now overlapping with hayfever, we took a leisurely family stroll through Birmingham, including a trip to the rooftop gardens at the Library Of Birmingham. I love living in this city 🙂

Either The Meadow Or The Fruit Tree – A Story Of Improv

This was an essay I wrote for my Bandcamp Subscribers the other day, to accompany a brand new track called ‘The Meadow Or The Fruit Tree’. The track is included on the subscriber-only album Stepping Stones. You can get it by subscribing today… But anyway, here’s the essay:

-o0o-

Allow me to tell you about one of the most significant moments in my journey to being an improvisor, which came, improbably, at a garden design talk/workshop back in the very early 00s. I was speaking at an even called the School For Life – a multi-disciplinary weekend of learning-for-the-sake-of-learning, loosely based on the Danish Folkehøjskole concept. I was teaching a class on improv to a room full of women over the age of 60, all of whom had only ever learned classically, and all of whom had a whale of a time getting to experiment with making up melodies for themselves.

Anyway, at the same event, a design lecturer from Edinburgh University was giving a talk on garden design, with a load of slides of amazing historic gardens from all over the country, and offering practical advice to the attendees for what to do in their gardens at home. It was already a fascinating talk to listen to, hearing about types of flowers to plant, the impact that soil and sunlight had on things, how to make best use of a wall that got no sun vs a wall that got loads of sun etc…

But when it came to questions, that’s when the inspiration struck. A woman asked the speaker whether it was ever possible to replace a lawn with a wild flower meadow and how on earth you would make the distinction clear between a wild flower meadow in the back garden of your house, and you just being the kind of lazy fool who had just abandoned it to go to wrack and ruin. The answer was that in order to make the chaotic bit appear intentional, you needed to frame it with something so obviously intentional that it created a window through which to see the wild flowers as purposeful. The example he gave was to have a couple of really well-cut fruit bushes either side of the main vista looking onto your garden – so the view from your back door had these two fruit trees and between them lay the wild flowers.

The profound observation that conspicuous structure and order can bookend chaos in a way that makes its intentionality apparent is a concept that has stuck with me and been invoked on a near-daily basis for the last 18 or so years. The relationship between musical ideas that are idiomatically recognisable as skilled and controlled can carve out an affordance for equally intention use of chaos, dissonance, happenstance, and degrees of complexity that without such a framing might otherwise be misinterpreted as lacking in control or sufficient awareness of what ought to be happening – the intentions encoded into the music would be decoded wrongly, and we end up with what Umberto Eco called Aberrant Decoding – when the intentions and meaning of a particular work are misunderstood by the audience.

You may have conspicuously noticed me doing this, or you may have had an a-ha! moment reading this and realised that that’s why you appear more receptive to the strangeness in my music than to music that is just continually in a more atonal/aleatoric space… Or maybe your taste and musical exposure are sufficiently esoteric that there isn’t anything that I do that sounds particularly ‘out’ to you anyway (this is likely the case for at least some of you 🙂 )

But you can, if you wish, listen out for those things that are fruit trees and those that are the meadow in future…

(Wild Flower Garden photo by Clive Varley)

How To Play Your Pedals

You may have noticed that I tend to split my pedal board between the floor and the top of my rackcase. You may also wonder why I still have so many analog pedals when I also have the MOD Duo (written about here) which sound so incredible. So let’s have a look at what pedals offer.

I’ve said many times that I don’t think of my instrument as being a bass and all the rest of the stuff as being a way of processing the sound of the bass. My instrument starts at my fingertips and ends at the speakers. if I was being even more picky, I’d suggest that the acoustics in the room we’re in were part of it too. But I certainly view the entirety of my musical equipment as an instrument, comprised of many working parts. In the same way that a pianist doesn’t think of themselves as playing keys while the hammers are just an effect that changes the sound of the strings, with the wooden body being an amplifier, I don’t see any of the stuff that goes into making the sound as any more or less significant to the overall picture.

Which means that when it comes to thinking about the range of possibilities for an improvised performance, I want to be able to access as many possible combinations of sound from my instrument as possible. So I like to keep a bunch of my pedals at hand height in order to have all of the possible settings available to me, and also have the option to use them to change sounds as they are happening – hitting a sustained note and turning one of the many controls on the Pigtronix Mothership 2 synth pedal will offer all manner of bizarre and beautiful evolving, morphing sounds.

