web ubiquity – web 2.0 smarts for musicians

I don’t know if you ever look at the stats for your website, but a HUGE amount of the traffic that my site and my blog get are from search engines. Google is the heart of the way most people use the web. This is no bad thing, but it does mean that presenting a website that’s designed to trap information within it in the vain hope that people will love you enough to type your URL into their address bar every morning only to find that you’ve added nothing, or maybe one gig on another continent to them isn’t going to work.

No, one of the most important aspects of the shift from scarcity to ubiquity is that it’s not just about proliferation of recorded music. In fact, i’d go s far as to say that information about you, and the proliferation of your brand over and above the music is even more important, as it generates interest in the music before people have even iistened, and helps to frame their listening in some way.

This is why being everywhere is vital in web-world. So here’s vol. I of a short list of tasks you can do yourselves, without needing a webmaster to sort it out for you:

  • Get a Flickr account – free photohosting and a whole lot more. Flickr is a huge community of visually minded web people, who love seeing well-taken pictures of bands and gigs and touring and all the interesting stuff in your life. Start a second unpaid career as a photojournalist, link to it from your website, and let your audience into a little of the visual side of your world.
  • Sign up for a last.fm user account – your music is already on there, right? Well, there are two ways to use last.fm – one is uploading music, the other is logging what you listen to. it’s a great way to give your audience a handle on the music that makes you tick, and also to give props and some publicity to the great stuff that you’re listening to. Add one of the last.fm widgets to your site so people can see at a glance what you’re listening to this week. Last.fm also has a journal section, so you can post reviews of what your friends and heroes are up to – share the love!
  • Youtube – start your own channel, and get some videos up on there. Don’t just leave it to people with phone-cams to post crap, get some footage up there, and preferably something of you talking too. For some reason people are fascinated by what musicians’ voices sound like when they talk. Weird, but true.
  • Sign up for facebook – yeah, I know, it’s for college kids trying to pick up hotties and tragic 30 somethings who think it’s the cooler version of friends reunited for hooking up with your childhood sweetheart. Right, but it’s also got a whole shedload of useful things for connecting with your friends, peers and audience who are also probably on there. You can put your myspace player on there, your last.fm profile, your reverb nation widget so people can listen to you, and RSS feeds of whatever other information you are generating. Which brings us to our last one…
  • start a blog! You’re reading this, that proves they work. You can blog about all kinds of things – when you’re working a lot, just short updates on tour highlights, or excitement in the studio – post links to your flickr pics and youtube vids for the full interactive experience. When you’re not so busy, or have a little bit of time, use it to big up the people you play with. Musicians can be so damned self-obsessed that they never bother to give back the kind of recognition they so readily crave and grasp at for themselves. Come on, if you’ve got a platform, use it to help everyone out. It’s good for all of us.

when you do, make sure you get accurate stats about what’s going on with your blog and site, and do the same for any RSS feeds you’ve got going on. And don’t be disheartened if you have 10 readers a week for the first while. Blog proliferation is often slow and steady, just keep blogging about interesting stuff, get it registered with Technorati so that they get updates from it and people can find you on searches, add social bookmarking tags (pretty easy to do in Moveable Type and WordPress at least, or addable to your feed via Feedburner), so people can share the love, and link back to all your favourite reads, so they get some of the love too…

I often get asked how it is that i seem to be everywhere in the online bass and looping world, and the truth is that it’s just been through constant involvement in those online communities for over 10 years. For a couple of years, I was the only bass teacher in europe with his own website, was one of the first solo bassists to get music up online, was one of the first featured pros on talkbass, a regular contributor to loopers-delight, and crucially, had some fine music for people to check out when they cam back to my site… i was a little late in the game on MySpace, pretty early at last.fm, very slow to get with flickr and stumbleupon… I also for years kept an archive of all the articles i’d written for bassist magazine on my site, which brings us full circle back to Google at the heart of the web – I used to get SOOO much traffic via that. I only took it down cos I changed servers and the Database that it was running in was incompatible with the new server. That’s why I’m reposting the best of the interviews here…

