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.

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

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

-o0o-

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Wild Flower Garden photo by Clive Varley)

How To Play Your Pedals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Steve’s Incomplete Guide to NAMM

The NAMM show is on next week – for those who don’t know, NAMM stands for the ‘National Association of Music Merchants’ and the show is the world’s most important music gear trade show (it’s not the biggest, but it is the one where everyone launches their flagship products for the year and flies in their biggest endorsers.) It can be a huge amount of fun, and many of my favourite people in the world are brought together in one place for a weekend, so that’s great. But it’s also incredibly weird, and potentially a shitshow, so here in no particular order is my incomplete guide to how to behave at NAMM:

1) Listen to the person in front of you! It’s so tempting to keep one eye on who may be walking past, looking out for celeb sightings or people you’re trying to do a deal with. Ultimately, it just makes the person you’re talking to feel unwanted. If you genuinely have to be somewhere, just say so, don’t string people along. I’ve often described NAMM as “120,000 people lying to each other for a weekend” – and there’s so much in it that is false and meaningless. Avoid that. Give the person you’re talking to your attention, be as real and as kind as you can be, and carry yourself with some dignity… Likewise, wait your turn if someone is already in a conversation. Wait to be invited in (few things are more annoying than having a conversation about something that actually matters and having some numbnuts pile in and start hugging and high fiving you or the person you’re talking to with no awareness of what they’ve just interrupted). This isn’t primary school, behave like a reasonable person…

Steve Lawson with Vernon Paul and Morton

2) Don’t promise to go to everything. Factor in the time it’ll take you to get to places. Everyone at NAMM has unexpected encounters with friends and it messes up their schedule – that’s fine, obviously, but don’t go around promising to go see someone play or to go to an event or launch or whatever if you’re not going to show up. It just means you end up compounding the bullshit later when you see them again and start making up excuses. Put things in your calendar with at least a 10 minute buzzing notification so you can make decisions rather than piling up regrets at all the things you’ve missed…

3) If you’re not a buyer or a dealer, don’t expect manufacturers to prioritise conversations with you. This is one for artists – NAMM IS NOT ABOUT US! We are a vital and important part of the ecosystem, a big part of the mythology that fuels the whole shebang, but unless you’re Eddie Van Halen or Vinnie Colaiuta, you don’t take precedence over the dude from Iowa who needs to be convinced to stock your friend’s guitars/amps/pedals etc. Having a booth at NAMM is eye-wateringly expensive, and the companies are there to do business. If you do get some downtime with a friend there, great, they’ll be delighted to see you and talk to someone they know for 5 minutes, but as soon as someone with a buyer badge arrives, make yourself scarce, or if you know the builder well, offer to demo the product (and don’t be offended if they say no).

4) Eat a massive breakfast. Food in the convention centre is, well, convention centre food. It’s bogus. You can get out of the centre and go to Subway on the corner of Harbour and Katella (my food of choice for my first decade of NAMM – so much so that the manager recognised me and said hi every time I was in there for the next decade… 🙂 ) but I’d recommend a decent diner breakfast to get you through the day, and a snack at lunch time. Take it with you, so you don’t end up paying $8 for a slice of reheated pizza.

steve lawson with bryan beller at NAMM 09

5) Drink water! Loads of it. The air con in Anaheim is vicious and will destroy your voice in minutes. So drink water whenever you can. If you’ve got a friend on a booth that has loads of it, make regular stops. Bring a water bottle if you can to save on plastic, or reuse the first one you pick up – refill from a water fountain. NAMM is already a spectacular environmental disaster, try not to make it worse…

6) Be honest with people. This is perhaps the hardest of all of these things. The number of meaningless superlatives that get thrown about at NAMM ends up crushing you. If every person you meet is awesome and their music is the greatest and every guitar you try is perfect, and every amp is the greatest you’ve ever heard, you have literally no way of ever conveying an opinion that has any merit at all. NAMM is overflowing with people who’ve never learned that superlatives are best used in strict moderation, or they become utterly and irredeemably useless. I have a mental list of the people who every year tell me that I’m amazing and an inspiration, and I’m all too well aware that I hear or see nothing from them in the intervening 12 months – no social media comments or anything, and certainly no Bandcamp sales. So, vague rule of thumb: If it’s not something you’d part with cash for, if they aren’t a band you’d drop everything to go see if they come to your town, they aren’t ‘awesome’. There are other ways to make people feel loved and cared for beyond lying to them about the degree to which you’re invested in their life and work. You can be meaningfully and demonstrably delighted by your friends’ successes without trying to falsely insert yourself into that success. Be present, be honest and be compassionate.