The MOD Duo is an absolutely exquisite sounding device, but the specific interface of each pedal reflects its performance possibilities – even down to how tricky it is to reach certain controls, or how sensitive they are. It would be possible to set up a bunch of that stuff as MIDI control on the Duo – and I have got LOADS of real time control over it, with the ability to stack multiple parameters on each of the two knobs, but having all those knobs AND all the controls on each pedal gives me a far far greater range of performance possibilities, and allows me to react to things in a more instantaneous and serendipitous way.

The degree to which I ‘learn’ what any pedal does depends on what I’m asking from it – when I have either the Aguilar Filter Twin, or MXR Bass Envelope Filter at hand height, I tend to have quite specific settings in mind, and move between those sounds I know to be what I’m looking for. Whereas the aforementioned Mothership 2, or the Subdecay Virtuvian MOD ring modulator are both pedals I can just set to random combinations and see what craziness happens. I was talking to Tim LeFebvre about the Mothership 2 recently, and he mentioned that he always turns the ‘glide’ control up – that’s a portamento function that makes the pitch of everything really slidey and imprecise. Which is exactly what a pedal like this does so well – the temporary ceding of some control to the whims of the pedal mean that your instrument becomes a partner that you’re now negotiating with over what the hell is going to happen next. This stuff isn’t just a tool box that you’re using, it’s a hostage situation and you’re trying to sweet talk your way out of the whole world of sounds caving in on you. 🙂

The number of pedals I have at hand height changes from month to month – at the moment I’m in a fairly settled phase with the Mothership 2, Vitruvian MOD, TC Electronic Flashback and then a Kaoss Pad mini KP… which is ALL about hand control. the touch interface is where all the magic happens, and the fact that the mini version allows very limited save and recall functions again makes it all the more interactive. I quite often just spin the dial and see what comes out, responding to whatever sound I land on and finding something new in it.

But there’s another great advantage to having pedals at hand height – the need to stop playing. There’s an age-old conversation that goes on between horn players and guitarists – the horn players are constantly trying to learn how to do long continuous melodic phrases like the guitar players, but learning circular breathing techniques, and the guitarists often end up on a journey towards learning to phrase lines in a way that breathes, that has natural pauses.

The interaction with pedals by hand leads you to such interesting and unexpected compromises between how to play the notes you want to have happen and how to make the sounds change and evolve in the you want. I’ve learned various quite specific techniques for combining sustained notes with altered pedal control, and I also use delays to set up extended phrases that I can then manipulate with whatever is downstream. Sometimes I have a looper right at the front of my signal chain so I can just focus on the pedal manipulation (and I have a 2nd mini Kaoss Pad after the aux out on my Looperlative looper so I can send anything that’s looped in there through the KP and manipulate that too, often at the same time as I’m trying to play bass, and percussion via the Quneo…)

All of these interactions are how I try  to circumvent the possibility of mundane, predictable things happening. They give me a massive range of sonic choices, but also set up an enhanced likelihood of random, unexpected semi-chaotic music happenings that I’m then called on to rationalise and put in a context that makes sense of them. It’s that back and forth with my own playing that makes any performance a collaboration between the actual and the expected, between what’s there and what I imagine it can become… The whole thing is about the unfolding rather than just the execution of a preordained, precomposed thing. There is no ‘ideal’ version, no external reference for what is and isn’t the ‘right’ thing to do. There is only what’s happen and the range of possibilities for what can happen next, and manipulating pedals is a huge huge part of the expanded range of possibilities in the moment.

So, if you’re a musician who uses any kind of signal processing, have a think about how best to interact with it all, how you can make it do interesting things. Have a watch of the video for an older tune of mine, Vertigo, below and see if you can see exactly what’s happening with the Kaoss Pad and the pedals…

Fun With Field Recordings And Found Sound

The latest addition to my music making set-up has been the inclusion of field recordings that can be triggered to play under (or over) whatever else I’ve got going on. I have them assigned to pads on the Quneo – my MPC grid-style MIDI controller – so I can trigger them in amongst the rest of the drums and found sounds that I use for percussion tracks.

So far I’m mostly drawn to sounds recorded in forests, to water and to gentle urban soundtracks. I’ve not really experimented with playing over the hustle and bustle of cities, but that’s next, I guess 🙂

I’ve been using field recordings from a Bandcamp account called “Free To Use Sounds“, run by a bloke called Marcel who travels around the world recording cool sounds and making them available to buy and use on Bandcamp. Awesome, eh?

