Exposure ≠ Success

So the old theory goes that Success breeds Success.

On the internet, it’s clear that Exposure breeds exposure.

However, what few people pursuing the viral marketing plan seem to have thought about is that Exposure ≠ Success – Exposure for the sake of exposure, or the need for it, is a sign of a weirdly narcissistic streak (not of the altogether-different-benign-form – that’s to be encouraged!).

Viral Marketing was a buzz phrase a couple of years ago, and everyone got the idea that you could spread the message about something by coming up with some cool video on youtube, applying the JK Rowling endorsed set of magic tags that make people find it and love it no matter what, and immediately you’re a star.

And a few people became stars, though the notable ones felt their lives were screwed up by it, and the most successful ones involved homemade videos of people having sex (which, surely have to have been sanctioned by the people involved to have been circulated on supposedly reputable sites, no??) – so those are either an unspeakably hideous and criminal invasion of privacy or a really cynical marketing ploy by people whose career path wouldn’t allow them to do ‘proper’ porn, but is such that they’re happy to debase themselves to that degree…

Anyway, that’s clearly not what this is about… The point is – off the back of the stuff about MySpace – that it’s easy to get obsessed with exposure by confusing it with success. The point where random exposure to a worthless product spills over into product sales is well into the millions… Spam principle. So just added any old person on myspace or putting up videos on Youtube and assuming that 10s of thousands of views mean you’ve ‘made it’ is a false economy. Because there’s no economy – exposure is it’s own capital, it doesn’t lead to click-throughs automatically, and certainly not to sales or gig attendance (for musicians) – UNLESS THE PRODUCT IS WORTH BUYING IN AND OF ITSELF.

I’ve done loads of reading these last few weeks about marketing and promotion and web 2.0 and file sharing and blahblahblah etc. etc. Much of it brilliant in its observational skill. But what very little of it bothers to say is that things of value are more likely to sell themselves that worthless shit. Bringing it closer to home, I could post a bunch of how to slap/tap/twiddle bass tutorials on Youtube, and they’d probably get thousands and thousands of hits. But all they’d generate is a bunch of disgruntled teenagers complaining that the stuff they found of mine on bittorrent didn’t sound like that. It wouldn’t connect with my core audience… ANY audience is better than no audience, but you’ve got to find the right audience for it count as anything other than externally worthless exposure-capital.

Which is a very long winded way of saying I WISH SHIT RAPPERS FROM THE STATES WOULD QUIT TRYING TO ADD ME ON MYSPACE!!!!!

Phew, glad that’s off my chest. :o)

more on filtering out 'junk-music' in a digital age…

In this post from a couple of days ago, commenting on the need to find ways to filter for quality at a time when it seems financial constraints may end up providing less of an incentive to seek out great music to buy, I finished by saying,

“Which only goes to say that we need filters. It doesn’t prove the monetary filters are the only ones, or even the best ones, but it does suggest that we need a way of making sure we doing overdose on junk-music.

And of course, those filters are already there, and I use them. The two i use are Last.Fm and Emusic. Last.fm offers a few different services that can help you discover new music, as well as the option to listen before spending money… firstly, there’s the radio stations, stations that are digitally programmed according to your taste, the tastes of people who like similar things to you, or by the taste of people who happen to also be fans of a particular band, or use a particular tag, so the level of randomness in relation to your own recorded playlists is affected by which of those radio options you choose, and how much listening time you’ve logged. Still, it’s an amazing site, which provides purchasing links with all the artists, data for tracking live music details, tools for blogging about music, forums for connecting with music fans connected by musical or extra-musical interests and a host of other things to make researching music fun.

Emusic is a very different formula, in that it is primarily a shop. The difference being that you ‘subscribe’ for a certain amount per month, and get a certain number of fairly high quality DRM free downloads for your fee. In my case, I get 50 tracks a month for £11.99 – which is about the standard price of a single CD in a specialist music shop. If you happen to like styles of music where the artists record long songs, you can get a heck of a lot of mileage for your money (for example, you could get almost all of the Jonas Hellborg back catalogue with 50 downloads, as few of his albums feature more than 5 or 6 tracks).

