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.

Why Bandcamp – Part One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short, Bandcamp

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

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

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

New Podcast Interview at Music Tech Fest

Those of you who’ve been around here for a while will remember that I used to do interesting music economy stuff with a gang called New Music Strategies. NMS was originally Andrew Dubber‘s blog from the mid-noughts, on which he launched his utterly ground-breaking ‘Music In The Digital Age‘ eBook. Around 2009 he decided to use the NMS banner to launch what was loosely termed a consultancy, but was just a collective identity for a bunch of people doing smart thinking about the music economy. Our manifesto, such as it was, was ‘more music by more people in more places’, and aside from speaking at conferences and developing each other’s ideas, one of the most tangible NMS outputs was the NMS Podcast that Dubber and I had from 2011-13.

Fast forward to this year, Dubber is now Director of MTF, living in Sweden and post-academia. I’m knee-deep in PhD-land and swimming upstream in the new music economy via the exploration of subscription as a model for sustainability and improvisation in the age of streaming media…

So it was a really good time for a podcast catch-up, and as luck would have it, Dubber now hosts the rather brilliant weekly MTF Podcast. It’s properly recorded – our episode and many others were recorded at the 100th UnConvention in Salford this year – unlike our wine-pizza-ZoomH1-and-conversation approach back in the NMS days, and the result is probably the most succinct document of what I’m up to that has yet been produced (the ScottsBassLessons podcast from 2016 is also worth a listen)

So click here to listen to me on the MTF Podcast. And don’t forget to subscribe while you’re there – it’s a great listen every week.

I hope one day Dubber and I get to revive the podcast – he’s one of my best friends, and I doubt I’d be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for his influence and encouragement back in the late 00s. We filled in for each other on speaking gigs and spent countless hours exploring what the digital age had to offer musicians, and the challenges it presents. In the final analysis, his influence on hundreds of thousands of musicians in the nascent social media era changed the way we do what we do. That he and I got to swap ideas and refine them while having an awful lot of fun is one of the most enjoyable things in my adult life 🙂

New LEYLines Album Coming Soon!

So it’s been a busy few months for solo work – just yesterday, I added two new tracks to an album called ‘Stepping Stones‘ – one of the joys of the subscription model is that I can make more of my process public, and albums like this are a place to gather together the new music that is leading towards becoming a new album. Often, artists will record music then sit on it for weeks or even months before they make a judgement about whether it’s good enough for whatever project it is that they are working on. Here, I’m able to upload those things that I’m considering for the consideration of my subscribers, if that’s interesting to them.

So Stepping Stones is three tracks that I’ve recorded so far while thinking about what this year’s solo studio album might be. They’re recorded exactly the same way as the live albums – all live, no edits, but obviously don’t have the presence of the audience as a factor in the music. Improvisation in front of an audience is a very vulnerable thing, in that the music is entirely dependent on the permission given by the audience to make it (hence the reason I’m looking at this for my PhD!). In the studio, the presence of the audience is actually the conception of the audience as I imagine them. And for me, that’s the subscribers. So I make the music I want to hear, but the latitude that the subscription model offers me to not be working about marketability or how it’ll work on the radio or in Spotify playlists is a very freeing thing. Paradoxically, by relying on the audience’s permission, I end up freer to pursue my own curiosity.

Which brings up to LEYlines – my trio improv project with the great Andy Edwards and Phi Yaan-Zek. We’ve got a number of recordings lined up and ready to go, including LEYlines IV – the first half of our gig last year at Tower Of Song here in Birmingham. We’ve split the gig into two separate albums just because we can. It’s a pretty long chunk of music, so spreading it out makes a lot of sense.

It’ll be released via Phi’s Bandcamp page, and to my subscribers, BUT it won’t be part of the subscriber back-catalogue. So you’ll have to be signed up before it comes out in order to get it. That’ll go for each of the collaborative albums I’m releasing this summer – there are three LEYlines albums, and more music from me, Daniel Berkman and Artemis from our 2014 tour that has already yielded Seeing Sound. Each of these albums will be given to subscribers – it’ll be yours to keep for ever, as a download and in your Bandcamp collection for streaming from the web or the app – but it won’t become part of the vast quantity of music that new subscribers get when they sign up. Miss this, and you’ll have to buy it separately if you want this.