I’ve also been using them a lot when teaching – for improvisors, a field recording soundtrack can really help to give you something to play TO without having to work with an ensemble or loop pedal. Interpreting the vibe of a recording in a forest, or a street scene, or a bunch of monkeys or whatever helps you compare and contrast the relationship between your musical choices and the context for those choices. It’s had some magical results with my bass students, for sure!

The latest track I’ve just uploaded for subscribers uses a recording of a street scene as the backdrop for an improvisation on my Rick Turner Renaissance 5 string fretless – it’s such a beautiful bass and I don’t use it anywhere near enough, so expect to see and hear it more over the next while 🙂

If you’re a subscriber, the new track has been added to the album Stepping Stones. If you’re not a subscriber yet, what are you waiting for? 🙂

If you need more convincing, this is the title track from the my last live subscriber only solo album, The Field Of Strategic Possibilities, and it includes a field recording of a skate park, part of which gets caught in one of the drum grooves, adding a back-peddling bicycle to the sound in a super-cool way:

Along side the field recordings from Free To Use Sounds, I’m a big fan of many of the found sound percussion kits from Mode Audio – I use their samples of toys, kitchen implements and glitched-out drums. Some of them are used in ways where you can tell something of its provenance (like the rattles from the toy set!) but other sounds are layered in complex ways to make beautiful and strangely unfamiliar percussion sounds. I never trigger whole loops for percussion – I just arrange the sounds as single hits in Drum Rack in Ableton Live and play them all via the Quneo, so every time I play new things occur. Check out the latest bunch of subscriber recordings for an insight into how those sounds are developing…

Why Bandcamp: Part Two

Yesterday I wrote about what Bandcamp offers me as a music fan. Today it’s all about how I use it as an artist.

First some background: My solo career started before the age of download sales. My first 6 albums were all pressed as CDs, and sold via a range of online eCommerce solutions – from a shop set up by my friend Tim to help his friends sell their CDs, to CDBaby, back when it was offering a truly revolutionary solution for independent artists trying to work out how best to leverage the internet for global reach. The streaming media of choice was Real Audio – generally terribly low res, but it was the stuff that generated enough interest in my music to result in me turning those live recordings into my first album! When download sales became a thing and CDBaby worked out a deal to get our music onto iTunes, I did that too, and slowly onto the other emerging download stores – Amazon, Google Play, eMusic… I also had a self-hosted download store of my own, and mistakenly sold 128k MP3s from it… I was learning all along and made a number of fairly heinous mistakes.

Then in 2008 Bandcamp came along. I still had my hand-rolled sales site, so it took me a few months to sign up, but from mid 2009, I started selling my music on there. Immediately, the possibilities became apparent. The first things I uploaded were my existing albums, and added CD sales too, but then in mid 2010, Lo and I were on a house concert tour in the US, I’d just bought a MOTU soundcard, and we’d worked out how to multitrack record all our gigs (Geek facts: I was running Reaper on a Hackintosh’d Dell MINI 10v, and recording EIGHT TRACKS!) As the tour progressed, I was mixing the live recordings on off-days, and uploaded the first six tracks of what straight away promised to be our first updateable album. Live So Far ended up being 10 tracks long, captured a number of lovely spontaneous musical happenings along the way, and helped fund the tour as it progressed. When we eventually made a limited edition CD run, we sold that on Bandcamp too.

My first solo album to come out on Bandcamp was 11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everything. I experimented with pricing that scaled over time, with free download codes, and found that there was a direct link between streaming numbers and sales – the more people heard it, the more were likely to buy it. So I just kept directing people to Bandcamp to hear it – no 30 second previews, no tricking people into buying shit they might not like. Just ‘here, fall in love with this…’ – and they did. Because, as we know, music is the one artform you’re more likely to spend money on it the more you experience it – listening to an album a lot so rarely causes us to get bored of it. Listening to it a lot is evidence that it means a lot to us, so encouraging people to do that invests it with increasing levels of value, not decreasing. This flies in the face of music marketing logic, but the clever people at Bandcamp understood it and we’ve been leveraging it ever since. The flipside is, of course, that a ton of people have been able to audition my music to see if it was for them and decide not to buy it, but that’s great too – I have no interest in subsisting on the poor choices of people conned by duplicitous marketing…

My next album was another live album – recorded in Minneapolis, Believe In Peace was the first album I put out exclusively on Bandcamp. In all honesty, I think I intended to put it out on all the other platforms, I just never got round to it. I was having way too much fun getting to know the people who were discovering the music.
This was possible because Bandcamp really values the relationship between artists and listeners. It has the option to have an email link on your page, it gathers together the email addresses of everyone who buys your stuff, allowing you to stay in touch with them via whatever platform works best for you. It has built in ‘tweet this’ links for albums and at the sales completion stage, and it has fan collections where you can see everything that someone has bought.