This month, I’ve just downloaded John Patitucci’s latest album, ‘Line By Line‘ (which is playing as I write, and is excellent), Gary Willis’ newest project, ‘Slaughterhouse 3‘ (marvellous heavy avant-fusion), and a glorious Kenny Wheeler record called ‘It Takes Two!‘, which I can already tell is going to be become a huge favourite. 3 amazing albums I would have been unlikely to buy on CD, but which I found on emusic via review and recommendation. You see, every artist and album has links next to it to things listened to by people who like that. You also get recommendations via friends and again via digitally compiled lists of users with similar data to your own. The option is there to listen (though the M3U playlist system used to preview music is clumsy and a pain in the arse), or you can just download a couple of tracks and see how you get on.

Both great filters, highly recommended. if you want to find me on either of them, at last.fm my listener page is here and my artist page is here. For emusic, my listener page is here and the place for downloading my music is here.

I really like the emusic model for downloading and paying for music – you’re paying a fraction of the cost of what you would for a CD, but you’re also committing to a certain level of investment each month in the ongoing success of recorded music. Everybody Wins!

"this is grate!! I'v Never herd enyting this good!!"

The title of this blog post (and the idiosyncratic spelling therein) is taken from a note that was given to me at the end of my gig in Hounslow on Friday night by a young kid – a girl of about 7 or 8, I guess. It’s pretty remarkable for a girl of that age (or boy) to think, even fleetingly, that a solo bass gig is the best thing she’s ever heard. Her mother’s a very creative musician, but it’s still pretty remarkable, and delighted me.

As I’ve said before, impressing bass players is pretty simple in the moment. Youtube is full of videos of bassists who can impress other bassists with their speedy circus tricks but who aren’t selling any records because watching a low res vid online is all you need to take all there is from that kind of thing. It’s telling that two of the three videos of mine on there that have got the most views (here and here) are the ones that are ‘funky’, instant, poppy… Youtube isn’t much of a medium for moody introspective ambient stuff (for one thing, the file quality is so low that the lushness of big ambient stuff really doesn’t come across). This isn’t to dis bassists as an audience, (or indeed to dis technically difficult high energy music just because it has those qualities) just that impressing bassists with solo bass stuff is definitely going to be easier than a non-bass audience.

But anyway, I digress… The point was, it’s great to have kids connecting with what I do. I remember receiving an email years ago from a guy who said that mine was the only one of his CDs that his kids would let him play in the car… again, rather nice validation. I’ve had a week of playing to non-bass-playing audiences, and it’s been really nice. Sharing the bill with mainly acoustic acts of varying quality from the very good to the very poor indeed (particularly the one guy in Reading trying desperately to be funny by just swearing loads and writing hideously tasteless pastiche pieces about Diana’s death… total shit.) And getting a mixture of reactions from ‘wow, love what you do, will you come and open for my band?’ to people for whom it just really wasn’t their kind of thing, which is also fine (like I could change it even if I thought it wasn’t?)

Where does this tie in with the current stuff on file-sharing/musician’s revenue etc? Well, tonight’s gig was a jazz trio gig, with Luca Sirianni on guitar and Davide Giovannini on drums. Davide is a really really great drummer, such a joy to play with, and very generous in his playing. There were certain things I would go for in some of the tunes that I’d miss, and Davide was always there to make my screwing up sound intentional. We got into some really lovely grooves and ideas, but it was half way through the second set that I really hit my stride. Which got me thinking about two things – practice and the value of full time musicians. One of the possible outcomes of the file-sharing/free downloads etc. scenario is that a lot of musicians who currently make enough to live on through the recorded music sales combined with live stuff etc. are going to have to get day gigs because that revenue stream will be cut. If that happens, the world will be a poorer place, because there are some musical skills – and certain musical minds that require full time dedication to come to fruition. I’d be a much more accurate groove player if I was doing it every day, if I was in a place to practice it and gig that stuff every day. As it is, I’m good at it anyway, but that extra 5 or 10% that most of the audience wouldn’t know is missing, would make the different between me being a very good groove player and a great groove player.

