Streaming Exclusive – Steve Lawson and Michael Manring album!

Yesterday was Michael Manring’s birthday (Happy birthday Michael!)

To celebrate, I’m making our duo album – which is still only available to own via my Bandcamp subscription – streamable for a limited time. Here it is:

“Language Is A Music” was recorded at a house concert in San Jose on January 29th 2012 – it was, like everything Michael and I have ever played together, entirely improvised – no discussion of start points etc. (I wasn’t even sure we were going to play an entire duo show – when we got to Bob and Kelly’s house and were setting up, I said ‘shall we do solo sets and then some duo playing at the end?’ and Michael said ‘nah, let’s just play it all duo!’ – I think we did a solo tune or two each somewhere in there, but this was the bulk of the show!) 

If you want to get this album, along with 47 (or so) others, and everything else I release in the coming year, subscribe via Bandcamp.

 

Fun With Field Recordings And Found Sound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why Bandcamp: Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 🙂

Happy Fourth Birthday To my Bandcamp Subscription!

Today is the fourth anniversary of the launch of my subscription!

It’s easily been the best decision of my entire recording career to move away from the idea that each 45-60 minute chunk of recorded work requires me to press 1000 CDs, do a massive marketing campaign (‘massive’ is a relative term 😉 ) and then ‘tour’ those tunes.

steve lawson bandcamp subscription releases from 2018


As an improvisor, the result of 20 years of continuous revision of my approach and the equipment that makes it possible, as well as the opportunities I’ve had to play with some truly world class, astonishing musicians, means that I have hours and hours of remarkable music piled up that needs an outlet. And the subscription gives me the ‘headroom’ to release it all.

Click here to see everything that’s on offer in the subscription!


The number of subscribers who avidly consume everything I put out the moment it’s released is pretty small – people’s lives don’t accommodate that, which is why it’s only £30, not some £200 a year uber-exclusive club for obsessives. It’s pitched so that people who want to dip in and out can do so at a price that makes it easier than buying individual albums, that gives them access to video and the occasional eBook or transcription that otherwise aren’t available…


The subscribers are a truly amazing and beautiful part of this experiment to see another way of making and sharing music in a sustainable way online. What does the internet make possible that previous models didn’t? This is one exploration of that, and I want to give a massive thank you and a virtual hug to everyone who’s been a part of this so far – every collaborator, every subscriber, current or lapsed (I explicitly chose Bandcamp so people had the choice to unsubscribe and still keep all the music – this is not a ‘rental’ scheme to trap people, I’d rather feel the motivation to continue making it valuable for existing subscribers year on year…)


Here’s to the next four years!!


(massive shout out to Andy Edwards, Phi Yaan-Zek, Bryan Corbett, Corey Mwamba, Robert Logan, Rich Brown, Poppy Porter, Pete Fraser, Julie Slick, Jem Godfrey and Michael Manring for their contributions/collaborations and general awesome musical magique! 🙂 )

First Track from Beauty And Desolation by Steve Lawson

If you’ve been following my social media ramblings for the last couple of months, you’ll know that I’ve just finished a new solo album, titled Beauty And Desolation. I’m really happy with how it’s turned out, and I’m really looking forward to it being out there in the world. So here’s the first video from it. The album was all recorded live in the studio, and I’ve got footage of five of the 7 tracks – so this is the actual studio footage of the track being recorded, rather than some kind of elaborate recreation of what’s actually an entirely improvised performance.

Here’s the press release for the album, which has already been re-blogged by the good people of Bass Player Magazine.

STEVE LAWSON: BEAUTY AND DESOLATION

BIRMINGHAM, UK—It doesn’t take much to get Steve Lawson talking about improv, and on the eve of the release of his 27th solo album, Beauty And Desolation, he’s eager to riff on the relationship between improv and the studio. Continue reading “First Track from Beauty And Desolation by Steve Lawson”

Launching the Steve Lawson Listening Club

I’ve just started a new thing as part of my Bandcamp subscription. I’m calling it the Steve Lawson Listening Club, for want of a better name (alternate suggestions welcome!) and it’ll work a bit like a book club but for the music in the subscriber back catalogue offering. Every other week, we’ll take one album from the back catalogue that everyone has, listen to it, I’ll contribute the back story, some context, a bit of extra info about how and why it sounds the way it does, will see if I can dig up photos and video if it was a live gig, and everyone else can pile in with comments, reviews, questions and discussion about that particular album.