7) Pace yourself. The history of NAMM is littered with people fucking their lives up for a weekend. Regional sales guys who suddenly think they’re in the Guns n Roses biography. It’s quite possible to have fun without getting wrecked and doing stupid shit. Look out for your friends too, especially if they’re new to this – NAMM is quite literally overwhelming. It’s unlike almost any other experience on earth – it’s a weekend in Vegas but with 10,000 hustling musicians trying to show off their musician-y-ness to each other. I have deep enduring friendships that I made at my first NAMM show in ’99, and people I still avoid because two decades ago they tried to drag me into their coke-fuelled hell. No. Don’t be a dick – rule #1 of human existence.

8) Feel free to step away from it all at regular intervals – get outside, go grab a coffee in a remote corner of hall E, go sit on the grass, or take an afternoon off to head over to the beach. It’s an utterly inhuman environment, in which a lot of human wonderfulness thrives despite the context not because of it. Be kind to yourself.

9) Watch out for the casual racism/sexism/homophobia/ableism. Politically, the wider context of NAMM is one of the most toxic environments on the planet. The position of women within many, many dudes’ understanding of what’s going on is ‘promotional eye candy’ – a huge number of the women there – regardless of their skills and experience – are essentially handed an ultimatum – look sexy, or stay away. Feel free to celebrate with the women who’ve carved out a space for themselves outside of that, but do not fall into the trap of either objectifying or vilifying those women whose work requires them to engage with that toxic bullshit. From the ‘booth babes’ (pro-tip – never use the term ‘booth babes’ about anyone ever) who hand out flyers and pose for pictures with provincial dudes to the artists who are ‘strongly encouraged’ to get overly glammed up in order to make any kind of headway in a world where male musicians are listened to and female musicians are gawped at. You WILL see a lot of that, and you will likely hear a bunch of hideous bullshit spewing from people with horrible opinions. Work out before you get there how you plan to deal with it – don’t be blindsided but also don’t be complicit. Offer solidarity, but also don’t commiserate with someone doing their job – just don’t reinforce the culture that limits their options. (it goes without saying that there are a lot of women who get glammed up because they LOVE it, and should be and ARE free to do that – that anyone might question their motives is a sign of just how toxic the environment is. If you assume that every woman looking glam is only doing it for ‘attention’ that’s as much a part of the problem as giving her marks out of 10 to your guitar-bro. Just treat all humans with dignity, and all musicians as fellow professionals. It’s not that hard, honest.)

10) Phone home. Stay in touch, stay grounded, talk to your partner and kids, get away from the mayhem to do it. E.T. understood this in the early 80s, and he was a fictional alien. As a real life human, it’s not beyond your abilities.

11) Wear VERY comfortable shoes. I’ve sometimes walked more than 10 miles a day at NAMM. The convention centre is huge and the events are often a few blocks away. Don’t get caught wearing shoes that you couldn’t comfortable do a quick 3 mile walk in, you’ll injure yourself. If your schtick requires showbiz shoes (I say his as someone who wore a fake-fur coat in the sweltering California heat for YEARS at NAMM), take some flats in your bag…

12) Bring earplugs! This was suggested by my lovely friend Sam over on FB – (he’s a many-year NAMM veteran, and can often be found playing crazy-fast jazz on upright on the booths of some of the sax and jazz guitar amp companies..) But yes, the ambient noise level at NAMM is pretty high and gets fatiguing – I’m not sure if the high percentage of that noise that is total bullshit makes it even more draining, but I like to think it does. So bring earplugs. Maybe even wear them all day. You’ll take them out at 6 o’clock and it’ll feel like a new day.

There you go – I may add to this over the weekend, so check back, or add your own tips in the comments… 🙂 

How To Organise Yourselves For A Group Project

working in a groupAn awful lot of music courses these days have group-based practical projects as at least one module within the course. This is, I think, a positive trend, in that it encourages you situate your learning within the context of your own practice as creative professionals, but it definitely requires some thought regarding how to organise yourselves in a group. So here are a few thoughts on how to do that:

  • Firstly, you need to decide on a shared communication method – it could be email, a Facebook group chat (or group), Whatsapp group, Skype chat, Google Hangout… You’ll need both ongoing text chat and probably the option to have audio or video meetings, depending on how often you’re able to meet face to face. So, decide on this straight away, and make sure it’s one that everyone can access.
  • Secondly, you’ll need some kind of shared calendar into which you can put tasks and deadlines and assign roles. Google Calendar is as good as any for this, and is pretty widely supported on the web and via phone apps. It may be that your college or university has the option to create shared events via their web services, which is fine too. There are also a LOAD of great task-sharing apps – Wunderlist, Trello, etc… Some are paid, some are free. Do some research (assign someone the task) and settle on what you’re going to use within the first 24 hours of forming the group. Make a rule that you all check the calendar for that days tasks every day.
  • Along side this, you’ll need a space where you can all share documents, resources etc. Google Docs/Drive is good for this, and I think Microsoft Office 365 also has this option. Dropbox is great if everyone has an account. Google Docs makes it possible to collaborate on the same document in real time. That can be really handy if one of you is, for example, writing a press release, and someone else is proof reading it.
  • Establish a set of guidelines straight away that everyone agrees to regarding what you do when someone misses a deadline. Get it down in a document before you start so that you can deal with people who are unreliable without it having to get personal. If someone is missing deadlines as assigned in the calendar, have a protocol for reassigning that work, and for finding out what on earth is going on.
  • Set regular times to check in and report back on what you’ve done. If it’s a big project, you can do this at the end of every day – start the day with the to-do list, end it logging the tasks that have been accomplished. If you’ve got a little more time to work on it, you might decide you only need to do this every other day, or three times a week… But make sure it’s regular so you can keep a track of jobs that are missed. If it’s part of a 10 week module, you REALLY can’t afford to be waiting a week to find out that a whole load of the work that you’re all relying on has been missed.
    Keep your tutor in the loop. Make sure that each week you report back on what’s going on, where you’re up to and what you need help with. If they’re available for tutorials, book time with them. If they aren’t, but they are available via email, check that it’s OK, then contact them.
  • Find out where the other staff are in your institution that may be able to help you. Get all the support you can, and then apply your initiative and learning to get on with it.
  • Document EVERYTHING. Keep accurate notes of what you’re up to, and what you need to do, make sure that meetings are minuted (one person keeping a log of everything that is discussed and decided), use the camera on your phone to take pictures and video of all the stuff you get up to – sharing the story of your project can help make it interesting for your potential audience, so use the story of the project to support the project!
  • Sort out your own plan for time management – if you are prone to wasting endless hours online, or gaming, or watching TV or whatever, commit to finishing the tasks on your list daily before you reward yourself with your leisure pursuit of choice. Don’t let the group down because you’re too undisciplined to put the PS4 away for a few hours…

Project work can be an amazing chance to try things out, learn from your peers, and get valuable experience in your chosen field, as well as to develop skills you didn’t even know you might need. Enter into the task with enthusiasm and an open mind, get the work done, and enjoy it – it could end up helping you decide what you really want to do with your life!

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.

Who Has The Right To Critique Your Work?

…This is a question that comes up for young artists all the time. The mechanisms for getting your work out there, in an economic setting where there’s a particular level of audience size that one needs to be able to make enough money to keep doing what you do, bring with them an avalanche of comment. Some of it comes from reviewers – gig reviewers, album reviewers, people who write about your particular field as their job and amateurs who just have a blog they keep for the love-or-spite of it. You’ll also get feedback from people who love what you do and feedback from people who are all too eager to tell you how you’re doing it wrong. Social media may give everyone a voice, but it doesn’t in any way mean we are obliged to absorb or even listen to their opinions…

So, while acknowledging that in some way resourcing and encouraging that kind of commentary is necessary to audience growth, how do we as artists maintain a sense of who we are and what we do aside from that, and how do we gauge which of the feedback might actually be useful to us? After all, I’ve had utterly glowing OTT reviews that I thought were WAY off the mark, and some critical reviews that I thought were completely fair. And I’ve had a very small number of reviews that actually taught me something about my own work. So how do we discern the difference? How do we decide who to let in and who to ignore? And as things progress, how (if we even should) do we build a team of people around who we invite to reflect on our work in ways that we listen to with a view to actually acting on their advice?

It is – not to put too fine a point on it – an absolute minefield. All the moreso if you’re in any way insecure about your work already. Anyone who’s had anything posted on YouTube that’s had more than a handful of views will know what a cesspool of vindictive and spiteful misinformation it is. I’ve seen friends of mine insulted in all manner of ways on there, and have had a ton of ‘why the fuck are you wearing nail varnish???’ comments as well as the ‘that’s not what you’re supposed to do with a bass!’ comments…

That end of things is irritating, but fairly easily recognised as not useful in terms of defining what you’re up to in your own work. Nothing useful comes of trying to salve the bile of a disgruntled YouTube dickhead… So who gets let in? Whose words get to be considered as useful?

I don’t think there’s one answer to this, but my own rule has always been that I listen to people who have previously demonstrated to me that they understand what I’m trying to do. Whether a review itself seems knowledgeable is not the thing I’m looking for. What I need from someone who is going to comment on my work in a way I can be bothered to acknowledge is the recognition that they have me being the best version of me as the focus of their comments. So anything that says ‘what you’re doing doesn’t sound enough like artist A, therefor it’s bad’ is out. Not useful. Anyone who says ‘this is amazing because it doesn’t sound like anything that anyone has ever done before’ is equally out. That’s not a useful or accurate assessment of where the value lies in what I’m trying to do.