The value of this is SO much greater for niche artists than a bunch of algorithmic aggregate data. Because it’s about forming relationships not gathering information. I know what my listeners like because I follow the fan account of everyone who subscribes to me. I find a LOT of music because of their discoveries getting passed on to me. I can see what really works for them in my catalogue by how they review it – and in the stats portion of the Bandcamp For Artists App – or in the case of the subscribers by how they comment on it in the subscriber discussion thread. They’re real people not data points that represent financial transactions from months ago. I have no idea who it is that buys my music on iTunes each month (I get about £20 every couple of months from them) – I don’t know who they are or what they like. But with Bandcamp, I get to learn a bit about them.

And I get to enrich the experience of my listeners with extra info. Every Bandcamp album page has a section for a description that I fill up with sleeve-notes – I accompany everything I release with an essay. Sometimes I write track-by-track explanations of what’s going on, and I bundle those with the download as a PDF and include in the lyric field for each track. Everything gets uploaded as 24bit audio, and the listener can decide what resolution and file type works for them, knowing that whatever they get, it’ll have all the correct metadata and info with it, and they won’t be left having to pay more for a high res file like it’s 2003 or something…

Because there are few digital things that annoy me as much as buying music with either messed up – or no – metadata. Selling WAV files is completely insane, given how hard it is to attach info to them, or embed artwork (can you embed artwork in a WAV? I’ve never ever had one arrive with track data embedded, let alone artwork) – FLAC sounds identical (is genuinely lossless) but has fields for all the info you could ever need.

I occasionally get asked why I don’t run my own download site, but having never ever seen one where the experience for the buyer is even a quarter as good as Bandcamp, it strikes me as a really bizarre question. Running a successful ecommerce business if you want to sell multiple file types and resolutions with accurate metadata, streaming possibilities, payment options and have the audience trust what you’re doing is such a massive, massive task, there’s really no reason to think that it’ll be worth the 10% you’ll ‘save’ by not having Bandcamp do it. But you’ll also almost certainly make less money. Because all the stuff I said yesterday about how I find music applies to how people find me. Bandcamp is such an incredible discovery platform. It makes it so easy to share music, to find things, hear them, follow a trail of connections, browse what other people are listening to… You’ll see the players littered throughout this post and the last – imagine trying to code all the possible variations yourself. Imagine hosting all that bandwidth, imagine trying to build a platform in which your fans can show off how much they love your music on a page of their own. You can’t imagine doing it, because what you’d be imaging is Bandcamp, and it already exists.

Five years ago, I realised that my shift to all-improv shows was producing a crazy amount of release quality music. That set-up I’d started with in 2009 that allowed me to multitrack gigs had been refined with every single gig, getting better and better recordings, getting better at mixing… I did a mastering course to learn how to make the end product better, and in 2013 released a 10 album set of live recordings (all exclusively on Bandcamp), and was able to do a presale for them, sell the USB Stick physical bundle, and offer download codes to my collaborators so they could use them to add value to other sales, or just sell full sets of download codes at gigs. The pricing was wholly variable, and we could do discount codes and sales and free download days and…

Well, I’d started to meet up with Ethan Diamond, the founder of Bandcamp, every January while in California, and he mooted their idea to launch a subscription service. I was asked what kind of features I’d want, and I was then invited to be one of the three artists who trialled it, and I properly found the home for my musical output. I didn’t want what some of the subscription services were offering in terms of charging my subscribers more if I released more, instead I wanted to be able to increase the sense of value for them over time if I happened to make more great music. Gratitude is the essential currency of the indie music economy. People will pay for things they are grateful for. I didn’t want to be releasing music for the sake of it, just music that was amazing, so the actual promise of the subscription is about a third of what I actually put out in a year – the extra 200% on top is there because it deserves to be there, not because I feel obliged to release it…

But I now get the economic latitude to mix and master every quality gig that I do, release it and tell the story of its genesis. I get to throw it out to the subscribers for discussion, offer them exclusive video, essays about the motivation and technology behind the music, and even eBooks about playing music, or my novel. It’s my ever-expanding digital box set, but without the crazy premium cost that comes with reissues of classic albums.