Regardless on your feelings about the proliferation of digital recordings, ubiquity online is unquestionably a good thing for a musician. But it takes time and effort, and isn’t the kind of thing that happens over night. If you’re savvy, it shouldn’t take 10 years of online geeking like it did for me, but it will take some time. The alternative is to pay some web designer somewhere £25 an hour to do it all for you, and if that’s your preferred route, I know a couple of lovely friendly geeks who will happily take your money from you. :o)

Bass 2.0?

The “…2.0” suffix is being widely used to denote a significant leap forward from the first version of something, inspired by the description of changes in the way the web is used and perceived as ‘Web 2.0’. So we now have Media 2.0, Music 2.0 etc… It’s quite a useful shorthand, if a little nebulous, but it did make me wonder if it would work as a way of describing what I’m up to musically – Bass 2.0 – Bass 1.0 being the use of instruments within the bass family as defined by their role as ‘the bass’ within the music, and then the extensions on from that (taking that role and expanding on it, making it more twiddly, but still sitting well within the tradition of what’s expected of a bass instrument.)

Bass 2.0, as I see it, is where the role becomes something entirely separate from the instrument.

Q: What makes the bass an instrument distinct from the guitar, and why is that important?

The instrument is defined by it’s place within the lineage of bass guitar luthiery, the descendants of Leo Fender’s Precision and Jazz, which set the parameters for scale length and string spacing in place, no matter how many strings. String spacing can be tighter or wider, and scale length moves around, but even then it’s defined by it’s relation to the standard – short scale, long scale, etc.

So it’s a different family of instruments, originally designed with a particular role in mind, but now designed to be more of a blank slate, maximising the tone-shaping potential via electronics, and accentuating certain resonant characteristics via advanced building methods.

For quite a while, people playing bass as a solo or melody instrument did so very much within the lineage of the role – there was a continuum between what bass guitarists (instrumentalists) did as ‘bass players’ (music functionalists) – even Jaco stayed largely in that world, in that there’s very little of what he did that is unrecognisable as a bass as we know it (though I can’t even begin to imagine what it must’ve been like to hear ‘Portrait Of Tracey’ when his self-titled debut first came out…!)

The first person that I’m aware of to really take a ‘Bass 2.0’ approach to the instrument was Michael Manring – the redesign of the basic properties of the instrument that he and Joe Zon did to create the hyperbass have yet to be surpassed or even matched in terms of what possible in extending the possibilities of the 4 string bass (interesting the the most radical bass design ever is still a 4-string.)

There’s some stuff on his album ‘Drastic Measures’ that hints at what’s possible, but it’s his next three solo albums – Thonk, Book Of Flame and Soliloquy – that as a trilogy set the standard for Bass 2.0 – music conceived from the mind of someone who is very much a bassist, but who uses the instrument as a tool to create incredible music, rather than turning ‘bass playing’ into a circus trick or parlour game by just doing the same old shit faster and twiddlier than anyone else.

Where does my music fit into this? Well, i was deeply influenced by Michael’s ideas, even before I’d ever heard him, and took ‘Thonk’ as a green light to move away from the slapping and tapping I’d been doing before (even though there’s loads of slapping and tapping on Thonk) and do my own thing. It was a few years before I played a solo show, but as I’ve mentioned here before, the concept for my solo music was in place by the time I did my first gig (the track ‘Chance’ on And Nothing But The Bass is taken from that very first gig.)

And I’ve been trying to build on that ever since, holding in juxtaposition my love of the bass, it’s history, it’s place in the last 50 years of popular music with my desire to make the music i hear in my head. Tellingly, very few of my influences are bassists, because it’s always been about music first. Most of the ideas I take from bassists are physical ideas rather than compositional or emotional ones – the stuff that really counts.

