2010-2020 – A Decade In (My) Music

Decades are interesting markers in time. 10 years – however boring or eventful – is a MASSIVE chunk of any one person’s life. You change, whether you want to or not. The world around you changes. People are born and die, kids become adults, people who could previously see their youth over their shoulder are now glimpsing retirement and old age on the horizon. And whatever your work is, you do A LOT of it.

For musicians, 10 years is unfathomable. Careers are often shorter than that. Untold numbers of legendary musicians have died, and people who were pre-teen at the start of the decade are in rehab dealing with the ravages of years of toxic fame by the end of it.

10 years is enough time to become an AMAZING musician from scratch. If it’s your life, your calling, your passion, and you haven’t progressed, something has gone WAY wrong… It may be that you got trapped in the economics of playing other people’s music for decent money, built a life around that and couldn’t then afford the time and focus to work on your own thing. It could be that teaching became an option, and as is so often – tragically, and mistakenly – the case, you lost sight of yourself as an artist, as a creative entity. I see that a lot, and it breaks my heart… Or it could be that you made something beautiful, and spent 10 years being told that that one thing was going to be The Thing, and it held you back, hanging all your hopes and dreams on the one thing… There are loads of ways that people get lost in time, and for musicians, the commercial context is a veritable Temple Of Doom of traps and pitfalls.

So what of my own decade? Well, it started – monumentally – with a one month old baby. Flapjack was born during the dying embers of the previous decade, and obviously cast our entire lives in a new light. But I still entered the decade with dreams of spending my life playing music with Lobelia – our house concert show was pretty damn great by that point. Two solo sets, a bunch of stuff together at the end mixing her songs and cool covers (before that become the Kudzu weed of YouTube 🙂 ) – we had an amazing show, and I dreamed of us touring as a lil’ family building our mini-traveling-circus, even talking about home-schooling Flapjack half the year so we could tour more… What became clear many years later was that that was never going to work – it was way harder on Lo than on me, and despite two really successful summers spent touring with a baby in tow (and a godsend of a mother-in-law making it all possible), as the early years of the 10s progressed, we had to let go of touring together…

We also started the decade living in London, but again, escaping became more and more inevitable as the cost of being there was ever more starkly out of step with the kind of life we wanted to lead. So, thanks to a one-off incredible gig in Thailand, we were able to afford to make the leap to Birmingham, kicking off a whole load of work with Andrew Dubber and New Music Strategies, and a bunch of other work looking at social media in the arts, charities and the 3rd sector… stuff that was WAY less precarious than being two full-time musicians with a baby…

Photo by Rob GroucuttThe first massive change after that came when Andy Edwards rang me out of the blue and offered me a teaching job at Kidderminster College. I hadn’t taught weekly in a college for well over a decade, and wasn’t at the time looking for that, but the social media work with Amplified was slowing, and the opportunity to start to develop some of the New Music Strategies ideas in a college setting was a good one… I wasn’t aware at the time how much of the rest of the 10s it would influence, but it ended up being transformative, and my musical relationship with Andy became one of the most significant of my entire life.

Photo by Don AlbonicoTalking of significant musical relationships, a chance invite online to play some music with a Californian multi-instrumentalist called Daniel Berkman was the other great transformation of the early 10s… Daniel and I met to both play solo on a gig, but immediately decided to play improvised duo material for the entire show, and over the next three Januarys did, I think, 27 shows, the first 10 of which were released in their entirety, and set off a path towards bringing together performing, recording and releasing music that stepped WAY outside the normal economic and temporal constraints of the recorded music economy… Daniel also sowed the seeds that grew into the decision to start using percussion, keyboard sounds and field recordings in my music, that was eventually sparked by a collaboration with Divinity Roxx in 2015.

The third great musical moment of the early decade was meeting Chris Thorpe, and then Lucy Ellinson and forming Torycore – Torycore was initially inspired by the three of us going to see Cannibal Corpse and Triptykon in Birmingham (the night I met Lucy) and from there, she came up with the idea for using the visceral rage and anger of metal as an amplifier of the brutality and evil at the heart of the politics of Austerity. As an instrumentalist whose rationalisation for his music had always been deeply political, it was an amazing release to get to do something so explicitly focused on social justice, a performance that became incredibly significant to a whole lot of people trying to make sense of the death and destruction at the heart of the Tory Decade Of Austerity. We were seeing people die, people made homeless and services for the poor and disabled decimated, by people in suits smiling and talking in posh accents about difficult choices. True Compassion Means Tough Decisions. It was bullshit, and Torycore allowed us to give voice to that rage, by taking their words and putting them in context. It also threw me into a world of theatre makers and performers who had a HUGE influence on the next step for me – the start of my PhD.