The community of subscribers is now big enough that they almost cover our rent for the entire year. I’m about 30 subscribers short of covering it all at this point. That for me is a sustainable practice. I’m not having to pay for billboards or Facebook ads, or trying to get radio play for particular tracks or promoting a single with a promo tour… I get to make albums that I’ll never be able to play live, release them and get on with the next one. I recently put out three albums in a month, because I did three gigs that were really, really good. Subscribers got them all, and even though not many of them had time to digest all that music there and then, it’s theirs for good. They own it, whether or not they remain as subscribers. And we get to revisit not only the music, but the story that those three gigs tell in aggregate. John Coltrane would record multiple albums in a week, Miles Davis recorded Agartha and Pangea on the same day, but they were released detached from that context – presented purely as ‘albums’ not as episodes in a longer story…

I’m not trying to get rich, I’m not trying to be famous, I don’t want the audience of hundreds of thousands of listeners that I’d need to make Spotify sustainable. I really don’t. I love having a community of people who are invested in what I’m doing that I can talk to about it, that I recognise when they turn up to gigs, that I get birthday messages from, who make suggestions about what the music means to them…

Back in mid 2016, one of my subscribers sent me a set of incredibly detailed notes he’d taken about how he understood what I was doing as an improvisor and performer. It was meticulous and filled with care and attention, and he’d written it while in hospital, I still get emotional thinking about it. He died not that long after he sent it, but the sense that somehow I’d ended up in this space where the people who find the music not only get to enjoy it but may want to spend time thinking how it represents new ways to think about music making and why we release music was such an inspiring one. The feedback I get from my subscribers is irrevocably woven into the way I make music, and the permission I get from them to continue on this path is a motivator like no other.

Bandcamp is the mechanism that makes all of this possible. It doesn’t force it to happen, and I’ve not found that many other musicians who’ve managed to leverage its affordances to the same degree (I know a lot of people who sell more music than me on there, but not as many whose music life is as heavily entwined – maybe my commitment to it as a music listener as well has helped build those relationships…)

I can’t at this point imagine wanting to release music any other way. I’d rather wait til someone eventually finds a way to buy it on Bandcamp than pander to whatever preconceived notions they have about where they want to find music. The idea that we have to be ‘everywhere’ in order to reach our audience is only true if you don’t see the experience of your music as concretely wedded to the context – the words, the connection, the artwork, even the delivery mechanism. So if you currently buy music on iTunes, that’s OK, eventually you may decide that your desire to investigate my music is strong enough that working out what Bandcamp does is worthwhile. But if it doesn’t, I don’t feel any burning need to water down the experience of my music in order to put it out in an inferior form in a worse context.

I’d love it if you subscribed to me on Bandcamp. The current offering is (I think) 47 albums the moment you sign up, and then everything I release in the next 12 months – go check it out, and have a listen to the albums throughout this article to see if any of it takes your fancy. If it does, come join the party – you’ll be a tangible part of the sustainability revolution.

Why Bandcamp – Part One

It’s no secret that I really love Bandcamp. As a fan and as an artist, a huge part of my music life is spent listening to music, finding new music, buying music and of course selling music – almost all on Bandcamp. But it’s also the mechanism by which I get to email my audience, post updates to my subscribers, share videos and even eBooks. It’s why I can remaster anything at any time, change the price on anything, bundle things together and release everything at HD without having to put it on some nonsense specialist site that charges more for 24bit files.

So, I’m going to a couple of posts about just how and why I love it, starting with my experience as a music listener. I’ll preface this by saying that I’m not going to argue that the music listening experience is tangibly better, at least on the surface, than Spotify or Apple Music – the listener experience of streaming apps, at least as it pertains to finding and listening to music is pretty great (and the presence of acres of classic albums is in stark contrast to the new music focus of Bandcamp). But there’s no economic model there that works for niche music unless you use it to cross promote touring/merch/sales elsewhere/patreon, and they really don’t foreground the relationship between artists and audiences, and that REALLY doesn’t work for me. So I’m going to steer away from doing comparisons with streaming platforms for the most part, if that’s OK…

So let’s jump in with what Bandcamp gives me as a listener. When I first started buying music on Bandcamp, there was no app and the driving USP was HD downloads. With the advent of the app in 2013, Bandcamp added a whole other level of portability to both carrying your Bandcamp collection with you and to discovery. The collection part is pretty simple – everything you’ve bought on Bandcamp is there in the app, and can be streamed. Anything you’ve streamed is cached, so you can also use it on planes/the Underground, and you can either search your own collection to find things or sort the list by date added, a-z, most played or ‘history’ (what you’ve most recently played).