And of course, within Bass 2.0 there’s an even deeper understanding of what the bass does when it’s being ‘the bass’ – I talk about this a lot when I’m doing looping masterclasses etc. – when I started playing solo, there was a fear projected onto me by some ‘older and wiser’ musicians who suggested that it would spoil my ‘normal’ playing, that I’d lose the joy of playing simple lines because i’d always be wanting to take solos and play melodies. In reality that couldn’t be further from the truth – because i spend my days thinking in layers, I’m happier than ever to just be one of those layers, to play the simple bass parts that hold everything else together. I haven’t had that many chances to do it of late, which made last night’s gig with John Lester at the 606 all the more frustrating, as I couldn’t hear John’s guitar at all, so wasn’t able to play with the level of confidence that his music really needs. It wasn’t rubbish by any stretch, just not as on it as it should’ve been… Shame, cos the rest of the gig was amazing.

Anyway, so, Bass 2.0 seems to be a nice way of categorising a desire to take the bass instrument to new places musically – there are certain tonal things that the physical size, shape and string length of the instrument allow that mean that even things that ‘sound like guitar’ or ‘sound like a synth’ have a unique quality to them…

The End Of Control…?

Here’s some vital reading for anyone who’s interested in all this new media 2.0 file sharing web commerce stuffs I’ve been blogging about – The End Of Control – it’s a free e-book that’s been blogged chapter by chapter by its author, Gerd Leonhard (who was featured in the media megatrends video I linked to the other day)

Anyway, he’s a very astute man, but as with most futures analysts speaks with a degree of knowing fatalism… at least it would be fatalism if he hadn’t bought into the idea that this is how the future’s going to be, so hey get used to it. It’s a position common to all futurists that I’ve come across (I guess because the ones who do the research and then try to resist what they then see as the inevitable shifts in whatever area they are looking at end up suffering from severe depression…)

But the book makes some great points about how we deal with the shifts from scarcity to ubiquity, and I’m going to be following the chapters with great eagerness – I’m hoping that somewhere between his brilliantly researched and observed but fatalistic eagerness to embrace the hypermodernity of a global subscription service and my idealism and experience within the more specialist music market (and their heightened sense of the social contract), I can come up with something of enduring value to contribute to the discussion!

He’s still largely talking from the assumption that all artists should want their music everywhere, regardless of the context, arguing that ubiquity is better for your ultimate income stream. But there are big problems with that when you start considering works of art to have innate integrity that can be damaged (by, for example, distributing it via low-res edited MP3…) – his stuff in Chapter 2 about copyright comes dangerously close to saying ‘well, we’re fucked if we think we can own anything any more, so we might as well settle for whatever crumbs a globalised license will drop into our begging bowl.

There are a couple of really pernicious assumptions at the heart of this – a) that because the technology is there to steal all the content now, we might as well roll with it and see if we can surreptitiously extract some meagre revenue further down the line and b) all artists should accept that their art is there to be engaged with largely on an entirely peripheral level, as a disposable binary file where the terms of engagement are entirely defined by the makers of portable computer technology, rather than by any artists at all… As someone who aspires to make music that is important, real, and part of me over and above music that is profitable, popular and marketable, i find those assumptions difficult to stomach, but they do give me some kind of distance from his model which is helpful for formulating an alternative (if there ends up being one…)

But for now, go and grab the RSS feed from EndOfControl.com, it’s going to be a really interesting ongoing discussion…

Loop-Fests and non-music-specific music communities

It’s Loop Fest season again – firstly the daddy of them all, the Y2KLoopFest in Santa Cruz (Y2K7 this year). But this year, Andy Butler is doing a low-key thing in Norwich, which looks like fun. There have been others in Germany and other places in the states – generally smaller affairs, but seemingly most enjoyable.