Having first talked about doing a PhD in 2010 at Leeds Beckett Uni, in 2015 the conversation got a little more serious just at the time that a number of galvanising conversations made it clear that my focus was actually about the intersection of improvisation as a practice, as a method of music-making, and the experience of audiences. I was fascinated by how aesthetics and expectations and experiences came together around music made in the moment, about familiarity, responsiveness and indeed the theatricality of performance in that context. So that became the PhD project. And I’m still at it 5 years on, the idea still as inspiring as ever but the work harder and more complex than it really should’ve been thanks to a bunch of interruptions along the way…

Meeting Andy Edwards span off into a ton of collaborative improv settings. He’d been out of open/free improv for a long time, so creating space for him to discover that, and for me to get right back into playing with an incredible drummer was a marriage made in musical heaven. We started to play with our incredible colleague Phi Yaan-Zek as LEYlines and also did a bunch of other collaborative improv shows and put improvisation at the heart of the course at Kidderminster. My music life has Andy’s fingerprints all over it, but I’m still not going to start listening to Zappa 😉

At the start of 2010, I’d JUST started to sell music on Bandcamp – it was a very new platform, but looked to be way more artist-friendly, and it didn’t take me long to realise that it was the *perfect* platform for me and what I wanted to build. Releasing the albums with Daniel Berkman on there, the option for us both to release music, for Artemis to compile albums of the vocal tracks and release them too… that portability of music seemed so much better attuned to what the art was meant to be and meant to DO. And then in 2015 I was invited to trial Bandcamp’s subscription platform. Three artists (I think) got to try it first before everyone else, to iron out kinks and see how it worked. And for me it was another line in the sand. This was exactly what I needed, to completely step off the album/promo/sales cycle and be able to release all of these amazing live collaborative recordings in a way that accumulated value through being prolific rather than diluting or decimating the commercial viability of any one recording… It was 180 degrees away from the economics of streaming, of trying to have a ‘hit’ track on a playlist, or trying to second guess commercial viability. Nope, give it to the audience, let them decide, hand them agency over it, tell stories about it and build a community of practice where the audience are able to invest in what’s going on not just by buying finished work but by funding the entire project, but talking about it, but encouraging the bits they particularly enjoy, but asking questions about the stuff they don’t understand… A transactional approach to the accumulation of social value in the recordings themselves… (see, PhD 😉 )

Back to 2015, and that project with Divinity – after a number of conversations and a rough plan to improvise and do shows with a lot of story-telling, we got together for a week, recorded some ideas and did an amazing freewheeling show at Kidderminster College… And after it, I realised that the way Divi used a keyboard to play beats (woven into her Beatboxing!) was the next thing I needed to explore in my own music. So I got hold of a Quneo – an instrument I’d first heard Daniel Berkman use a couple of years earlier – and start to build their influence into how I played as a solo artist. Keeping the principle and practice of improvisation for and with that particular audience, but playing beats and keyboard parts on the Quneo, and seeing where that lead. It changed everything for me, and over time I started to feed it into the improv duets and into LEYlines… It was a massive change in terms of the range of sounds I could produce, and how obvious the hip hop influence is on my music, but the process and performance brain has remained pretty much the same…

Eventually, my Kidderminster job came to an end – to make more time for my now-massively-behind-schedule PhD – and by route of a couple of other teaching jobs in between, I’ve ended up teaching one day a week at BIMM in Birmingham and LOVING it. A new and amazing bunch of colleagues, though I can’t ever imagine anything replicating the creative energy of making music with Andy and Phi (LEYlines is still very much a thing!)

I finished the decade with the 20th anniversary of my first solo gig, Flapjack’s 10th birthday, and the 5th anniversary of my Subscription starting. A whole lot of time to reflect and look back. I am, at least from where I’m stood, making the best music of my life, and other than the constant stress of the PhD (such is PhD life, I guess) I’m doing pretty well. I have projects lined up for the new year, a number of things recorded but still to release and some other stuff I want to try out. I’m cycling again after 20-something years out of the saddle, and that’s meant I’m WAY fitter going into this decade than coming into the last one… Life is good.

10 years is a long time in music gear too! By the end of the decade, I’d changed amp brand (to Aguilar), String brand (to Dunlop) main effects processor (to MOD Devices) and perhaps most noticeably had an incredible new signature bass with Elrick Basses. My obsession with individual pedals grew massively over the decade, and my pedal collection grew with it…

Across the decade I released somewhere around 56 albums, not including compilations and remasters (I’m not 100% sure how many it is!) with the rate increasing massively after the advent of the subscription. If you’re not yet subscribed, you REALLY need to hop aboard!

So, everything has changed. I went from a single brilliant and highly developed musical focus (touring and recording with Lo) to this incredibly rich music making life, from playing solo bass to making music with controllers, basses and a mountain of pedals, from normal gigs to theatre shows with Torycore, from doing masterclasses in colleges to writing courses and hopefully finishing up a PhD soon…

A decade is a long time. A lot happened. Take stock, look forward, and leave the past behind while committing to putting right anything that is your responsibility to fix (I HATE the idea that these arbitrary rites of passage give us license to abandon the mess we created! I’m still dealing with mine from the last decade, forgiveness doesn’t mean abandoning others to our consequences…) – but build systems and support groups, communities and patterns of behaviour that’ll help you break cycles that were destructive in the last decade, that will drag you from the inertia, the traps that hold us, and the missed opportunities to help others. Make sure your resolutions include an outward look to how you can best influence and serve your community… artistic types are terrible for obsessing over our own work but our ‘work’ needs to include fixing the world we’re writing about and responding to. Commit to get your hands dirty, then go home and make art that illuminates it all.

Here’s to brighter days and much more music xx

Bandcamp Magic from 2019

Here’s a load of my favourite Bandcamp releases of 2019 – aside from Liam’s record being my favourite, they aren’t in any real order.

The three conspicuous absences are three of the artists I subscribe to on Bandcamp – Thomas Truax, Andrew Howie and Corey Mwamba. All three released a TON of great music this year, but I couldn’t pick out a best thing. Go hear it all and subscribe to them 🙂

Anyway, all these are fabulous and worth investigating. Go treat your ears and buy something beautiful:

The Long Game by Liam Noble

Probably my favourite record of the year. A pretty much perfect melding of melody, improv, experimentation and incredible sounds and feel. A dream trio.