For each album, as well as being able to play it, you can access sleeve notes, if the artist has added any, and lyrics, read reviews by other people who’ve bought it, add your own review, browse the rest of the artist’s catalogue, and buy those – for yourself or as gifts for other people. What’s more, your collection is public on the Bandcamp site or in the app via your avatar under any album you’ve bought. So people can browse your record collection as they might when coming to your house, and (this is a really lovely touch) if they buy it after finding it through you, you get a ‘hey! you made something awesome happen!’ email from Bandcamp telling you who bought what. Which is just wonderful, and offers some useful data on just how much internal discovery within the site is worth if you can encourage your listeners to review things and make a bit of a fuss about their Bandcamp collections…

The other pure joy for me of the app is how it handles subscriptions – any time one of the artists I’m subscribed to releases a new album it’s immediately there in the app ready for me to stream, as well as available for HD download. Truth be told, I do a huge amount of my listening these days via the Bandcamp app – the streaming quality is easily good enough not to be distracting, and I just don’t get that much time to hook up my hard drive with my iTunes folder on it to a DAC and speakers… But I cherish that those HD versions are there, for good. They are mine for ever. This isn’t rented access to a bunch of metadata overlaid on a ginormous catalogue by a company lobbying to pay the artists as little as they can possibly get away with.

Instead, it’s a service that values ownership, values connecting listeners with the artists whose music soundtracks our lives, does discovery by a range of mechanisms that subvert the bland top-heaviness of an unfiltered popularity contest, but instead focus on what they describe as ‘high friction sharing’ – sending you an email digest every few days of thing things that your friends have Actually Paid For. Anyway, back to subscriptions. I get to hear from the people I’m subscribed to directly in the app. They can post messages and video and photos to either accompany the releases or just to fill me in on what’s going on, and I can comment on those posts and offer encouragement or join a discussion. It’s a joy to carry these extensive catalogues of work around with me and get to know the work of lesser known artists with the same level of detail and obsession as is often reserved for ‘legendary’ acts.

I spend hundreds of pounds a year on music, the vast majority of it on Bandcamp. A lot of what I buy I could get from a streaming service, but I would then a) not have it to download, and would be paying the company each month for the joy of having potential access to it all, and b) would be guaranteeing that the only artists whose sustainability I was contributing to were the ones I listened to pretty much non-stop, to the exclusion of all others – while my subscription fee also subsidised royalty payments to the world’s richest pop stars.

Buying albums is a model based on a bygone era when recorded music came exclusively in a container, limited by the length of audio that would fit on your format of choice. But it did give us a way of pragmatically agreeing on  a rough per-listener value for an hour of (repeatable) music. Against that, we can think about how much new music we have time for, and how we go about making sure that the artists we care about get to keep making it. We can release it in ways that seem like a total bargain, but still make us literally hundreds of times more than equivalent interactions on Streaming platforms.

In short, Bandcamp

  • Connects me to the artists,
  • Gives me the tools to interact with them and with the music in friendly ways,
  • Makes it possible to share without forcing adverts on the people I’m sharing it with or making them sign up for an account,
  • Gives me the music to archive long term,
  • And means I’m on the artists’ mailing list whether or not Bandcamp ever goes supernova (you know that if Spotify ever folds, everything you’ve curated there is gone, right? Renting access is great for convenience, but not so good for digital ecology).
  • Provides an open and transparent model that means I KNOW the vast majority of the money I’m paying is going to the artist, and the rest is building the most robust and artist-friendly environment for music sustainability the internet has yet had.

Anyway, the invitation to be a part of the ongoing viability of the music I love by artists I care about, and to discover more of it through the actual taste of the people I follow on there via my fan account (as opposed to a bunch of links they might share to music by their friends or other bands they’re doing promo-swaps with) is an amazing and beautiful thing, and dovetails really well with my own focus on needing music by artists who are trying to make sense of the world as it is, rather than spending my music listening time wallowing in nostalgia in the vague hope that the soundtrack to my teens will stave off the dread of my ever encroaching sense of mortality.

