In Memoriam: Rick Turner

Rick Turner, one of the greatest and most influential bass and guitar builders of all time died yesterday, aged 78. He was a very dear friend, and I’m still trying to come to terms with the idea that he’s gone, but I wrote this this morning on Facebook, so am reposting it here.

I’ve been trying to piece together the timeline of my friendship with Rick Turner. I’d read his column in Bass Player for years, but we first connected, as did so many other bass players, via The Bottom Line – the legendary email discussion list for bassists from the 90s. Rick started posting in early 1998, answering questions and in his usual prescient way pointing out in a discussion about the gender and racial imbalance in bass magazines, that if you don’t like the way someone else is doing things, do it yourself and post it online.

I dearly wish I had my email archive from back then – looking through my photos from NAMM in 1999 and 2000, it’s clear that I made connections with a whole load of bass builders and companies through TBL and then visited them as soon as I got to NAMM. Doing a little detective work, I can see that the two portraits of Rick and I here with the Renaissance fretless were taken on the first day of NAMM (I didn’t have a razor with me and I’m clean shaven 😉 ) – I took the one of him, he took the one of me.

In my head, I’d always thought I did my trip up the coast to SF in 1999, but reading through the archive.org version of my website, I saw that my first year I just flew in and out for NAMM. Did a handful of interviews for Bassist (including Leland Sklar) and went home. I can tell a lot of this from the photos too because in 99 I was clean shaven but after meeting Rick that year I grew the soul patch that I still have. It’s never had any other association in my head to anything other than copying Rick…

So in 2000 I extended my California trip after NAMM and arrived in LA intending to get a train up to SF from LA (ha!!) I told Rick about this and he initially tried to work out if it was possible, then helped me plan a totally different itinerary involving a rental car and the need to learn VERY quickly to drive on the opposite side of the road (and an unbelievably lucky turn of events that meant I found the Michael Manring and Trey Gunn gig at the Last Day Saloon without a map!). Rick helped me sort out where to go, routes between Modulus, Zon and his factory, even tried to hook me up with a visit to Alembic, and then invited me to stay. Which meant I got to meet his then-wife Jessica and their child Juniper, and thus began an annual trip to visit the family after NAMM, to hear new music (I bought SO many records at his insistence), to hear stories, to find out new facts about Geckos and whatever other creatures Juniper was discovering at the time, to go into the classroom with Jess to talk to her students. Over the years, Rick would come out to my shows, to house concerts at Bob’s or shows at the much-missed Espresso Garden with Michael Manring. He’d stop gigs in the middle to tell me how special he thought it all was, including one amazing speech about the individuality of intonation and how much he loved mine. He’s the only person ever to turn round at one of my gigs and tell the people talking to ‘shut the fuck up’. When he heard Lo and I play together he talked about her skills as an independent entity, not as ‘my wife’ or ‘the singer’ but about her guitar playing and songwriting.

In California I have SO many friends. Amazing, lifelong friendships, people who went the extra mile to impact my life in many, many ways. But in those formative years of the 00s I had two families – The Turners in Santa Cruz and Doug Lunn and Vida Vierra in Santa Monica. Places of sanctuary where there was always a spare bed or couch, always a place to decompress, to not be ‘on’ but to be fully myself. Now Rick and Doug are both gone, incredible figures in my life who taught me so much, encouraged me in ways that kept me doing what I’m doing at times when I might’ve ended up going a more conventional route.

That Rick was the co-inventor of graphite necked basses with Geoff Gould, pioneered so much in bass electronics, custom design, piezo pickups, and that he made my beloved Renaissance bass (and that’s officially the first time I’ve ever spelt Renaissance right without spellcheck) was all secondary to the friendship, support, encouragement and love he showed me over the years. We’d been planning a holiday together here for years – initially a canal boat trip, then a visit to Warwick castle (Rick was short for Warwick) and a trip to Scotland. I’m absolutely broken that neither happened.

Rick was arguably the most important figure in the development of the bass guitar after Leo Fender. He knew more and shared more about building instruments than anyone, inspiring generations of luthiers. I got to play the guitar he built for Henry Kaiser to take to Antarctica and it blew my mind. Lindsey Buckingham is still playing his Turner Model 1 guitars to this day – one of the most iconic guitar designs in history. I once played one of his absolute top spec steel strung acoustics and it’s the closest I’ve ever come to switching instruments away from bass. I’ve never felt any instrument resonate like that.