As a side point – one of the things I was scared of when I started playing solo bass was that it would ruin my ability to play in bands, that somehow my normal bass playing would fall apart, when actually, quite the opposite is true. My relationship with sound is so much more advanced now than it was before I started playing solo, my appreciation for simple lines doing their job, the nuance with which I can hear and employ tiny variations in technique to make a line head in the direction I want it to go in… all of those things are better because I’ve spent years focusing on playing the best music I can possibly play on bass. The things above aren’t things that are spoiled by solo bass, they’re just dexterity things that it takes one a few songs to fall into comfortably…

But anyway, the point was, there are a lot of musicians on the edge of being able to pay the bills right now, for whom the time and head-space they have to devote to music making as full time musicians is vital to their music making process. It’s not that anyone has the right to make money through music – the selling of music is a commercial business after all, and subject to the same degree of liberalisation as any other sales business – but it’s just another factor that’s worth considering when thinking about where music and musicians go from here.

For me personally, I’ve never made enough from just gigging to live on. Never made enough from just teaching to live on. Never made enough from just writing to live on. Never made enough from just CDs/Downloads to live on. All of those combined have meant that thus far I’ve been able to pay my way, keep a roof over my head, and stay fed and clothed. If the recorded music revenue vanishes, I’d have to think where else that short-fall might be made up… It’s quite possible that the increased exposure one would receive from giving music away would result in an increase in gigs (and quite possibly an increase in teaching work, given that I do occasionally get people who’ve heard the records first and then come for lessons…) I’ve yet to see any evidence that that’s true, but I’m open to the possibility…

Whatever, these are all just musings and ponderings in uncertain times. Potentially exciting times – I likes me some progress, I do – but I’m just not convinced that that discussion is currently factoring in much other than ‘people are already downloading music for free, deal with it’, which just seems a bit clumsy to me…

File sharing and the musical diet…

Been doing lots of gigs that I’ll blog about in later on this evening – just running out the door to another gig – but a couple of thoughts first on the relationship between file sharing and musical diet. Specifically in relation to the value we place on things that cost us money.

Back when I had very little money (ooh, that’ll be, um, about an hour ago?) – no, VERY little money, when I was living in Lincoln and earning student-grant-level wages (oh yes, young peoples, there was a time when the government actually GAVE you money to go and study… not a huge amount of money, but it was a grant not a loan, so when you left university, you were free to head off and do idealistic things like VSO or working in a community art project for a year, instead of taking the highest paid job you possibly can just to pay off your £30,000 debt. Oh, how times have changed.) – back then, I had an odd mixture of fearless abandon and meticulous selection when it came to choosing the music I parted with cash for. I was pretty fearless as to the style of what I was buying – might be prog, might be free jazz, might be electropop, orchestral, metal, punk, indie, acoustic – whatever. But because i had limited funds, it had to be great. it had to be the best of its kind. I learnt pretty quick that the recommendations of magazines like Q and the NME were pretty much worthless as they tended to relate to the current coolness factor of a band or project, rather than its status against the canon of work with its field. There were a couple of Q reviewers whose opinion intrigued me, but most of the time when I was swayed by a review, I ended up being disappointed. So I stopped doing that. But it meant that I had a hugely varied record collection, but also one where I had top notch stuff in each category, much of which I carry with me to today, both in terms of affection and influence.

I suspect, had I had much more money, I would have bought in a much less considered way – I’m sure being a Child Of Peel, I would still have had the eclecticism, but I’d have gone out and bought everything. I loved music. I still do. I adore the process of making it, listening to it, thinking about it, imagining what it can be… Without the constraints of availability and cost, I may have ended up with a much bigger collection that less filtered in terms of quality, and where I was less familiar with much of the material. Having recently started listening to much of my vinyl collection again via the magic of the digital realm, I’ve been really surprised at how much of my record collection I know pretty much word for word. Most of the Smiths, The Cure, Lloyd Cole, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, The Pixies, The The… even Yes and Genesis records, I can sing along to with a level of memory much higher than almost anything that’s been released in the last 8 or 9 years. What happened 8 or 9 years ago? I started making more money, and – crucially – started being sent LOADS of Cds for review, or just because bassists wanted me to have their CD, wanted my endorsement. So my listening got far less precious, and it took me quite a while to start to filter out the wasted time.

It’s not that I don’t listen to unknown quantities any more, it’s just that I’m much more choosy again about what I spend my listening time on. Thanks to the miracle of the iPod, I have way more listening time now that I’ve had for about a decade, so I’m getting back into a routine of four-square-musical-meals-a-day. Digesting music, mulling it over, repeat listening, listening to two or three albums by the same artist back to back. Making sure that I get from it what I need, what I want, what is there to be had.