Rick Walker, the organiser of the Santa Cruz fest, has done an amazing job of turning it into An Event – taking what was originally a way for he and I to do a show in Santa Cruz back in 2000 (with Michael Manring, Max Valentino, Scott Drengen and another guy who’s name completely escapes me, sadly…) and turning it into an annual event that this year has big name headliners in the form of Arild Andersen and Henry Kaiser.

A lot of the momentum for this came out of the rather-wonderful-and-at-times-all-too-serious Looper’s Delight community; a mailing list of people using looping in their music. Lots of great friendships have come from the list, and some fab collaborations (for me, I doubt I’d ever have played in California outside of the NAMM show if it wasn’t for the connection with Rick, and I also met the fabulous Luca Formentini on there too, with whom I’ve recorded a duet album that should be out some time next year).

I’ve always been a little uneasy about the idea that looping is its own genre – it clearly isn’t, any more than ‘repetitive music’ is a genre, or ‘german music’ or ‘music by freakishly tall people’. It has certain characteristics, but those are more to do with the limitations in the imagination of the user rather than any stylistic quality inbuilt in the technology. (though, thanks to the ever-wonderful Robert Fripp’s role as part-pioneer part-populariser of looping as a performance medium, a HUGE number of the loopers around are guitarists doing soundscapes, to varying degrees of success)

But that’s no bad thing – what Rick understood years ago is that audiences like a peg to hang their hat on – it doesn’t matter if it’s a loop fest or an acoustic music fest or a celebration of the music of italy or an electronic music fest – it gives the person marketing it an angle. My own hyper-sensitivity to being pigeonholed means that I bristle at the idea that what I do is defined by the technology, or that there’s some style attached to the instrument (as though solo bass is also a style or genre), but for the audience, it’s just an in road, an opening, a narrowing of focus that allows them engage with what we do, and crucially gives the media something to grab hold of.

Rick has managed to get press coverage for some pretty esoteric music, and even get the clearly-mad-mayor-of-Santa-Cruz to declare each festival day as ‘international live looping day’ (I have a mayoral proclamation hanging on my wall from the inaugural one, that most people think is some kind of weird ironic home-made christmas present. :o)

The point being, these are good things. The role of the curator is to make sure that whatever weird set of assumptions people come to these events with, the music they hear is great. There’s no such style as ‘loop music’ but that doesn’t mean that you can’t put together a coherent program of excellent music featuring looping musicians. The line up at Rick’s fests has gone from being a bunch of bassists who loop at the first one, though a period when it was largely about loopists getting together to ogle each other’s gear, to a place where he’s booking internationally known musicians (albeit from pretty esoteric scenes) for a festival of quality music. Hat’s off to his tenacity, long may it continue.

As I said a couple of weeks ago here looping is no longer a gimmick that will cover the lameness of your music but it can still work as a hook to get people through the door to hear great music.

BTW, It’s also Bass-fest season, though thus far, for the first time in years, I’ve not been invited to play at any of them… we’ll see if that changes, but it might make a nice change to be doing normal gigs at this time of year rather than playing to rooms full of bassists… They are generally enjoyable events, though meeting the people involved is mostly more interesting that listening to a lot of the music…

A false sense of entitlement – the flaw in the new distribution models?

In all the thinking that’s going on about new ways of distributing music, one thing is rather bothering me, and that’s the inferred/assumed entitlement of audiences to access to music. There is, built into most of the discussions on how we move forward, the taken-as-red assumption that if musicians don’t provide music in the way that the audience wants it, they’ll just steal it. Fuck you, Mr musician, how dare you think you can limit my access to your work.

If a baker decides that he’s going to make less bread and charge more for it, either he needs to convince his customers that it’s worth the extra money and effort to get it, or he goes out of business (or finds another business to support his baking, if he does it for the love of it). What doesn’t happen is his customers decide that they’ll just go into the kitchen, make bread for themselves and take it home, or help themselves to the bread in the window of the shop, and set up a table outside the door giving it away to passers by because he had no right to do that, and is clearly a selfish bastard who needs to be taught a lesson.