Scenes From The Flood by Bryan Beller
An epic undertaking, writing a massive sprawling mostly instrumental epic exploring huge themes and personal change. Bryan’s best album, and definitely my rock album of the year.

Transmission Suite by 808 State
A reminder that 808 State were so much more than a ‘rave’ band – beautiful experimental EDM, with some of the coolest analog sounds you’ll ever hear.

Hey Jester by Hey Jester
If, like me, you find a lot of modern ‘edgy’ rock sounds like it was designed by committee, you may find the Hey Jester album to be a breath of fresh air. Packed full of great tunes, killer ideas and epic playing from all three of them. There’s a load of Jeff Buckley and Muse and stuff like that in there, but it’s way more fun than a load of corporate rock references could ever do justice to. Go listen.

Daughter Of Ocean by EchoTest
Another year, another absolutely killer record by EchoTest. Julie and Marco going from strength to strength.

Æ by Anton Eger
Just when it felt like the ‘Nu Jazz’ tag was getting a little stale, Phronesis drummer Anton pulls out this magical mix-up of jazz and electronica, with a ridiculous cast of musicians. Really amazing.

Lullabies For Monsters by Lullabies For Monsters
A spectacular bit of instrumental story-telling (with an accompanying written story), meticulously constructed and deeply moving.

KUNDABUFFA by KUNDABUFFA
Almost as prolific as me, Andy and Theone put out a ton of great music, broke the band up (one of the albums is called “KUNDABUFFA Is Dead”!) and then carried on releasing amazing music. A project to keep an eye on, cos so many good things are going to come from this…

Devotion by Dave Douglas | Uri Caine | Andrew Cyrille
Spiritual bass-less improv. always a good thing 🙂

You Are Beautiful; We Are All Beautiful v2 by Candy Says
More electropop genius from Candy Says. Everything that do is gorgeous – Juju’s ear for melody is absolutely golden.

Metamorphosis by Mai Leisz
I’ve been a Mai Leisz fan for many, many years – one of the most brilliant bassist/band leaders on the planet. Lots of 70s melodic fusion influence here, tons of killer writing and playing, and nothing annoying at all. Go buy her entire catalogue.

Pull Back for Sound by Clatter
New music from Clatter!! Many, many years after their last one, and it’s the best thing they’ve ever done. At times angry and deeply moving, the production is as great as the songs. Absolute prog magic.

All Will Be Said, All To Do Again by Sarah Gail Brand / Steve Beresford / John Edwards / Mark Sanders
Possibly the best recorded example of the magic of the London improv scene (though Mark’s from Birmingham 😉 ) – Lo and I saw this quartet live not long before this album, and were absolutely blown away. The most engaging, coherent, beautiful and challenging of improv records.

45 by School of Language
Protest funk from one half of Field Music. Just brilliant

Blurring Into Motion by Charlie Cawood
Orchestral prog? Post-millennial chamber music? Who knows, just gorgeous music overflowing with exquisite melodies and the most incredible arrangements.

Happy Bread (and Cruel Hangovers) by Hope and Social
That this isn’t my favourite H&S album but is still one of my favourites of the year tells you loads about how great they are. The opening track is one of my favourite things of the entire year.

Round One by Jumpstarted Plowhards
New old school punk with Mike Watt on bass. An adrenaline shot to the heart.

Getting Good With What You’ve Got – A Manifesto For Creative Progress

“If only I had that pedal, I could do what I really want to”
“When I can afford a new mic, I’ll start recording some stuff”
“I can’t do what I want to do without Logic X, so I’m waiting til I can get it before I start my new project”

Musicians are so great at coming up with reasons for inactivity. And the vast majority of them are gear-related. We are so apt to mistake access to technology for skill and knowledge that there is a huge percentage of musicians at any one time sitting dormant, wanting for some tech solution. And meanwhile, so many of us don’t get on with the other half of that formulation – the skill and knowledge part.

I recently taught a tech-related module in which almost every student went through some kind of period of inactivity due to a tech-related delay. Very few of them took a sideways step to explore the concept behind the thing that tech was meant to be allowing them to do, or came up with a more affordable version in the mean time. And inevitably, a lot of them ended up rushing towards the end of the year to get their projects done (caveat – the resulting performances were REALLY great, so this isn’t some kind of blunt ‘people who procrastinate will never achieve anything’ post 😉 )

The skills involved in music production can be practiced on the most rudimentary tech. learning how to position your phone to get the best audio recording via the built in mic will teach you a TON about acoustics and the directionality of mics. Positioning duvets and cushions and other stuff around it to soak up reflections will teach you about materials that are acoustically absorbent or not. Reaper is a DAW that’s available for super-cheap and on an extended trial basis if you’re super-broke (note: using Reaper perpetually without paying for it is a dick move. Don’t be that person) – it has virtual instruments, midi programming and the most incredible audio routing of any DAW I’ve ever come across. Taking audio recordings from your phone and learning how to improve them in Reaper will teach you more than waiting til you can afford Logic will ever do. (NB. I’ve used Reaper for all my recording, mixing and mastering for over a decade and can’t ever imagine going back to Logic or ProTools)

My current studio/live set-up (they’re the same) is the process of 26 YEARS of upgrades. In fact, I started 32 years ago with a borrowed distortion pedal, worked out what I could do with that, and moved on from there. My first album was recorded on Minidisc with an external mic – because THAT’S WHAT I HAD. I could’ve complained and waited til I could afford studio time, but the music wasn’t going to wait. I spent HOURS learning how best to position the mic, I sat with my friend Jez while he mastered it in the very first version of ProTools LE, getting him to explain everything he did so I could learn from that. My 2nd solo album was recorded into a trial version of Soundforge (hint – not designed as a recording program, at ALL!) via a Soundblaster gaming card. because THAT’S WHAT I HAD. My looping set-up changed over time, swapping things out, trading them in – I have multiple albums recorded with a broken (only worked in mono) DL4, and later on with a broken (produced intermittent weird digital glitches, and only worked in mono!) Looperlative, because THAT’S WHAT I HAD. I kept the same basses for decades because I didn’t expect new toys to fix problems that only practice could deal with.