This stems from an oft-repeated comment on the subscription which is that there’s more than enough for a subscriber to listen to with the new music that comes out each year (normally somewhere between 8-10 albums, plus a bunch of extra exclusive video content between releases!) that the volume of music that just comes as a bundle with your first year’s subscription is overwhelming in its vastness. I get this for sure, so here’s a way to delve into it.

The discussion will happen via the message feed on the subscription page (as soon as you sign up you get access to all the past messages, exclusive videos and other discussions) and you’re all invited to sign up and join in. Maybe the results will one day get compiled into a book of extended essays and commentary on my body of work 🙂

Anyway, head to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe to join the fun!

Illuminated Loops II out now

 10 Months on from vol 1, Illuminated Loops II has just been released to my Bandcamp subscribers. The Bandcamp subscription is still my main mechanism for releasing (and funding) the music I make – when you sign up, you now get 40 releases straight away. And you also get the next 12 months of music. All for your first year’s subscription. It’s a crazy deal, designed to invite people who are interested in what I’m doing now to get some context and discover where it has come from. And so far that’s the only place to get the two Illuminated Loops recordings… There’ll be a LOT more recording from this project coming up later in the year… Sign up now at stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe, to make sure you get it all as soon as it is released.

This album, Illuminated Loops II, is the music from our Feb 25th 2018 show at Tower Of Song in Birmingham. As before, this recording is in some ways just a relic of the show itself – that it works so well as a standalone musical experience raises all kinds of questions about whether the fact that something is enjoyable affects what it actually is… if the music made no sense without the art happening at the same time, would it cease to be music, or at least worthwhile music? The art as a static entity is in the same precarious position – it’s beautiful and intriguing to look at, all the moreso if you know its origins, but the static version is just what’s leftover after the show. The unfolding, the interaction, the experience of before/during/after – the consequential nature of it all, of it coming into being – that’s ‘the work’, the show, the full experience.

But, having said all that, don’t let it stop you enjoying the music! I’ve been saying for a while that making music in the context of Illuminated Loops results in work that is significantly more interesting to me than anything else that I do as a solo artist. Obviously because it’s not really solo – all of this is co-credited to Poppy and I because the music as it is wouldn’t exist without her. You can definitely hear my vocabulary in there, my musical accent, but the script is one that is developed between us as we go along. The fact that the music I make serves a dual purpose – the music as a journey through time, and the sound as trigger for Poppy’s synaethesia gives me a license to go to new places… The 2nd set here begins with a looped two note bass line played in on the Quneo – I’ve never used the Quneo for bass parts before, and hadn’t planned to this time! The whole soundtrack is littered with strange and surprising sounds that are meshed together via my long-developed ‘unfolding’ aesthetic… And, in listening back to it now as I write, I remember that when I mixed it, I left in all the crackles and pops and artifacts that were present in the audio on the gig, because they were part of what Poppy would’ve ‘seen’ and therefor drawn… In a pure ‘album recording’ setting, I’d have probably edited some or processed them in other ways, but here, they’re all there as part of the sonic canvas (in case you want to do your own synaesthetic representations and draw from the same source!)  There is some video from this show around, so hopefully we’ll get that into a publicly releasable form soon, so you can see a little more of how it works!

I love this project so much, and I hope you get some sense of what’s happening from this. And if you’re lucky, you’ll get to see it live soon – we really need to do more of it (weirdly, the thing that’s holding it up is me getting clearance for the research bit of my PhD from the ethics department at the Uni!) keep an eye out, and hopefully see you at a show soon.

You can also read more about the Illuminated Loops project from Poppy’s perspective on her website – poppyporter.co.uk