But with music, the option to limit access to your music is assumed to no longer exist. Because everyone feels like they have a right to it. So if Madonna’s new album is too expensive, or only available as a download at low res and with DRM on iTunes, instead of saying ‘well I won’t get it then’ the assumption is that it’s somehow legit to take it. As though access to that music is a right, not a privilege. As though the music I write, and record and make – using my own money and time – is then no longer mine. The recordings aren’t mine, the songs aren’t mine. They’ve become public property without me even being consulted.

Likewise, the whole notion of user-generated content – YouTube videos, live bootlegs, etc. Completely unregulated, and liable to change live music for ever. Jonatha posts a beautifully worded response to the whole question of unsolicited filming at gigs and the effect it has on her in the discussion forum on her site – well worth reading. Basically, it creates a permanent document of something that is essentially of the moment, and filming it turns it into a recording session, losing something of the spontaneity. My response on the forum, when I was asked whether I minded being filmed was ‘normally no’, but I do a) like the be asked and b) like the chance to vet it before it gets uploaded. No-one wants a permanent online record of an off-night (though there is that entire recording of the gig I did with no pedals with Lo. in September!)

So, do you need to have the video of the gig you were at? Do you assume your ticket price also includes some kind of innate recording rights? If a record is too expensive, or not available in the format you want, does that give you the right to download it for free from somewhere else? Clearly, I think that’s a heinous situation, though it’s one that much of the industry seems to have resigned itself to. The biggest own goal seems to have been that the arguments have centered around money, and particularly when someone like Lars Ulrich – a multi-millionaire – complains about it denting his income, most people aren’t really going to give a shit.

However, entitlement isn’t about money, it’s about the right to negotiate with your audience, and your audience then being able to choose to not spend the money by not buying the product, and therefor not owning it! So you cut yourself off from income, but also from your audience. So you negotiate, by way of dropping the price, making it available in other ways or whatever, but it’s your product and you do with it what you like… Just like the baker with the bread.

The video I linked to earlier about media megatrends characterised the shift in slightly more euphamistic a-moral terms by talking about it being a move from scarcity to ubiquity as the driving currency – in an age when you have a physical product, the distribution of which you have control over, the value therein is in it’s scarcity – independent record shops survive because they stock things you can’t get elsewhere. Record labels can do exclusive deals, or even just sell direct. Artists can just sell at gigs, making their product even more desirable by the difficultly of finding it. Even if you sell in mainstream shops, you can set your wholesale price at the point where the price stays up, if that’s what you want, and the the competition is with other recording artists – will people pay £15 for one of my CDs, when they can get someone else’s that they like just as much for £8?

The ubiquity model says that the artist should relinquish control over the proliferation of their work in exchange for a shot at ubiquity – being everwhere, and making money through the exposure, be it profit-sharing on youtube, increased live attendance, sales of premium product (which is what CDs are now becoming, given that the default in a very short time from now will be the download) and radio, tv and film royalties.

I think there are ramifications to this that are anti-creative, and rapacious in their treatment of the creative output of a the artist – especially if you value the mixed-media product that you’ve assembled (be it artwork, sleeve notes, video, collage, pop-up book, whatever…) There’s a hyper-capitalist, spectral Friedman-esque element to the terms of engagement that negate the value of scarcity or the more esoteric value of specific and particular artistic expression, and remove any rights of the artist to negotiate or explore the notion of the work having greater or lesser monetary value in relation to any other work. Instead, it’s about rushing to make your product as ubiquitous as possible in order to turn that ubiquity into cashflow just by being everywhere instead of by being valuable/important/’good’. It’s a pretty unique and depressing scenario… Where next?

My bottom line thesis – you/we don’t need the music. You/we aren’t entitled to the music, it’s not yours/ours to take, it’s the artists to sell, or give away as they see fit. And if you don’t like the terms, you don’t need to buy, and they can starve if they choose to be stubborn. Or sell 30 CDs for $1000 a time.