There’s a phrase that I picked up from photographer friends that’s used to shut down erroneous conversations about new tech – “The best camera for the job is the one that’s in your hands”

So for us, for today, we need to remember “What you have is enough, so what are you going to do with it?”

One of my music production heroes (and favourite music makers all round) is Andrew Howie, formerly known as Calamateur, who has made records with THE most basic tech you could possibly imagine. A lot of his gear has come from car boot sales and junk shops, or originally been designed as toys. And yet, he’s continually made extraordinary work. He turned whatever he had into the aesthetic of the project. I’ve been inspired by his records for nearly 20 years, and not once have I wished he’d had better tech (though he’s also now going through and remastering his ENTIRE body of work and reissuing them – go check it all out here, and subscribe! https://andrewhowie.bandcamp.com )

So, get good with what you’ve got – learn how to fix things, learn how to set up your instrument to get the absolute best out of it, find out what free software is out there (srsly, YouTube is THE GREATEST LEARNING RESOURCE IN HISTORY – watch tutorials in every spare minute you have when you’re not playing). If you’re making electronic music, sign up to pluginboutique.com emails and find out about amazing deals on stuff that’ll help you, and save up for the things you need. But while you’re saving WORK ON YOUR SKILLS. Your skills are not tech-dependent. Your dexterity using an MPC controller can be developed on the cheapest of USB interfaces, your understanding of mixing and mastering can be learned using built in plugins in Reaper, your harmonic and melodic ideas can be developed on a crappy instrument…

It’s OK to want and to save for great gear – at this point, I feel insanely blessed to get to make music with the tech that I have. But I didn’t wait til I had this to get to work. I used whatever I had and learned skills as I went along, upgrading when I could afford it, and working round it when I couldn’t.

Now, go practice.

14 Questions About that Terrible Joni Mitchell Quote

Yesterday, a graphic with a Joni Mitchell Quote went massively viral on my Facebook and Instagram feeds. Lots of my most brilliant and usually quite observant and clued in music friends were sharing it unquestioningly as a useful comment about the state of music now. The quote itself is apparently from 2004, and is as follows: 

“I heard someone from the music business saying they are no longer looking for talent, they want people with a certain look at a willingness to cooperate. I thought, that’s interesting, because I believe a total unwillingness to co-operate is what is necessary to be an artist – not for perverse reasons, but to protect your vision. The considerations of a corportation, especially now, have nothing to do with art or music, that’s why I spend my time now painting” 

Joni Mitchell, quoted in the LA Times, Sept 5th 2004

So, perhaps not surprisingly, I take some issue with this. So here are 14 questions/comments you may want to ask yourself or reflect on about this before going ‘yeah, Joni! I’m taking up painting too!’ (though obviously, painting is a really really awesome way to spend your life, and in no way an inferior choice to making music…!)

1) who was this ‘someone from the music business’ and which bit of the music business were they in? Why is this one unnamed person’s pretty gruesomely commercial focus being held up as a template for understanding the motivations and behaviour of everyone in ‘the music business’?

2) what the hell is ‘the music business’. I’m in the music business, clearly this person’s thoughts don’t reflect on me… were they in publishing? Sync? A&R? Running a label? A sub-label? The ‘music business’ is gargantuan – finding a person with really terrible opinions within its bounds has never been hard.

3) For every renegade artist through the history of music, I’ll show you a thousand successful and often brilliant artists how had a certain look and were willing to co-operate. Frank Zappa was a total one off. Find me the label that launched 500 Frank Zappas and we can have a talk about Zappaism as a business model.

4) I adore Joni’s music – Hejira is my favourite record of all time, and she’s easily in the top 10 or so most significant musicians of the last 100 years, but when she was signed, she was a beautiful young acoustic guitar playing singer-songwriter in the golden age of acoustic singer/songwriters. She didn’t need to co-operate, she was exactly what they were looking for. Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was what she could do after a decade as a global icon, not the demo that got her signed in the first place.

5) Why are co-operation and artistic vision contradictory? Why do we view wilful obscurantism as a virtue? How many artists are doing exactly what they want to do AND making commercially viable music? James Taylor wrote some of the most beautiful, singable, hummable music of all time. I don’t see that as a flaw in his creative plan.

6) The 70-80 year history of the recording industry is LITTERED with stories of records being rejected because of a lack of singles. Some dickhead sent back Three Feet High And Rising for not having a single on it. Listen to Wasted Years by Iron Maiden and tell me that’s not an obvious attempt to write a hit. Big Yellow Taxi is arguably Joni’s most famous song, and by far the most poppy thing she ever did. And it’s great! It’s not worse art because people loved it! You can’t rate art on its complexity, less still argue about the ethics of a multi-national business based on how insane their commercial choices are.