Nope, I want to connect with what people are making now, songs about the world, music inspired by all that we can do and all that we can see. And to make more of it possible. I tweeted a while ago that on Bandcamp, the value proposition is best understood as as ‘buying this album’ but ‘making the next one possible’. Arguments about what music is ‘worth’ are less interesting than questions about how we make more of the music we care about possible. Tomorrow, I’ll write about what Bandcamp means for me as an artist – the flip side of this equation… Til then, have a listen to some of the music dotted throughout this piece, or have a rummage in my Bandcamp fan collection.

How I Use The MOD Duo Pedal

Having posted a new gear page the other day, I’ve been thinking how best to represent the complexity of how I use my whole set up. The plan is to blog about different aspects of it that deserve expansion, and then link to the these blog posts from the gear page. Hopefully it’ll shed a little more light on how some of this stuff works.

I will say that the fullest exploration of my pedal set-up so far is in two of the courses that I’ve filmed for scottsbasslessons.com – the looping one and the pedals and effects one. If you’re a member there, make sure you watch those lessons!

So our first post here is going to be about the MOD Devices Duo. For almost 20 years, my main effects processor was a Lexicon MPX-G2 – despite all the leaps forward in processing power and modelling technology, until I came across the Duo, I hadn’t found anything that felt like a significant step forward from that. What I love the most about the Duo is that the signal path is configurable in any imaginable routing combination. Here’s my main pedalboard: 

If you click on it and have a look at how the signal flows through it, you’ll see a couple of interesting things – firstly the octaver runs parallel to all the overdrive, envelope filtering and modulation – so the sub octave remains clean no matter what is happening to the normal octave signal. There are definitely times when running an octaver into an overdrive can sound really cool, and I have the MXR Sub Octave Bass Fuzz on my pedal board before the Duo to deal with that. Here, I have an amazing clean sub bass signal available no matter what level of craziness is happening on top.

Then, you can see that the Shiro shimmer reverb – bottom right, pale blue – is in another side chain, with a switch before it to turn the signal going to it on and off, but not to cut off the reverb. It’s set to 60 seconds of decay, so if I send a signal into it, then cut it off, the reverb continues to sound for a whole minute before disappearing. This means I can use it to set up big synth-like chords and then play melodies or chords against it, without having to loop the whole ambient part first. I can have it evolve over time, making for much more complex interaction – I can send individual notes from whatever else I’m playing into the 60 second shimmer verb, becoming part of the harmony of that ambient pad.

The only pedal after the Duo in my pedal set up is the MXR Reverb, which I actually use in a similar way to the Shimmer verb – I have it set up in ‘buffered bypass’ mode, so that when I turn it off, any reverb tail that’s current sounding will continue to play and gradually fade, and I can continue to play without affecting that. It’s like it has a parallel path within it, and I can switch the signal to go through it or past it. A very very useful setting that exists on a number of time-based effects pedals though not all.

I have other patches that use this process in far more complex ways, which maybe I’ll write about and screengrab in the future, but for now, hopefully that gives some clue as to what’s going on. The Duo offers so many possibilities, with its library of several hundred pedals that can be inserted into any board that all come free with it (there are a handful of paid pedals, many of which I’ve bought and are incredible, but the vast majority are free). combining them, and even being able to have synths in the same patch as direct signal processing, makes the Duo easily my favourite multi-FX unit I’ve ever used.

I control it with the Keith McMillen Softstep 2 foot controller, and have 8 buttons that I can assign to turn things on and off, as well as one continuous controller pedal for wah, volume and reverb level… (the Softstep is also controlling the Looperlative, and could also control any other MIDI think I might add to the set-up!) I’ve also got my old phone set up as a MIDI-over-USB controller, but haven’t got that hooked up at the moment! There are only so many things I can think about at one time!

I hope that’s a useful explanation. If you want to hear this board in action, check out my video for the track Divinity DT & Daniel  which uses this exact board, or the one for The Field Of Strategic Possibilities which uses it for the first 7 mins, before I switch to a different pedal board (you can see where that happens in the video 🙂 ) – both of these tunes, and 47 (FORTY SEVEN!) other albums are available from my Bandcamp subscription the moment you sign up… There’s an awful lot of applied signal processing to explore there 🙂