DRM is a crock of shit, but with its removal comes a social contract between the artist and the audience, one that I think should, if adhered to, help both. The removal of DRM makes it easier for the listener to share tracks as a way of spreading information about an artist around, and also to play the stuff on different systems, copy from computer to mp3 player to phone – being cross-platform is vital, and is why iTunes is now having to change it’s shitty DRM policy (and up its resolution), but it does leave musicians vulnerable… with over 50% of all web traffic being filesharing, the vast majority of it illegal, the idea of the social contract is not getting across. The feeling that somehow it’s fat cat record company execs and multimillionaire rock stars who are losing out seems to absolve the conscience of the file sharers. But the artists still are making art. The judgement call that says ‘this person has sold out already, therefor i can download their stuff with impunity’ isn’t anyone’s to make.

The consequences of all this in creative and artistic terms are things I’ve blogged about a lot recently… it’s a really murky world, and I’m fascinated to see where it goes. I’m going to keep mulling this one over, and see where it leads… your thoughts are much appreciated in the comments, should you wish to share them :o)

It's ain't what you say, it's the way that you say it…

There’s been a fairly long discussion on one of the bass-geek e-lists I’m on of late about phrasing and patterns and such – it started out with a guy who was feeling stuck in the patterns that he played, and was asking for a way out.

My answer to that is always the same – learn more patterns. Not wanting to use any patterns in music is like not wanting to use grammar when talking – it inhibits your ability to communicate (non-idiomatic free-improv notwithstanding). The problem – as with language – comes when you know so few patterns (or expressions) that their repetition reveals your lack of familiarity with the subject (style/tune/key/chord progression) – in Italian, I know about 6 phrases, which I repeat ad nauseum in an attempt to sound slightly less like a typical doesn’t-speak-any-other-languages Brit. But it’s clear from my limited range that I really don’t know the language. My accent isn’t bad (especially not when I’ve been there a while), but I still don’t have the vocab to sound even like an ex-pat, let alone a local.

If I could even vary the phrases I knew slightly, it’d make for a broader base from which to converse. Same with music – start by mixing up what you already know. Change one element – could be the last note, or the first note, or putting a rest in the middle, or starting the phrase in a different part of the bar… It really doesn’t matter, the point is to get away from the tried and tested, and start to branch out into newer areas.

Anyway, the discussion on the list moved away from that to what ‘phrasing’ is all about, and why (in the opinion of some of us) bassists are particularly bad at expressive, fluid phrasing. Here’s what I wrote in response, with particular reference to the quote from Stig at the top (he’s wise, very wise)


>>”also in my view, this is something that most ebass players do not do.
they tend to favor the instrument’s percussive or shreddable qualities,
and neglect the more “expressive” aspects. << Which is utterly baffling given what a phenomenally expressive instrument the bass - and particularly the fretless bass - can be... I guess that the tendency towards metric subdivision and testosterone-driven displays of dexterity is somehow related to the requirement in so much rock music to play things in a consistent, steady, non-varying way. Multiply that up to a solo and it becomes the same thing at 2, 4 or 8 times the speed one or two octaves higher... Easier to do that than to move away from seeing rhythmic 'correctness' as being about a dualist 'in time/out of time' binary equation, and instead see the emergence of a rhythmic or textural, um, gestalt (?) as a consequence of observation and awareness of what makes music connect, and then working on developing the control to execute that, based on what it is you want to play in relation to what your awareness tells you should be happening, however seemingly complex, random, a-rhythmic, poly-rhythmic or whatever that may be. There aren’t many rock/pop basslines that require you to change the tone-shaping effect of your right hand technique from one note to the next, whereas expressive shaping of a melodic line often demands that in order to set up the kind of question/answer phrase-logic that Stig alluded to.