7) The Major labels were once the only game in town, at least if you had any concern for global success. That’s not the case now. Joni said this, apparently, in 2004. Even then, that was not the case. Marillion had already gone it alone and crowd-funded a record by then, Joni could’ve done literally anything to make a record, and the more outside the mainstream she did it, the more coverage she’d have got (x-ref Radiohead and In Rainbows)

8) Joni’s reasons for quitting music are, by her own extensive admission in many many interviews, WAY more complex than this. All of them are valid – her life and work are her own. The validity of her choices is not really up for discussion.

9) Looks and commercial success have always gone hand in hand. The idea that ‘a certain look’ is a new idea is specious revisionism.

10) There has never EVER been a better time in human history to make recorded work as a musician, protect your vision AND negotiate a deal after the fact. Making records is orders of magnitude cheaper, labels do A&R via metrics now – look at Stormzy’s deal with Atlantic/Warner. He owns his entire operation, they just do the donkey work that he doesn’t need to do. But ‘recorded music’ is a tiny blip in the human timeline. Even if the model goes away, that’s not the end of anything. The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world.

11) If this is about there being an absence of successful ‘risky’ pop music out there, please explain Janelle Monae, the last ATCQ album, most Grime, Bjork, Kate Tempest, DJ Shadow, etc. etc. etc. Some are on subsidiaries of majors, some are completely independent and wouldn’t accept a deal if they were offered it. That’s a GREAT thing. A wonderful situation.

12) On a daily basis I come across incredible music, so much I can’t keep track of it. The world is laden down with people making extraordinary art. There are people making incredible art who I saw sharing this insane meme, in seeming ignorance of their own careers being the evidence that this is nonsense. Commercial success has been the death of many, many people. Riches are rarely ultimately a blessing. Sustainability of artistic practice is the only concern I have here, so a reduced capacity for stardom and supreme wealth is not going to make me sad… 

13) being an artist is hard. It’s always been hard, that’s what makes the art so special. A handful of people who remember selectively isn’t the story we need to be hearing or re-telling. Sure, there’s less money in A&R and artist development from majors now. The whole landscape has changed. But more people are making more music in more places, and that’s a fundamentally good thing, unless you assume that by the divine right of kings you should have their audience as well. There’s also a lot less record label money being spent on coke, turning every charlied pop star into an insufferable self absorbed bankrupt arsehole. Every cloud has a dusty, silver lining…

14) go make some art. If that’s painting instead of music, that’s not a step down. Joni’s music is unassailably amazing. Her painting is also exquisite. I’m glad that she’s had the economic latitude in her life to pursue both of those dreams in such extraordinary ways. But please don’t take a dump in our paddling pool because things aren’t they way there were in the 70s…

Making Time For Music

From Danny Barnes’ “How To Make A Living Playing Music”:

v. if there’s no social context for the music you are making, don’t be mad if no one comes to the shows or buys the music. or if only very few people do. in that case the reward has to be the music. hey that’s a great deal. also you have lots of freedom to do different stuff. there’s no one to alienate. let’s face it, sometimes having no one at the show is a great indicator that you are onto something. i’m serious.

This was such a wake up call to me the first time I read it. Danny’s linking of ‘success’ and social context/utility is an enormously important one, both for live and recorded music. It’s why cover bands get more work than new/unknown original bands. The social context for nostalgia is way more widespread, and so many of the venues where live music happens are built around that. I don’t really make great beer-drinking music. The dynamic range of what I do is way too wide for people to comfortably talk while I do it without ruining it for everyone, so the ideal social context for my music is a house concert or a provincial theatre. I haven’t reached the provincial theatre level of success (yet) so house concerts it is… 

steve lawson and daniel berkman in concert

But for recorded music, the issue is similar. Whether or not people think what you do is amazing is not really the number one measure of whether they’ll listen to it. The bigger question is ‘what does this music do for me within the context of my life? What do I need music to be right now, and is this music that thing?’ – it’s why a whole bunch of music that sounds like wallpaper can be so successful. Everyone needs wallpaper! The contexts within which people can carve out space and time to listen to difficult music are surprisingly small in so many parts of contemporary western society.

This is absolutely borne out in the sales/popularity of my solo work. The weirder/harsher the sounds, the lower the sales. Often the responses from the people who love it are more effusive if I get more experimental, but if it’s harder to use, people engage with it a different way, and it becomes a thing that needs its own space and time, rather than an accompaniment. So my new album has done well for a number of reasons, but one of them is evidently that it works as social music – it’s great to put on while chatting to friends or hanging out in a way that PS, You Are Brilliant isn’t. That’s a weird, gnarly, twisted record and ends with the sound of the world exploding. Not exactly dinner party stuff…

And as a listener, I experience this on a daily basis – we have a pair of really nice BlueTooth HK Speakers in our living room. They just sound lovely, so I greatly enjoy listening to music through them. But because of where they are, the choice to listen through them means that most of the time the rest of the family are going to be listening too, and it means whoever wants to watch TV has to stop. So what are the kinds of music that work in that setting? I experiment with this a lot. Some of the things that work are surprising – we’ve had 80s Thrash parties on a Saturday morning while playing Lego. Anthrax was a particular winner. For Lo and I it was deeply nostalgic, so we were chatting about buying Metallica and Anthrax and Megadeth albums, swapping stories. For Flapjack, he got to rock out to something fairly melodic and with a ton of energy while we were playing.