I’ve heard from people over the last few days some of the things that Rick had told them about me, times he’d complimented me or used me as an exemplar regarding fretless playing. I knew it was happening through the years thanks to all the people he would connect me with. I spent an absolutely magical day once with Evelyn Glennie, after Rick had built her a marimba pickup and in the conversation had been talking about looping, with Rick telling her that there was no-one else better to talk to about what was possible. A bunch of you reading this are friends here purely because Rick introduced us either at NAMM or online. He was in my corner to a degree that’s incredibly rare and my life is different because of it.

I’m now approaching the age Rick was when we met – he was 56, I was 26, and I hope I can offer a tiny fraction of the encouragement and support he gave to younger luthiers and musicians, the respect with which he spoke to people, the time he took to make people feel special and like their absurd solo bass plans weren’t so ridiculous after all.

RIP Rick, I still can’t believe you’re gone. x

 

Thoughts on Bandcamp being bought by Epic Games

So yesterday brought the news that Bandcamp had been bought by Epic Games. It arrived via a very upbeat email – from Bandcamp founder and CEO Ethan Diamond, and it kicked off a flurry of conversation on Twitter, the vast majority of it skeptical at best and heartbroken at worst.

It’s certainly the case that for the longest time Bandcamp has been the bastion of indie success against the total mess of the corporate, VC-funded, short-term gain, tech-bro world of start-ups. Bandcamp has from the start prioritised slow growth but getting things right – every time they introduce a new feature it takes ages for them to develop it and then they trial it extensively rather than throwing it into the wild and letting everyone screw up with it.

As you know, I had a fair amount of input in the run-up to the launch of their subscription service, at a time when I had an annual meet-up with Ethan in San Francisco to chat over what was working best for me and what I’d like to see happen to Bandcamp. There’s a lot of functionality in the subscription platform that is made up of things that I asked for – some of them were definitely just synergy in terms of how we thought of it and some no doubt originated with me. I was also one of the first three artists to get to trial it for a year before it was thrown open to anyone.

So I have previous form with Bandcamp, and of course have made it the sole home for my music online for over a decade. So a change as massive as this comes as both a shock and has the potential to significantly disrupt my music life if it goes badly. Almost half my annual earnings at the moment come from Bandcamp, so its continued success is something that I’m literally banking on.

So what do we make of the decision? I’ve been reading a lot of the responses to it, have privately reached out to a number of people who have knowledge of both the games industry and Epic or who work at Bandcamp. I don’t have access to any not-yet-public information, so none of this is based on exclusive info that I have, and as such represents my attempt to make sense of the decision based on previous dealings with Bandcamp and the wisdom of friends.

First up, the announcement – summarised it says that Bandcamp won’t change its mission or core function or its economic model, but will have Epic’s capital, platform and expertise “to expand internationally and push development forward across Bandcamp, from basics like our album pages, mobile apps, merch tools, payment system, and search and discovery features, to newer initiatives like our vinyl pressing and live streaming services.”

So, firstly, I believe that this is Bandcamp’s intention. None of my dealings with Ethan or my knowledge of what they’ve been offered in the past suggests that he’s in this to bullshit people. It is possible, obviously, that the sums of money involved have made him change course completely in terms of his honesty with Bandcamp’s users – let’s face it, he’s never going to say ‘BTW, you’re all fucked because I just made millions!’ But possibilities aside, I have no reason at this point to doubt that his – and Bandcamp’s – intentions are for this to be an additive experience rather than one that kills a very successful, profitable platform.

Let’s look at the list of things they want to improve:

  • International reach: this is a HUGE one. Bandcamp currently only exists in English. [EDIT as a friend at Bandcamp just pointed out to me, the fan-facing text on the website is also available in Japanese and French!] Obviously the text of the site can be translated by apps, but offering the kind of comprehensive support they try to give to fans and artists, tooling up to offer all of that in another language is expensive and complex. Assuming Epic have this capacity, that’s an immediate win for Bandcamp…
  • Pushing development: I’m not sure what Epic bring to the ‘album pages’ – there’s a possibility that Bandcamp as the sales home of a LOT of game soundtracks could give them reason to try and integrate game links back and forth with those? Total guess… The mobile app and merch tools seem fairly obvious in two ways – the tech team and integration with Epic’s current gaming platform. Which could be an add-on or could make the Bandcamp app unusable. A lot depends on how the people at Epic view Bandcamp’s current profitability (aside from any actual contractual terms in the sale, which make all of my conjecture moot). If they respect it as a going concern, they’ll perhaps try to support and enhance that functionality, but it’s way outside the way most tech companies work in that it doesn’t feature an ad-funding or data-scraping model AT ALL. Bandcamp’s uniqueness is more than just the sales platform. It’s supremely non-intrusive and non-invasive, and also gives artists an amazing level of control and access to their audience without having to rely on an algorithmic gateway. Messing with that terrifies me, frankly. If what happens is that Epic scrape a bunch of user data and use it to do A&R for UMG or Warner (also part owned by Tencent who have a 40% share in Epic), then that’s grim but won’t ruin it for the rest of us. If they cover the site in ads and start to filter what we get to see and what gets sent to us not based on editorial content or what our friends buy but some sort of gameable, chargeable algorithm, that’s a massive step away from Bandcamp’s core values. I imagine Bandcamp believe that won’t happen at this point. We’ll see.
  • Next up is Payment system. This might be one of the biggest things they’ve gone for – again, this is conjecture on my part, I know a lot of people have a problem with PayPal, myself included, but replacing it with a bespoke system was potentially ruinous to Bandcamp’s business given just how central PayPal is to the entire online financial system. They use Stripe for a lot of credit card stuff, but getting away from PayPal requires a whole other level of infrastructure and partnering. Epic is of the scale where they could build their own banking system, which Bandcamp’s experience so far with so many different types of sale could be really useful for, and the costs involved in that would no longer involve haemorrhaging money to PayPal, particularly on small payments. My (somewhat educated) guess is that, along with live streaming, this is one of Bandcamp’s biggest concerns. And it’s one that makes sense.

The bit that makes less sense is the political side of this, going from giving money to PayPal, owned by an epic billionaire douchebag, to Epic, also owned by a billionaire, but with a 40% stake owned by Chinese tech investors Tencent. So there’s something about this that made Bandcamp do this deal rather than another deal, something bigger than just ‘getting away from systems own by billionaires’ – I know they’ve turned down a number of offers from within the music industry over the years, so it’s notable that they went with this. It could just be timing, but it could also be that Epic offered something meaningful. I’m not discounting that possibility/likelihood.

  • The last two ventures are also interesting. Vinyl pressing is possibly the most capital-intensive aspect of all of this, in that to do it the way they want, they need to build their own pressing plants, which also means having the machines built to press vinyl – if they do this, there would be a level of innovation going on within the music economy that could serve indie artists incredibly well. Vinyl is still a growth market, but the pressing plants are backed up and monopolised by the Majors for reissues. Getting new vinyl pressed as an indie in anything other than wholly boutique quantities is frustrating and slow. Bandcamp scaling this could change things for people who want to do that.
  • And live streaming – again, this could be a point of synergy or the parasitic collapse of Bandcamp’s team of ninjas. Bandcamp has started to offer live streaming of gigs. Epic does streaming, including of films, within Fortnite. Both have infrastructure and skills the other could want. Bandcamp obviously has no scale to offer Epic, but taking over Bandcamp’s streaming service and incorporating it with a gaming one would make sense for Epic, given that they are very much minor players in the streaming game. Twitch and YouTube would be obvious competitors here, so pairing a new gaming streaming platform with a music-specific one would make a lot of sense if they were going for that. The fact that they’re also streaming movies inside Fortnite hints at much bigger ambitions – something suggested too by a friend in the games industry who offered a WAY more pessimistic assessment of what all of this means than I’m writing here (her perspective is backed up with years of experience and insight, so I’m not in any way discounting her sad appraisal of what’s likely to happen, but I am trying to factor in what I know of Bandcamp’s dealings so far)… A lot of musicians are using Twitch. A Bandcamp-led campaign to get indie musicians onto a new platform would be massively more effective than Epic trying to do that themselves and just poach people from Twitch…

So where does that leave us? My desire for Bandcamp to remain that lovely bastion of independence is gone. I don’t get to have that any more, and complaining about them doing what they’ve done doesn’t help. What I’m concerned about and will be monitoring closely is whether any of this impacts the functioning of the subscriber community – easily the most important aspect of my music making life, and the subject of my soon-to-be-finished PhD – but also how people find music within Bandcamp – when people describe Bandcamp as a download delivery system, they miss out the incredible amount of internal traffic that is involved in how people discover music. That plus an ongoing familiarity with Bandcamp is worth far more than the percentage of my Bandcamp gross that they take as fees. It’s a net gain for me to have them take that money and invest it in infrastructure, coding and development. Inasmuch as the deal with Epic helps them to do those things, I’m OK with it, even while preferring indie things. I’m an ideological purist but a functioning pragmatist.