In the last couple of days I’ve listened to a lot of Kelly Joe Phelps and a lot of John Coltrane. And I’m thinking about my own music in the light of how their music makes me feel. And it’s exciting to think where it’ll go as a result. And being excited about music is vital. Excitement is the life-blood of the process. Getting worked up about the joy of making music, being inspired by great music, being in awe of great musicians and writers and wordsmiths and storytellers. It’s all good, very good. And it’d be a tragedy to see it disappear into a world where total access to any music meant that those filters weren’t there.

Which only goes to say that we need filters. It doesn’t prove the monetary filters are the only ones, or even the best ones, but it does suggest that we need a way of making sure we doing overdose on junk-music.

File Sharing III – a response to Jeff Schmidt…

Jeff Schmidt – fab solo bassist and all-round lovely chap – has posted his thoughts on file sharing, new models for distribution and the futility of milking the old ways of doing things on his blog.

It’s a thought provoking post, with a lot of great stuff in it. Definitely worth a read for anyone considering these issues (and while you’re reading, download his album off BitTorrent ;o) )

There are a couple of things he says that I want to pick up on, particularly this couplet – at the beginning of his post, he states,

“I pay for a lot of music – A LOT. I get a lot for free too. Me and millions of other people…Personally, most of the music I’ve obtained for free is music that I had zero intention of buying in the first place.”

and then later on says,

“…the old system allowed us to mistake the VALUE of the old distribution system for the value of the music itself…In other words – the artificial scarcity created by the old system inflated (or “added to” if you prefer) the value of the music…P2P and open distribution hasn’t devalued music as Willis and many others suggest.”

To which I’d say that the first statement suggests that P2P HAS VERY DEFINITELY DEVALUED MUSIC. The point of the second quote was to point out that the monetary value of a bit of recorded music was abitrary, imposed and regulated by the industry, and the value was not inherent. However, what it caused – intentionally or otherwise – was a situation where we didn’t bother to listen to music we thought was shit because we’d have had to pay for it – even the music we borrowed from friends required them to have bought it, so a level of quality control filtering was taking place. We were listening to music that someone in our immediate peer group had deemed worthy of financial outlay.

And as a result, we cherished our vinyl collections. The release days of certain albums back in the day are firmly etched in my mind – I even remember queuing at a record shop in Lincoln to get King’s X‘ album Dogman on cassette! I had no money at all at that point – I earned less in my first year in Lincoln that I’d got on my student grant, and very little more the year after, but still would happily go without new clothes or other ‘essentials’ to be able to carry on BUYING records. And every new album was lovingly played. I took some risks on what I bought, but nothing was considered disposable.

Fast forward to now, and I get a lot of music for free, legally – being in the industry means I get sent a lot. Being a writer for magazines means I’m on a lot of journalist lists, and even when I email the labels and say that I can’t in all good conscience pretend to be a reviewer, i still get sent the CDs. But I don’t value them the same way, I don’t tend to cherish getting new stuff through the post, (unless I get prerelease copies – that always feels special. I’ve got a CDR of Tony Levin‘s wonderful album Waters Of Eden, and even the title is different, I got it so far before it was released. That’s a fairly treasured CD…)

My point in all of this is to highlight that free music not only messes things up for musicians who are trying to cling onto the last vestiges of a failing 20th century model of wealth creation from music, but it also makes it much less likely that we will value MUSIC to the point where we don’t put up with mediocre music. Why on earth does Jeff even bother downloading music he wouldn’t buy? Who knows (I’m sure he’ll let us know) – there are legal ways to ‘try before you buy’ – every music buying site has at least 30 second clips to check out and make sure you’re not accidentally getting a death metal album which you thought was a ukrainian folk album. Some even give away sample tracks, so you can hear an entire piece rather than doing the musical equivalent of assessing the Mona Lisa by looking at her forhead and a bit of the background.

So no-one needs to do any research anymore. The only recommendations we get are lazy ‘download this’ ones. Because the recommendation isn’t going to cost us anything, it’s not valued, and it’s not given with any sense of trepidation. When I recommend music here, I do so in the knowledge that there are a bunch of people who take my recommendations seriously and will quite often go and BUY the music I recommend. I take that responsibility very seriously. I only suggest music I think is worthy of cash outlay. I don’t recommend friends who are lovely but not particularly great musicians, as I want my recommendation to still be worth spending money on.