But that’s a set up that doesn’t work at all with a lot of more modern – or heavier – metal. Even if it’s really diverse, it’s tough to get the family past an intro that’s all chugging Djent guitars are guttural roars… The context isn’t there. Now, extreme metal is one of my big musical loves, so in order to spend time with it I have to MAKE time. The social context is absent, so it becomes music for commuting, or solo driving, music to listen to on headphones while I’m working (if it’s the kind of work that isn’t impeded by music)

It’s the same with some kinds of free/complex jazz. There are jazz records that really work in a family space – a lot of Miles’ 70s stuff is cool, Dinosaur, Phronesis. We’re a pretty musical household, and occasionally I get away with something a bit freer – Flapjack and I have been known to listen to Cecil Taylor in the car – But I’d be unlikely to put on John Zorn as an alternative to watching Sam And Cat.

And then there’s lyrics. Alongside jazz and metal, hip hop is one of the mainstays of my musical loves, but I have to vet the lyrics fairly carefully for family listening. I’m less concerned about swearing that I am about things that carry deeply negative messages that it’d be tricky for an 8 year old to decode, but I end up playing is safe, and keeping a lot of hip hop for myself.

But I do make time for it. Because otherwise I cut myself from all this music that I need to be able to make the music I make. If you’re a musician, music is food. You can go on a diet of only listening to your own ideas, and there are certainly examples of musicians who manage to make amazing music in relative isolation (though there are also numerous examples of musicians self-inflating the auteur nature of their own practice), but for the rest of us, what we choose to listen to will shape our musical adventures in often dramatic ways. It will shape our understanding of production and arranging, and even lets us learn what our particular speakers and room are SUPPOSED to sound like – a vital aspect in learning how to mix/master is learning your system.

So, think about the social context, and carve out time for the music that matters to you, but may not necessarily fit the social spaces you occupy. Your musical journey will thank you.

Making music sustainably in the Internet age

Have a listen to my new album while you read (it’s a long post): 



2008-2012 was the tiny window in which the Internet looked like it really might be some kind of utopian amazing thing for independent artists trying to find a likeminded audience. With Twitter and Facebook in the ascendency, and neither of them messing with what you saw in your feed, there was a genuine meritocracy and an amazing space for indie artists to help spread the word about each other’s work without it impinging on their ability to reach their own audience. I put out a couple of records in that time, and they’re still my biggest selling digital albums. That’s no coincidence.

Then it all changed (in case you’re writing about this for college, the music economy can not reliably be divided into pre and post napster. The changes happened way more often than that, and as above, there were moments when it looked really good for us…) – Spotify came along. Initially without a mobile version or caching, it mostly replaced radio and a lot of people used it to find music to buy elsewhere! (some people still do, just fewer of them). But they pulled enough people into the streaming idea, and the prevailing industry wisdom was a really un-nuanced view that saw ‘legal streaming’ as the answer to torrenting stuff, rather than as a real and present challenge to buying stuff. Soon Spotify started ramping up the frequency of ads to make it really unpleasant without a paid account. (imagine being an advertiser who paid for an ad that purely existed to annoy people into getting rid of those ads? What a world…!)

And alongside that, first FB and then Twitter started to close off unfettered access to audiences. FB were blatant. On a given date, they introduced an algorithm that meant not everyone who was signed up to your artist page would see your stuff. Bands were literally having to cancel tours after having thrown their lot in with FB instead of a relatively costly email list, only to find that instead of 50K people a day reading their posts, it was less than a couple of hundred. Yup, it was that severe. No real warning, no room to manoeuvre, just ‘pay up, or no-one sees your tour dates’. And as most bands haven’t budgeted for that kind of contingency, there were tours booked on the assumption that 50K people would be engaged in knowing about and talking about them to help build an audience that crashed and burned.

Twitter was more subtle. First there was the shift of their ‘recommended’ users away from friends of the people that worked there that they thought were interesting (remember when brilliant and fascinating indie artists like Zoe Keating and Imogen Heap were on the recommended people to follow? The good old days…) Instead it was corporate accounts and reality TV stars. We were all being encouraged and subtly engineered away from forming meaningful open conversations with our friends and instead following celeb accounts, who in turn were paying for ‘promoted’ tweets, faked trending hashtags and the like. I still hold that the biggest enemies to conversation on Twitter are us all following way too many people, and the entirely bogus thought that our time is best spent trying to sum up how shit politics is in pithy Tweets that will salve the nagging feeling that we’re all going to burn. Seeing endless retweets and now seeing people’s faves in our timeline further ruins the experience…

And iTunes, once the supposed shining crown jewel of digital music shopping online (if you ignore all the BS with 128k files and DRM at the start), acquired Beats Music and morphed it into Apple Music. Their own streaming service, in direct competition to iTunes. They clearly give no shits about iTunes store, and would rather have the residual payments for people re-listening to old stuff than help current artists fund their work (TL:DR of streaming economics – it makes perfect sense IF 99% of the value in your body of work has already been released and sold in the past. If you’re a major label who also owns a publisher, then making money (and scraping metadata) from all the people who listen to The Beatles and Michael Jackson and Abba and The Eagles and the thousands of hit songs from yesteryear is WAY, WAY more profitable to you than those same people listening to vinyl or CDs that they bought in the last century. So you throw all new artists under the bus for that publishing money, and then pretend that the fight over higher royalty rates is one you even care about so the new artists don’t all leave. And if you can grandfather streaming into a record deal that still gives the label and publisher most of the money despite nothing being released, then you can make even more money and the artist gets basically nothing (see Peter Frampton’s viral complaints for evidence). Some indies are doing OK from streaming (if you keep all your rights and get some good promo elsewhere) but there’s no solid model for it as yet… In a nutshell)