It’s clearly a much bigger issue for improvising musicians and solo musicians than it is for bands operating solely within an idiom that has readily defined parameters – if I suddenly got the gig playing bass in Green Day, I wouldn’t be quite so aware of the benefits of understanding the influence of fluctuations in the rhythm of a loop on the listener, or how palm muting a single note in the middle of an improvised melodic phrase might make it sound more like a question than a statement, and would be far more concerned about where to place the bass notes on the beat in order to produce the kind of urgency required by the music. (something that would be much better learnt by playing lots of punk music, going to punk shows and listening to punk records than my studying rhythmic placement in any other context…)


there you go. :o) Any of this stuff could be equally applicable to any musician, it’s just that bass players are particularly geared to not play tunes well (in the same way that guitarists from a blues background often struggle with anything that needs to be rhythmically precise – their training just hasn’t focussed on those elements). Ultimately, it’s all about control and awareness, but that’s a whole other book.

balancing 'easy access' with 'information overload'.

Been thinking about my new website design, which I’m pretty happy with. It does raise some questions about the balance of making as much as possible available to visitors in one click (web users are notoriously lazy bastards) with not overloading them.

Was chatting with the PhotoMonkey on Sunday, and he said that with bands, the first thing he looks for is their myspace page. ‘OK, see how long it takes you to find the myspace link on my front page’ says I, fairly confident that it would take him about 4 seconds… …15 seconds later, he finds it. Which is a heck of a long time in web-world, and as much a testimony to the uselessness of the MySpace logo as it is to my design, but it did raise some questions…

Firstly, how do you balance offering ‘good’ content over expected content? PM looks for myspace, even though myspace is a bit shit. It’s easy and a known quantity. I’ve got the reverbnation link on the front page which he – an experienced web-user and music fan – had never come across, despite it being a far superior interface for both artist and audience… Do you go with ubiquity just because it’s easy, or press on with offering a range of places to interact and listen to music, even if some of them are lesser-known now… (oh how I’ll be laughing if 6 months from now Reverbnation has 50,000,000 users and I’m top of all their search queries. :o)

Likewise the CDbaby link, I guess… It’s there because they provide a great service to people looking to buy music. Good for CDs and for downloads, and they do have a lot of users… I guess I really ought to put emusic and facebook on there as well, but there are already enough links…

The other interesting comment PM had was that he didn’t think the feed from the blog needed to be there… The connection between the blog and the music wasn’t as clear in his mind as it is in mine, obviously… it’s very difficult to step outside and see yourself as others see you. It’s certainly not something I’m all that good at. So I see the inner workings of my head expressed in blog form as being pretty close to what’s going on with the music. I hope that readers of the blog have a better understanding of what the music is all about than people who just hear tracks on their last.fm radio playlist.

What is clear is that my web traffic is up considerably since the redesign, which is great, and the main feeder site to my blog is my main site, that’s where nearly all the clicks come from (although this month, a huge amount of traffic has come via the DGM live news page who linked to the Tony/Trey interview, and a fair amount from StumbleUpon from people who’ve been adding the blog pages via the link at the bottom of each post…

So, here’s a test – if you haven’t been over to my main site for a while and you fancy helping me out with a bit of esoteric research, get a stopwatch ready, then click here and see how long it takes you to find the MySpace link… click stop, and let me know. (if you don’t own a stop watch, you may well find that there’s a ‘timer’ function on your mobile phone).

thanks!

Studying music

I spent a really enjoyable day today giving a couple of masterclasses at the ACM in Guildford. They invite me down there a couple of times a year to speak to the students, play a bit, and hopefully inspire them. The ACM is a fantastically well resourced college, and they spend a lot of time and effort finding cool clinicians to come in and talk to the students. What amazes me is how blasé the students are about having the access to information and experience in that way…

When I was studying we hardly ever had anyone come and visit the college – a couple of ex-students came back who’d done a few minor things, but it was before the college was really in a position to book proper visiting celebs to come and speak. But I lapped up whatever information I could get my hands on, going so far as to blag my way into a midi class from the second year of the course when I was still in the first year – it was during a free period of mine, so I asked the tutor if I could sit in. I used to practice a crazy amount of time (sporadically, not consistently, sadly), and spent just about all my time talking about music. I still wasted a lot of my time (though I realised fairly quickly that the time I spent going clubbing when I was a student did wonders for my sense of rhythm – nothing beats dancing for internalising rhythm!)