And this may also be why Jeff’s beloved radio is dying on its arse, particularly in the US – who needs to go to the radio to hear new music when a) radio isn’t breaking new artists and b) anything can be downloaded. We get lazy and we cease to give a shit, and all of us as much poorer for it.

A commenter on yesterday’s post on this subject said “the only thing that matters in this regard is whether a musician wants to devote energy towards stopping illegal downloading or towards encouraging his or her music to propagate”. The problem with this is that recorded music ceases to have value in an of itself. It becomes an advert for your live show, your other merch etc. The art of making records dies. It becomes the art of making adverts. I don’t want to make adverts. I want to make records that stand on their own. And as long as there are people that want to listen to that music, irrespective of whether I go out and play that music live, we need to come up with a model where I can afford to live whilst making it.

It may be that I have to make money elsewhere in music to be able to do that as a side project, but why the hell would I or anyone else do that? Where does that leave us when one’s deepest creative urges (and consequently our most valuable creative statement to the listener) are marginalised because the means of making a living from it is removed. I don’t want that to be the case for the artists whose recorded output I cherish, and for whom making records is a wholly different musical pursuit from documenting what they’re going to do live so that you can check it out before forking out for a ticket (fuck it, why not just let yourself in through the fire exit of the venue? After all, they’ll be playing the show whether you pay for the ticket or not…)

I wonder if we’ll end up with music like that being a new form of subscription service. This already exists to a degree with that site where you can pledge to pay for an album before it’s even been recorded, and when the band reaches a certain level of funding they go in and make the record… But I have to say that as a creative idealist, I still don’t like the idea of making records for a market like that. I make the music I make because I have to make it, it’s what I do, it’s who I am. There are people who like listening to it. Quite a lot of them, it seems. Therefor, in order for me to keep doing it, to get better at it, to develop and grow as a creator of music, there needs to be some way for them to keep the supply of music happening.

I’ve already chosen to forgo earning big money by choosing to be a solo bassist – it ain’t going to ever make me rich. I’m earning less than I would as a training manager in McDonalds. But I guess the quandary for us as listeners is – are we prepared for the art of making records to shift away from being the central focus of the music lives of the people who are currently very good at it, but need lots of time and money to be able to do what they do, and are we happy that we now look back nostalgically at the feeling we had when a new album came out by a favourite band when we were kids and we had to invest something of value for which we had to calculate a real cost, but that we just don’t get when we unzip a file we pulled off Bit Torrent?

Thoughts on File Sharing – an addendum

Via the very wonderful Andrew Collins blog, I’ve just found out that there’s a 45p admin fee for the Radiohead album, so added the following edit in the middle of the previous post –

[EDIT – they’re also, crucially, charging a 45p admin fee. Crucial because it covers their costs of hosting and download, and also perhaps even more so because YOU HAVE TO PUT YOUR CARD DETAILS IN… actually I’m going to go and write a new post about this…]

Let me expand on the bit about card details a little, as it pertains to online sales. Online sales patterns are definied entirely by ease of use. The more clicks and details people have to put in, the more people fall away part way through the process. My shop application is terrible for this, because it requires you to take, ooh, about 90 seconds to get through to the checkout. That, in the world of the interwebs, is about 70 seconds too long. I’m talking with various geek friends about creating a paypal only three click download store. My guess is that my download sales would at least quadruple, because for people who use their paypal account regularly (so the email and password filed auto-complete) it really would be three clicks to the download.

Zencart – the application I use for all this stuff – is really cool. It’s feature heavy, means I can have group discounts and free shipping over certain amounts and all kinds of fancy schmancy stuff. But because of all of that, it also requires a fair amount of info to run. If I knew more about PHP and could be bothered, I’d have transfered my entire site into it – it has the option to integrate with phpBB, the software that runs my forum, so I could’ve had a one-stop registration for mailing list, shop, forum, and made it much easier for peoples to interact and shop all in one (if you’re a musician thinking of a major redesign, and the person doing it knows php well, it’s worth considering!) I’ve seen a few sites that feature that level of integration, though they looked more bespoke than that.

But anyway, the point is, that Radiohead are getting people’s financial details is a really smart move, and also means that the difference between paying 45p for it (about 90c US) or paying £7 is one number change in the buying process. Vital in these click-lazy times.