But, through all of this, one only music entity kept growing, kept getting bigger, and better, adding music journalism, subscriptions, discovery… While Spotify was posting millions in annual losses and faking artists so they could stack their own playlists with shitty music that was published in-house dishonestly, Bandcamp grew and grew. $317 Million dollars to artists as I write this, and no losses. Also, no billionaire owners…

For me, as that fleeting utopian window faded, Bandcamp came up with the subscription idea. Offer people more music, more video, more interaction for an annual fee. The subscribers still get albums to download and keep (it’s still the bit of this that matters to me the most – nothing that anyone gets from me on Bandcamp is rented. It’s theirs. You aren’t paying for annual access to a thing that can be taken away. It’s yours (and in my case, it’s all Creative Commons licensed, so you can share it with your friends too – it makes no sense to me to criminalise people helping to spread the word). If Spotify goes down, all those curated playlists and all that data you’ve built up is gone for good. If Bandcamp goes down, all the music is yours (and equally valuably, my listeners are on my email list, so we don’t lose touch like we did on Myspace or MP3.com)

So what of releasing an individual album like I did yesterday? For me it has a number of functions. It’s good for me to stick a flag in the ground once a year – here’s what I’m up to, y’all – for those who aren’t already into what I’m doing, it’s a chance to explore it at album length. And for those who like some of what I do and not other bits, it’s a chance to buy an album at a sensible price and not have to subscribe to a bunch of music you don’t like just to get it!

YouTube for instrumentalists has developed a culture of wowing people with super clever tricks and monster technique. All fine except when it stops people from making any other kind of music. I’m acutely aware that my stuff on YouTube is never going to go viral. But I’ve also no plans to start making circus videos as adverts for something else. Great if your art leans in that direction already, but I’m more concerned about a diverse ecosystem for the arts, than forcing everyone into a particular mould to go viral.

Bandcamp doesn’t have that. I’m not trying to get a specific number of listens/views/clicks to make it meaningful. It is what they describe as ‘high friction’. It’s not designed for 20 seconds of wow before clicking out to somewhere else. The attention is on the art. And the invitation is to pay for it and help make more of it possible. If someone buys my new album, they aren’t paying off a budget for making or promoting it, they’re helping to make the next one possible. That’s why the monthly income from subscribers is so amazing. I worked out that I’d have needed somewhere north of 11 million Spotify plays to make what I’ve made on Bandcamp. That’s never going to happen making the music I make. I’d have to be thinking of ambient playlists as my target audience to try and make any money on Spotify at all. And that’s not what I do, it’s not what’s interesting about what I do, and it’s not why the people who subscribe to me are there.

My thinking on how music works online evolves a lot over time (dig back into my blog and you’ll see many posts where I was v much pro-Spotify at one point, and earlier than that where I had a really regressive and insane view of file sharing) but the knowledge that there’s no better environment for the sustainability of independent music online than Bandcamp has remained solid since 2009.

Thanks to everyone who made the defiant step of buying my new album. It would’ve taken me many, many thousands of Spotify plays to get the same level of income, and the ad campaign to get those plays would’ve eaten up all the money I made from it. Instead, a small group of people have made this record viable, by helping me to cover with download sales the money I’ve lost in the last week or so through illness-induced canceled teaching. That’s pretty amazing, and I’m grateful.

I’m not going to get rich, I’m not aiming to be famous, or to go viral. I just want to make more interesting art that reflects the world it exists in, and finds the people who care about that. Bandcamp is making that possible. Join the quiet revolution 🙂

Brand New Video – Beauty And Desolation Album Title Track

The second video from my forthcoming solo album, Beauty And Desolation, is the title – and opening – track. Starting the album with this track is an invitation – an invitation to slow down, to step off the treadmill, away from the obsession with clickbait and scrolling and getting an endorphin rush from continual updates, and instead to take 8 minutes out to go on a journey. The album’s theme centres around things that are beautiful but which can ultimately cause immeasurable harm, inspired by this summer of record heat and sun in the UK (yay warmth!), but it being evidence of pretty catastrophic climate change. The cost of getting a tan in your back garden just got significantly higher… So there’s beauty in the music, but also tension, there’s a searching, questioning, mysterious quality to much of the harmony, as it explores that interplay between beauty, warmth, light, and the scorched earth we’re seeing elsewhere… 

Musically, the track features my fretless Elrick SLC signature bass, processed through my MOD Devices Duo. The album features a mix of ambient/electronic tracks and more hip hop, wonky groove-based tracks. The contrast is exemplified by the contrast between this track and the first track posted from the album, Transcendence And Decay, which follows Beauty And Desolation on the album : 

Beauty And Desolation is out on September 3rd 2018, but early access is available to Bandcamp subscribers at http://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe – along with 40 other solo and collaborative albums from the last 18 years of my career.

Ten Collaborators Who Changed My Music-Life. Part 4 – Andy Edwards

Right, day 4 and we’re going to bring this right up to date because today is his 50th Birthday, and we’re going to talk about Andy Edwards.

And to talk about Andy, requires me to talk about drummers. Because, for the most part, I avoided drummers in improv situations for close to a decade. I played with a couple in that time who were AMAZING (Seb Rochford and Roy Dodds), but for the most part, I wanted to steer clear of trying to do my loopy-layering thing with drums. This was for a number of reasons – one was simply that there was more than enough groove-based music with drums on it happening elsewhere. It felt like a creative space that was pretty swamped and I didn’t at the time have anything specific I wanted to bring to it. But it was also because finding drummers that could follow as well as lead was really hard. Finding drummers whose sense of dynamics was a smooth line from silence to deafening, with everything in between being a possible choice, was REALLY hard. So many drummers that I heard playing in (idiomatic) improv settings assumed that their job was to play like it was a normal gig in whatever style they were most comfortable, and just leave the harmonic and melodic elements to everyone else, rather than treating it as a a genuine open act of co-creation with all the potential for variation that that supplies.