There’s been a large amount of new music in the last couple of months – it’s been a fertile and experimental time for me, with three live albums recorded and released in a month, and my subscribers at various stages of catching up with it all. It’s fine – the joy of the Bandcamp subscription is that you’re not renting access to a catalog that at some point in the future disappears. All of the music is yours, so there’s no time limit on when you have to listen to it buy – it’s a pre-pay model for Steve’s Every Expanding Digital Box Set, and gives you access to a bunch of other stuff as well, most notably the occasional eBook and the ongoing commentary about how and why all of this music exists!

So if you want to get in on that, head to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe to find out what it all entails. The user experience of streaming tech is really good, but as an economic model, it offers precious little to niche, experimental music. The subscription is a sustainable model that has moved on from the rather bogus idea that an album’s-length of music is ‘worth’ £10, and instead looks to find a funding model that makes the continued music-making possible. Please join us 🙂

Tips for Music Students

beyond bass camp picture

Serious about studying music? Here’s some tips. Take or leave them as you find them useful. Your college years are both very limited and very expensive. Don’t waste them:

  • Take extensive notes on everything, (but maybe try and work out a system for sorting through them – two useful resources here and here.) Srsly, there is literally no way that you’ll remember everything important from your classes. Note taking is NOT optional…
  • Record every time you play – video if possible. Review it, learn from it, put the best bits online if that feels useful to you.
  • Collaborate as much as possible – stepping outside your comfort zone can be an amazing learning experience.
  • Get your course work done early – focus on the learning outcomes and marking criteria, hit all of those, then think about the things that your own practice needs to get out of the module.
  • Learn how to write essays – google for advice, there are tons of great articles giving tips on this – there are a couple to get you started here, here and here.
  • Ask questions – never let any teacher make you feel bad about needing more information.
  • Keep a blog – it’s great writing practice, and is a space to try out ideas and start to build an audience. Writing publicly can really help focus your mind on whether your ideas are nonsense or not!
  • If you play an electric instrument, get a headphone amp, carry it with you so  you can practice whenever you get spare time. Swap favourite practice ideas with other students. It also means you won’t be taking up a practice room that a band might need just so you can run scales through an amp. (If you play bass or electronic Drums, get a Backbeat! Headphone amp, IEM pack and wearable subwoofer in one!)
  • Go to gigs – big and small. Support your local scene, get to know who runs the venues and books the shows.
  • Play live as often as possible – gigs, open mics, jam sessions – get out and play.
  • Spend as much time in the studio as possible. If your college has a studio, book any spare time you can in there.
  • Start recording at home, and work on measurable week to week improvement. if all you’ve got to record on is your phone, get better at positioning it in relation to your instrument to get the best sounds you can. Learning to maximise the possible quality of lo-tech recordings will pay MASSIVE dividends down the line.
  • Watch as many tutorials about how to work in the studio as you can.
  • Invest in your music life. Booze and cigarettes are not an investment in your music life. Records, gear, strings, gig tickets, travel to go and play with new people are.
  • Listen to at least one new album (released in the last two years) a week.
  • History matters more than nostalgia – use YouTube to fill in the history of your instrument – look up at least three new-to-you important players a week. It really is the greatest learning resource humanity has yet invented, if only all that genius content wasn’t hidden behind towering mountains of bullshit.
  • Read books. Lots and lots of books. Use the college library, find out about journal access through your course. (your essays WILL be marked down if your only references are blogs – books matter.)
  • Monitor your social media time, but work on your online presence as an artist/professional.
  • Spend precisely no time worrying about music you don’t like. Learn what you need to learn for the course, but cultivate your relationship with the music you’re passionate about. Keep your ears open to new sounds – weird doesn’t necessarily mean bad, often it means unfamiliar…
  • Remember, your peers are not competition, they’re comrades. Learn from everyone, be generous in sharing your own learning. Swap skills with everyone, trade lessons for guitar repairs, studio time for web skills.