This notion of ‘what you’re trying to do’ stems from a belief that the only meaningful way to measure the true value of an artist’s work is whether they’ve achieved what they set out to do. Whether you like it or not is useful in terms of you deciding what to do with your time, and what to lend your ears to, but a commentary on my work based on whether or not someone else would have done it differently is not useful to me. As my usual response goes when someone tells me that I should be doing an all-ambient record, or a funk record, or should work in such and such a way, I say ‘no, you should! It’s clearly you that wants to hear music in that way. If there’s something in what I do that you think fits there, you can either take that inspiration and make the music yourself, or hire me to help you get there and bring my musicianship and ideas to your project’. But they don’t get to tell me what to do with my own music.

So how does someone demonstrate an understanding?

Firstly, they ask questions. Anyone who truly cares about what you’re doing is going to ask you about it before making a bunch of observations and statements. They’re going to inquire into why you’re making the choices you’re making, what the things are that you’re working on, what your influences are and what you’re trying to do with those influences… There are a ton of different questions to be asked, and angles to be explored…

Secondly, they’re going to take the time to get to know what you’ve already done. This gives anyone who subscribes to me on Bandcamp a massive advantage over anyone who doesn’t, because I know they’ve got at least 35-40 albums by me in their collection. Now, they might not have listened to them all, but if they’re working through them with an open mind, they may well start to form a useful frame of reference for what it is I’m trying to do – I can test that through the kinds of questions they bother to ask. They’re probably going to have a better grasp on the improvised nature of the work, and the breadth of things that I’m exploring at anyone time, as well as the general trajectory of my solo work.

Thirdly, their comments are going to specifically relate their criticism to the framing of your work. It’s OK for someone not to like or understand how you frame what it is you’re trying to do – not everyone needs to like or understand what you’re up to – but if you’re thinking of inviting them to influence it, it’d help a lot of they at least had a respect for what you were attempting. Sometimes, that framing can be an obvious thing, but it’s normally pretty dangerous to assume what a particular musician is trying to do from hearing a track or two and guessing based on who you think it sounds like.

The people whose commentary you allow into your own thought process are acting as de facto producers of your work. It’s WAY more important that they understand it than that they like it. I’ve had a mixture of people over the years give me useful feedback and encouragement – some who loved it, some how just cared about me, and took the time to work out what I was up to, without really being massively invested in the music itself. Sometimes the most useful input is just a well-timed ‘dude, just keep doing what you’re doing’, sometimes it’s in the form of a question I really should have been asking myself for a while. Other times its a suggestion for some new inspiration to check out that they see may well help take me in a new direction.

None of it arrives in the form of insult, none of it is trying to put me down, and none of it is about me meeting someone else’s idea for what music ought to be.

Finding those people can take a lot of time. When you do find them hold onto them, value them and keep them close. A huge amount of the advice that you’re going to hear will be about people’s perception of the commercial potential in what you’re doing, and how to maximise that (it’s baffling to me that I get that bullshit even as a solo bass player – as if playing bass on your own isn’t enough of a statement about your lack of focus on commercial motives already?)  – if commercial potential is your frame for your work, and they are people with a track record of making those judgements in useful ways, by all means let them in – it’s not a bad thing to want to make great pop music! But if that’s not what you care about, you need to find a way of blocking out those voices, because they’ll almost always pull you back towards the consensus.

And in the meantime, don’t feed the trolls, or listen to their bullshit. It’s not going to help you find your path.

Decorating Tips For Musicians (How To Learn Like A Painter)

I’ve been teaching bass now for almost 25 years. I’ve taught thousands of students, and given masterclasses and seminars to many more in universities and colleges all over the world. In that time, I’ve never stopped trying to refine my method, my process, my ability to help a student get where they need to be. And one of the things I’m always searching for is better metaphors for what it is we’re trying to do.

So, today we’re going to talk about painting and decorating, OK?

Imagine you were asked by someone to decorate their house – to paint all the rooms, the stairs, hallway, all the doors, fittings. Everything needs doing. There’s a lot of work there, and you’ve not really done any painting before…

There are a number of ways to approach it, so let’s break them down, then you can look at their parallels with learning an instrument: Continue reading “Decorating Tips For Musicians (How To Learn Like A Painter)”

It’s The Little Things That Count – You Are The Press.

Sidelong Glace by Patrick_Down on FlickrOver the years, I’ve sent literally hundreds of CDs to magazines and radio, in the hope of reviews and airplay. And I’ve had a quite large amount of both:

But, what is evident to anyone who experiences these things first hand, is that word of mouth – my listeners telling their friends and family about the wonderful music they’ve just discovered – is worth more than all that mainstream press put together. Continue reading “It’s The Little Things That Count – You Are The Press.”