Oh, and apparently, The Charlatans are giving away their new album via the XFM radio website. I wonder how much XFM are paying Alan McGee, who runs the bands label, Creation, for the right to host the tracks? Even if it’s the 45p admin fee that Radiohead are charging the public, you’re looking at a heck of a lot of very cheap publicity for the Charlatans, XFM and Creation Records with the media-hungry McGee at the helm. [EDIT, apparently they aren’t signed to Creation – Creation no longer exists! (nice one Steve, way to go with the up to date information) – they were/are signed to Sanctuary, and McGee is managing them… Same deal, given that he still needs to get paid for being their manager, but worth an edit… /]

McGee’s posit, that recorded music is now just a vehicle for getting people to gigs, is great for a band like the Charlatans, who’ve been around for close to 20 years and have a substantial live following. For smaller bands, or bands who’s style of music costs lots of time and money to make but doesn’t translate well to the live arena, it’s like handing them a P45 and saying ‘sorry, you’re no longer allowed to make money from this industry, go get a day job and muck about with fruityloops in your spare time…’ – less time to make music, less time to think about music, less energy and focus to produce music of substance.

BTW, I’m not suggesting that people with day-jobs can’t make great music! Even with the model as it is, it often liberates them from having to play music their don’t believe in in order to live, allowing them to focus on what really gets their creative juices flowing, however uncommercially viable. Cecil Taylor washed dishes through the 60s til he was finally able to make money playing the music he loved, Nels Cline was working in a record store til he joined Wilco a couple of years ago.

So we need to keep talking about this – where do we go from here? More comments?

Thoughts on File Sharing…

Two things in the last day have got me thinking more about what is euphemistically referred to as ‘File Sharing’. Firstly, I was surfing the sites of musicians I knew to be really web-savvy in order to find what they are up to in the way of pushing information out to their fan-base. the first site I went to was Gary Willis‘ site, knowing Gary to have done web design work in the past. I didn’t really find much out to do with information dissemination (other than him not having an RSS feed for his blog), HOWEVER: the one post on his blog thus far is a brilliant rant about file sharing.

Then, today, the announcement was made that Radiohead’s new album would be released in 10 days time – initially only as a download, for which you can pay whatever you think it’s worth, to be followed by a mega-boxed set in December, which will apparently contain the CD, the vinyl version of the album, an extra CD of other songs, and a hard backed book, for £40.

Starting with the Willis piece, he basically explains why ‘file sharing’ is a stupid term for what he called ‘unpaid downloading’, looks at many of the excuses people give to justify taking music from file-sharing services (which now, apparently, account for 40% of all webtraffic) and pulls them apart from the indie musician’s point of view.

And it’s great, persuasive stuff, hopefully causing file-sharers that read it, and care at all about Gary Willis’ music to see that it’s not quite the victimless crime that it’s portrayed as.

But I’m torn. Torn on whether we need to keep fighting it in such a blunt way as writing blog posts about how we’re being ripped off (we are), whether we need to find other ways of changing the culture, or whether we need to accept the mindset and look for glimpses of light.

The Radiohead release is going to be possibly the most important release in the history of downloading music, for a number of reasons:

One, they aren’t actually giving it away. If you hear anyone saying that ‘Radiohead are giving away their new record’, please correct them. They are allowing the audience to decide what it’s worth. That’s a huge difference. [EDIT – they’re also, crucially, charging a 45p admin fee. Crucial because it covers their costs of hosting and download, and also perhaps even more so because YOU HAVE TO PUT YOUR CARD DETAILS IN… actually I’m going to go and write a new post about this…]

Two, they aren’t releasing the download and CD at the same time. What this stops is people circulating massively high resolution copies of the files via BitTorrent that music snobs can claim they have to download because they can’t get the CD (I have sympathies with people who want higher res. downloads, and am planning on adding .FLAC availability to the store soon, but it doesn’t excuse stealing music… I just hope Radiohead release their album at sensible quality…) It means that the only versions of those tracks in existence should be the ones they have released.

Three, they leave the boxed set til later, add more music an a book and the rarity factor as a hook for fans, and release something that generates a whole load more income from ‘the fans’ and gives people something that isn’t downloadable.