What Does It Mean To Do Your Own Thing?

Light and Shade
High and Low
Fast And Slow
Loud and Soft
Harsh and Mellow
Tension and Resolution
Inside and Outside
Sound and Silence

…the spread of options can be seen both in a micro and macro senses. It’s OK (caveat – of course, anything’s OK, it’s your creative practice here… but Imma try not to get bogged down in overly-explanatory language) to say ‘actually, my role within the scope of things happening in my field is to explore only shade.’ You don’t have to do everything or be everything. Your art is not a school science project to be graded on a set of learning outcomes.

BUT. As orthodoxies and modes of practice within particular disciplines emerge and coalesce around a limited set of expressive options, the invitation is built into that to transgress, explore, colour outside the lines, stay INSIDE the lines when everyone else is going nuts… Your practice is yours, but it exists within an ecosystem that’s partly of your own choosing and partly in the perception and experience of your audience. You can opt to ignore that and be ‘true to yourself’ or however you want to frame it, but when everyone is ploughing the same furrow, your seemingly radical notions are seen in that light.

An example – when I first started playing solo with a looper, a ton of (obviously inexperienced) people thought I’d invented it. Like I was the first person to ever do that. Even to those who had come across it before as an idea, there were very few who could name another solo artist using a looper, and even fewer who had ever seen someone play like that. It was, in short, a killer gimmick. I used to do this schtick where in the second tune in my set (back when I played compositions with actual names n shit) and go to the bar, leaving all the loops running. The trick was that it didn’t sound like just a loop going round and round, but because I had enough unsynced loops going, it could sustain interest as a performance without me adding anything for the 90-120 seconds it took me to go the bar, get a drink and rejoin my toys on stage. Ta-daaaa! 

By the time KT Tunstall appeared on Jools, that gimmick was dead. It was no longer a big reveal. A ton of people were looping by then, Imogen Heap was doing amazing shit with it, and YouTube was happening so people could see all the old footage of Michael Manring and David Torn and David Friesen and Eberhard Weber and Robert Fripp and Bill Frisell and a ton of other people doing extraordinary looping-enhanced performances from WAY before I started doing it… If I’d stuck with the gimmick, with the fact that for my audience it had been a new and novel thing, I’d still be wearing those clown shoes now and be looking like a massive bellend. When Lo and I did a gig with Ed Sheeran in 2007/8, he still had this whole ‘look at me, I’m looping!’ moment in his set. We were on before him, with a much more sophisticated take on the whole looping thing and it stole the thunder out from that moment. However, he had a ton more going for him, so it didn’t spoil his gig at all – he wasn’t reliant on that gimmick for ‘the sell’. (And he was about 12 or something at the time. His mum picked him up after the gig 🙂 )

Anyway, be aware of the way the wind is blowing, and take note of prevailing trends and orthodoxies. If you stick with them, you’ve got to do them in a way that makes your work something other than a hazy reflection of someone else’s work. Doing your own thing doesn’t require you to be wilfully obscure. Conspicuous originality is a deeply overrated and misunderstood notion. Plagarism is, after all, way harder than you imagine. But it also takes

  • some deliberate intent
  • some deep breaths and a commitment to an exploration that might not come to much immediately
  • to be able to go out on a limb and build on those other innovations
  • to take your art to a new place, to see the thing that’s happening from a alternate vantage point
  • To bring your life, experience, skills and curiosity to bear on what’s going on in your field.

All of those things can be fed, nurtured and brought into your work in fascinating ways. There are no guarantees of brilliance or acclaim or financial reward (in fact, the opposite is demonstrably the case, that by far the biggest chunk of money in the arts economy goes to the safe and the derivative, with a number of notable exceptions) but as human beings, doing mediocre things for money is how we got in this mess in the first place. There is no creative or artist reason to pursue anything less than excellence. Now, go be extraordinary – even if you miss, the journey will be worth it.