I obviously found the most brilliant foil for that in Daniel Berkman, but not long after that I also started playing with Andy Edwards.

Andy’s career path was one that saw him become a bit of a legendary prog/chops/crazy-time-signatures and polyrhythmic genius drummer, alongside playing with Robert Plant in Priory Of Brion. Not the obvious start point for a groundbreaking Stevie-Collaborator, but as we talked more (we teach in the same college – Andy manages the course, and found me online before convincing me to go and teach with him) his history in improv, and our shared love of so many experimental forms emerged. Particularly a mutual obsession with Miles Davis’ 70s output. So Andy and I started doing improv gigs. Initially with invited guests to come and play with us – Julie Slick, Jem Godfrey, Bryan Corbett – it was duo-plus-one, and we got to explore some fascinating territory with each of them (the gigs with Bryan and Jem are available to my Bandcamp subcribers!) And then we started playing as a more regular trio with the third part of our teaching team at Kidderminster, guitarist Phi Yaan-Zek, calling ourselves LEYlines.

Andy has brought two wonderful things into my music life again – one is playing with an acoustic drummer that has the most extraordinarily brilliant sense of space and dynamics, and the other is the option to get seriously heavy! That we can explore the intersection of metal and improv, blending it with all the other prog, experimental, jazz and electronic ideas that get thrown in by the three of us, is a joy.

Andy and I have a brilliantly interdependent relationship as a rhythm section. Neither is reliant on the other for anything, and can couple and decouple a groove for any given length of time. I can wander off into ambient territory, or noise, or weirdness of some sort, and Andy will do whatever he feels is the right thing to do for the music, rather than bringing any weighty expectations about what ‘ought’ to happen to the gig. His extraordinary technical and stylistic knowledge gives us so many places to go in any improv setting, and that coupled to the unpredictability of what he might turn up with gear-wise (it could just as easily be a guitar and a MIDI drum kit as a set of acoustic drums) keeps everything as fresh as can be. I look forward to every opportunity I have to play with him, especially in LEYlines where our shared and ever-growing vocabulary is an art project all of its own.

So happy birthday, you old bastard, thanks for keeping me constantly on my toes and making me reach deep for the best that I bring every time we play!

10 Collaborators Who Changed My Music Life. Part 2 – Jez Carr

Right, so today is part 2 of my new series, and we’re talking about Jez Carr! Jez is such a monumental presence in my improv career, I’m genuinely not sure I’d be doing what I’m doing now if it wasn’t for his influence…

We met at a jam session arranged by a mutual friend that I’d met on a session gig – and really hit it off. We started getting together multiple times a week to play (to the point where one of his flatmates in a freudian slip on the phone counted me amongst the residence of their flat 😉 ) and his studio engineering expertise was integral to me being able to turn my initial live minidisc recordings into my my first solo album. We dumped them into Protools, recorded an extra duet track for it, and that was …And Nothing But The Bass.

We then set about recording the first fully improvised recording of my life, and playing the first fully improvised gigs together – Conversations was an utterly pivotal experience for me, and still stands alone amongst my recorded output as a collaboration on which I used just one pedal (a Line 6 DL4) and as such it favours interaction over construction to a great degree. Jez was the person with whom I started to properly build my melodic and harmonic vocabulary as an improvisor. We did a ridiculous number of jazz gigs together, which were mostly standards gigs, but we’d sneak in as much improv as we could…

His presence in those formative years, and the experiences we had together making music around the turn of the millennium are indelibly present in everything I’ve done since, and I’ll be forever grateful to him for his friendship, trust, sense of adventure and truly beautiful piano playing. A life-changer, for sure 🙂

Thoughts on ECM joining the streaming world

Today’s big (ish) music economy news is that ECM are sticking all of their stuff on the various streaming services v. soon.

I’ve never really understood ECM’s economic thinking – I get that they have a historic and aesthetic attachment to CDs and vinyl, but their delving into digital has been seemingly pretty haphazard. For quite a while they had massive parts of their catalogue (perhaps all of it, I never checked) on eMusic – them removing their stuff from eMusic was one of the deciding factors in me cancelling my eMusic account yesterday, after 10 years.

They’ve recently stuck a few things on Bandcamp, but have priced them so high that they’re positioning themselves well outside the mainstream of Bandcamp’s internal economy (as an aside, in the last couple of years, the cost in real terms to a customer in the UK of a download that costs $10 on Bandcamp has jumped from around £7 to around £9, thanks to Brexit trashing our currency, and VATMOSS adding $2 to the price before we even get to that…)

Anyway, so ECM have pulled their stuff from eMusic (where I would pay between about a pound and maybe £3 or 4 per album, depending on the number of tracks) and put it on Spotify, and have put massively overpriced versions on Bandcamp.

Which at face value begs the broader question, why are SO many music people still so utterly binary in their thinking about music distribution? It’s either collect the scraps from streaming and hope that you can magically generate a big enough market to make it meaningful, or charge £10+ per album for CDs AND THE SAME FOR DOWNLOADS ?!?! Continue reading “Thoughts on ECM joining the streaming world”