Four, they don’t put a fixed charge on the download, meaning that people can pay them a pound for it if they like, which is a pound more than they’d get from Bittorrent, and also cunningly makes people start thinking and having conversations about the value of music. Today, everyone’s been talking about it. Radiohead are still zeitgeist-y enough to generate the conversation in a way that someone tiny like me never could outside of the gorgeous people who post on my forum.

So what will the outcome be? Who knows. They could end up making nowt. It’s possible that the whole thing will backfire, and they’ll be left paying the bandwidth on a load of downloads that they are grossing 30p each for. I really don’t think that’ll be the case, but it’s possible.

The opposite could also be true; that they end up making a shed load on it because people will rise to the occasion, given enough room to be grown up and ethical, people may choose the right thing. The band will then make another killing on the boxed set, and the industry will be left reeling from a band without a deal making millions on very little hard cash outlay (clearly they’ve spent about a pound on the website, cos it’s horrible in a quirky psuedo-post-modern-trying-too-hard kind of way – surely all that text didn’t need to be graphic files – haven’t they heard of CSS?).

What does this mean for the little people – those of us who really aren’t in the position to order even a thousand units of a limited edition boxed set to accompany a release like that? I’ve been spending time and energy on making the CD packaging to my stuff attractive ever since my first album. I’ve never liked jewell cases, and have avoided them, going for something tactile, pretty and collectible. If you’ve got all 6 of my proper CD releases sat in a row on your shelf, they look pretty damned fine (I really should’ve decided on a uniform font for the spines at the start, but my design skills have definitely developed over the years… just don’t mention the Comic Sans on NDFC, I’m embarrassed enough about it already…)

But I still don’t sell anywhere near as many CDs as you’d expect for someone with my level of exposure etc. I get a fair few emails from people who are very familiar with what I do, who clearly haven’t bought the CDs (given that they have to get them from me, or at least from a source that reports back to me on who’s got it…) I’m sure some of you reading this have got copies of my albums from friends… I’m not going to berate you for it – I certainly can’t complain any more about people making illegal copies of my music that I can of anyone else’s. I own a handful of illegally owned copies of stuff, and a whole load of BitTorrent-acquired digital copies of things I’ve got on vinyl (on the assumption that it’s perfectly legal to own digitized copies of music you have on vinyl, or they wouldn’t be able to see USB turntables, no?)

And then today, I release my first download only album – the self-titled Calamateur Vs. Steve Lawson album. Calamateur AKA Andrew and I have jointly put it out, on both of our labels, and are kind of testing the water to see how sales go. It’s been up on iTunes for a couple of weeks, but it takes a couple of months to get any accurate reflection of sales from them. It’s been up on my site for day, but there were a few problems with the code on the site this morning (just cosmetic stuff, to do with the formatting of the text) so if you tried buying it them and got freaked out by the messed up screens, try again.

It’ll be interesting to see how it goes – it’s an album that both Andrew and I are hugely proud of, is clearly rather different from what I normally do, but there’s enough of me in there for it to be familiar to people who listen to what I normally put out. But will people buy the download version instead of a CD? I still sell way more CDs through the shop than I do downloads, though the downloads obviously picked up in popularity when I put the price of the Lessons Learned Cds down from £6 to £2.50 (feel free to go and buy them, they’re really rather fab).

So all eyes are on Radiohead, to see if we have a new model emerging for music sales. What needs to be said over and over again in the course of the dialogue on this stuff between musicians and audience is that

  • making music costs money
  • being really good at your instrument takes time
  • if you want great music, you have to be willing to financially invest in the ability of the musicians to spend the time needed to make great music and invest in the technology and technical help required to realise the great music that’s going on in their heads

Any notion that big record labels are putting up money from a limitless supply of cash for everyone to make records with needs to be nixed at the earliest possible moment. It just doesn’t happen like that, even for the bands on labels. I’ve known friends in bands with proper deals, playing arena shows (as the support act) and who were on prime-time TV shows, but were on a retainer of £700 a month.

Part of the mistake that indie musicians have made is to try and be taken seriously by looking like we’re on majors, like our labels have staff (I know quite a few indie musicians with fictitious staff – you know who you are! :o) ) and like we’re doing better financially than we are. Success breeds success, right? Wrong – these days, it breeds contempt, because success=majors=way too much money already=fine for studenty me to download cos I’ve got far less money than you. And that’s probably not how it is at all.

Your comments please, oh mighty peanut gallery of loveliness.