But I am also concerned about the ethics at the heart of the company. Ethan says that Epic shares their values. The way Epic is structured and funded reveals that to be at least partially not true. Bandcamp’s way of operating up until now is markedly different to Epic’s, and it will be interesting to see what happens to Bandcamp’s annual fundraisers etc. They’ve chosen some pretty great causes to support in response to political happenings in the US over the years, and I’d hate to see that stifled by concerns from Epic’s investors. It’s a distinct possibility that they will clash head on and how that plays out would tell us a lot. I operate my business on fair trade principles. Bandcamp have always branded themselves as a fair trade music company, and that is now less clear than it ever has been. It’s not necessarily gone, but it’s not clear cut the way it was.

But outside of that, I am going to be watching developments in the space that has just opened up to the left of Bandcamp as people with a concern for free and open tech tools are re-energised to look at what’s happening with fresh impetus. Maggie Vail who was one of the people behind CASH music – an organisation who developed a bunch of super cool and experimental tech tools for artists – and has already tweeted (perhaps semi-sarcastically?) asking about people wanting to explore that space again. It will be interesting to see if anyone just seeks to build a new version of Bandcamp. As much as I’ve been perfectly happy to have my music available in one place, it’s not healthy to live in an ecosystem where your financial viability is in the hands of one company.

That said, Corey Mwamba tweeted this morning ‘Don’t let businesses trick you into thinking they’re your friends.’ but for me it does work the other way round – my friends run this business. They’re not making decisions based on what I want, obviously, but they are friends whose intentions and ethos have consistently been in line with my own up until now. Again, it’s possible that my friendship with Ethan was merely a way for him to extract information from me. I think it would be absurdly hubristic of me to assume that my conversations with him were valuable enough to be worth faking a friendship! We hung out and chatted and he built some of my suggestions into the way Bandcamp works, and as a result my earnings from Bandcamp over the last decade have been roughly the same as if I’d had 20 million streams on Spotify. Not band for a subscriber community of 280-something people, eh?

Bandcamp currently remains unique in providing the infrastructure for the kind of community I value, for centring music recordings within a space where I can charge an annual fee, give my subscribers WAY more music than they’ve nominally paid for, and gather around that music a discussion of caring, insightful, literate and fascinating opinions that informs the way I understand what it is that I do as an artist. That community is unique and is formed of the people in it, but the affordances for building that and maintaining those relationships are absolutely essential to the ethos behind the subscription engine within Bandcamp. It’s genuinely brilliant, and in my case genuinely life-changing. I’m not about to jump ship because someone else is funding it, but the possibility of it ceasing to function the way I need it to to maintain what is important to me is significantly higher today than it was two days ago, and I’ll be keeping an eye on what’s happening at Bandcamp, and what else is developing outside of it.

So What’s Really Wrong With Spotify?

[This is an epically long post – over 3000 words – it ought to be at least two or three posts, but I’m far too busy writing a PhD to give this the kind of attention it needs and deserves in terms of editing, tidying and whatnot. So make of it what you will… that said, it may be helpful if you’re trying to get your head round the various arguments about Spotify]

With the recent increased scrutiny placed on Spotify thanks to their tendency to give millions of dollars to berks who give a platform to conspiracy theorists and transphobes, it has also amongst my musician friends reignited the discussion about Spotify’s economics. Something on which I’ve been pretty vocal over time. So I’m going to try and summarise that here, and then offer some thoughts on streaming and why the argument against Spotify is not an argument against streaming. And therefor why I hope that any collapse in Spotify’s position in the market (it’s WAY too early to make that call, but we can hope, right?) would possibly offer us a chance to rethink the economics of streaming.

So, Spotify’s problems, summarised – Spotify began by realising that they needed two things to get an edge over everyone else in the race to be the first ‘all you can eat’ streaming service – a catalogue and a platform. The catalogue they kickstarted by doing equity deals with the Major labels and the platform they got (I can’t find the reference for how this worked, but I definitely remember it being talked about at the time!) by – I think – doing a deal with 7 Digital who built the first version of Spotify in exchange for the being the exclusive ‘shop’ within Spotify – yup, when Spotify first started, you could buy most of the music that they played inside the browser window. So the idea that Spotify pointed you to a sales opportunity and had no mobile app made it a very different proposition with a very different set of affordances. At that point, the ‘Spotify is more like radio’ argument was a whole lot more compelling that it is now. Which is not to say that there aren’t millions of Spotify users who use it like radio, just that the number of prior experiences and economic transactions that it has subsumed is way, way more complex than it was in Year 1. (it’s worth noting that Spotify weren’t the first to try the same thing – an almost identical app called Datz was built, and had a press launch but it turned out their attempts to get the majors on side involved a whole lot of lying to each of their negotiators who rather awkwardly actually talked to each other ahead of the launch, and the whole thing collapsed spectacularly).

