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”

PS, You Are Brilliant – New Steve Lawson Solo Album Out Today

Finally! My new solo album – my NINETEENTH full-length solo release – PS, You Are Brilliant, is out today. You can listen to it and download it exclusively on Bandcamp – This is NOT on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play etc. You can only hear it and download it from Bandcamp (or anywhere that has the Bandcamp player embedded, like here!). You can stream the album in full and if you like it and want to buy it, it’s pretty inexpensive 🙂

Keeping it on Bandcamp is the musical equivalent of only selling your produce in a farmer’s market. It’s a better deal for artists, a better deal for listeners, and you get to choose better-than-CD quality audio if you like at no extra cost. Everybody wins!

If you dig it a lot, and want to investigate further, PS, You Are Brilliant is also available to my Bandcamp Subscribers – I recently passed the 3 year anniversary of the introduction of the subscription, a mechanism for releasing music whereby subscribers pay a flat fee per year and get everything that I release. This year so far, they’ve had 8 albums and an eBook, plus a load of subscriber-exclusive video. Continue reading “PS, You Are Brilliant – New Steve Lawson Solo Album Out Today”

Two New Albums Released Today!

I’ve got two albums coming out today! They’re being released in different ways, and the releases are connected, so read on to find out how to get both!

First of all, the first Illuminated Loops recording is coming out. Illuminated Loops is my project with visual artist Poppy Porter. Poppy is synaesthetic, which means she ‘sees’ sound. So for this, I improvise, she draws what she sees and I then treat the drawings as a graphic score. It results in a lot of truly beautiful art and some really surprising and lovely music – it’s very much recognisably me, but definitely draws me in new directions and inspires choices that I wouldn’t have made had I just been focused on playing… There’s an awful lot more to be said about the process, which is why the album comes with extensive PDF sleeve notes.

Now, the album will only initially be available to my Bandcamp subscribers. They are the people who pay £20 a year (or more, some of them voluntarily contribute over that) to get everything that I release in the year. They are the reason I’m able to make music the way I do. Last year I put out 7 albums. Some of them were subscriber-exclusives, all of them were released to subscribers a month or so before they became public. And when you first subscribe, you get a massive windfall from my back catalogue – over 30 albums, including every solo album I’ve ever made and a load of subscriber exclusive collaborations too. There are albums in there with Michael Manring, Jem Godfrey, Bryan Corbett and others that are unavailable elsewhere. It’s a crazy bargain, and if you decide to join them today, you’ll get all that music right now, and at some point today, you’ll get the Illuminated Loops album. Continue reading “Two New Albums Released Today!”