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

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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve’s Top Tips For Running A Live Stream Gig

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

Five Years Of The Bandcamp Subscription!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Subscribe now at stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe

On Reaching Milestones, and The Virtue Of The Small

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.