Anyway, back to the ACM – both the groups I had seemed like nice people, and there were some cool questions that came out of the sessions that sprung off into some good topics. As usual 2 hours wasn’t nearly long enough (given my dispensation towards tangentalism when I’m speaking in that kind of setting…) but I was still at least able to plant a few mental seeds.

Anyway, given that I know at least a few full time music students read this blog, here are a few tips that you REALLY ought to take on board, and I write these as both a teacher and a former music college student who got lots out of it, but could’ve got more…

  • all music is worth learning – there’s a tendency amongst students to specialise way to early. i don’t really give a shit whether all you listen to is punk, you’re doing a full time music course, and the opportunity is there to become a great all-round musician, to learn the nuance of a whole range of styles… which brings me to point 2:
  • never underestimate the difficulty of lines without many notes – obviously that’s worded for bassits, but it’s the same for simple guitar or drum parts. Country, Reggae, Bossa Nova, Stadium Rock – all are about so much more than just getting the notes in the right order. Don’t expect to be convincing as a country bassist without having emmersed yourself in country music. Go and see as many different kinds of music played live as you can, and use the radio!
  • You will never have access to that many other people wanting to learn music again – don’t waste it – being surrounded by keen music students is a fantastic experience, so form as many bands as you can, rehearse, jam, improvise, write, learn covers. just play as much as you can, you won’t ever be in that situation again.
  • Use your teachers – they are there to help you learn as much about music as you can, so quiz them, remember there are no stupid questions, only stupid answers. If you don’t know something, ask. NEVER EVER pretend to know something you don’t. You’re there to learn, there shouldn’t be any pressure at all to already know…
  • Buy music – call it Karma, call it sowing to reap, call it whatever you want, but if you want to make a living selling music at some point, it’s probably best that you promote the culture of still paying for music. If you haven’t got much money, use a subscription service like emusic or Napster. Remember, if you’re spending more on booze than you are on music, you’re actively wrecking your own music education.
  • while the qualification may be a waste of paper, the information needed to get it isn’t – we all know that there are very few situations where actually having a music degree is of any importance at all. Great musician trumps degree certificate every time. BUT the course modules you’re having to learn stuff for are indicative of how well you’ve absorbed the information presented to you, so do the work. It also gets you used to the discipline of deadlines and playing what someone else wants you to play the way they want you to play it…
  • Make friends with everyone – the industry is all about contacts, and there’s no reason why being a student should stop you from building those contacts now, and even starting to get work while you’re still a student. Students, teachers, visiting musicians, college staff, venue owners, bookers… everyone, just be nice, you’ll be amazed at how much more likely you are to get work by being nice than by being a surly bastard. Smile, all time time. :o)
  • Play. All the time – lunchtime, breaktime, over breakast, evenings, weekends, on your own, with mates, in bands, orchestras, whatever and wherever – there’s no substitute for just playing music, so do it. DON’T WASTE THE OPPORTUNITY YOU HAVE!! Studying music is one of the best things in the world to do – I’m still doing it, every day, I’m still trying to get better. Segovia, just before he died in his mid-90s, was asked if he had any unfullfilled ambitions. His answer? ‘i wish I knew more about the guitar’ – none of us have any right to think that we’ve done enough after that.

Enjoy it, work hard, play constantly, surround yourself with people who encourage you to play, not people who distract you, make friends, teach your peers, learn from them too, listen to every pro musician who steps through the door of the college, ask questions and do as many gigs as you can.

Now, off you go, quit reading this, and practice!

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…