As Spotify evolved into some kind of ‘total music solution’, removing the sales platform not long after the deal with 7 Digital ran out, and adding a mobile app and offline storage as soon as they could, their economic model (which made sense in relation to radio, but was problematic in terms of cannibalising sales revenue) didn’t evolve. It just got more opaque. News emerged of bands and territories and labels negotiating different deals, of Spotify lobbying to reduce statutory royalty payments for streams, and despite having been to at least three talks where it was explained in depth, I still couldn’t tell you in any great detail how Spotify calculates who gets what. However, there were winners – it became a new form of ‘viral’ success to have a playlist hit, one track that landed on a massively subscribed playlist and made good money for the artist. What was also apparent, perhaps like radio in this respect, was that there was minimal lateral movement from playlists to wider awareness of the artist. Spotify itself didn’t really engender that kind of audience building.

Which brings us to the problem of communication – Spotify for a long time gave no analytic detail to artists. Following a campaign by, amongst others, Cellist Zoë Keating, they eventually made some available, but it still wasn’t all that easy to access depending on which aggregator you used to get your music on the platform, and there was still no way to converse with your audience. That aspect of fan/audience/community building has always remained well out of reach of the platform itself. There were many stories of artists leveraging Spotify to build audiences, and for those who owned their entire catalogue and publishing, the economics were in some cases quite reasonable.

However, the simple fact remained that the purpose of Spotify, economically speaking, was built around the re-leveraging of IP/value in existing catalogue. Getting people to pay again to listen to works they’d already bought. For the Major labels, almost all the value they have is in music we already love. They are looking at a humungous volume of songs and albums that we already love, that have already made, collectively, billions of dollars in sales and royalties, that have been milked via reissues, reformatting and remastering for decades, that can now without any manufacturing at all, be turned into a steady trickle of income that collectively amounts to a hell of a lot of money, especially if you have equity in the company, get a preferential royalty rate AND a shareholder payout. You get paid for your own work, and a cut of the profit on everyone else’s, as well as – I assume – a much deeper access to analytic detail across the entire economy.

So bands that had effectively made all their money and for the last couple of decades were making extra on licensing and CD reissues, suddenly had a way of not only reselling, but monetising usage. Experience pricing is what it’s called in some circles. You’re not paying for a product, you’re paying to access an experience. Paying by the amount of time (or, crucially, the number of times) you access a particular piece or song. It’s notable that Spotify pay per play, not by minute of play – this has both increased the number of tracks on an ‘average’ album considerably, and shortened the length of pop songs too. Affordances, eh?

So, there’s essentially no meaningful way to contact your listening audience on Spotify, the money only works at scale, in an economic model that was designed to leverage back catalogue value not recoup recording and marketing budgets, the calculations were opaque and favoured the majors (meet the new boss, same as the old, coked-up, wanker boss) and throw in a few scandals around fake artists and arms dealing and you’ve got yourself one toxic fucking stew of wholly untenable ethical wrongness. Except because of the deals with labels, many, many artists were unable to extract their catalogue, and because of the near-monopoly Spotify had on the conversation around streaming (if not the entire market – they’re the biggest player, but Apple, Amazon and to a lesser extent Tidal have a chunk too, as well as some other smaller players) a lot of artists were terrified to pull out and were in no position to actually talk honestly with their audience about what was going on and why the economic model was potentially ruinous for their creative endeavours.

As someone who was in control of my entire audience, who knew virality was a ridiculously long shot, didn’t want to make music designed for playlists and NEEDS to talk to his audience, I pulled my music off Spotify almost exactly a decade ago – the basic argument is a fair trade one – the company sucks in every imaginable way, and I didn’t need to have anything to do with it. I also pulled all my music of Amazon and a host of other platforms, and have refused to use either service for the same amount of time.

But, alongside that has been an ever increasing level of frustration with the nature of the argument against Spotify and the way that it becomes a bunch of essentialist garbage about ‘streaming’. I’ve almost certainly stumbled into this particular mess myself on more than one occasion. So let’s talk about streaming.

Spotify’s model uses streaming as its technological foundation, but Spotify is not synonymous with streaming. Streaming at its most basic just means that the file that is being decoded into music is hosted elsewhere. That’s all. To that extent, Bandcamp is also a streaming service – the fact that most of my Bandcamp listening happens through either the web browser or the mobile app is made possible by Bandcamp’s essential nature as being in part a streaming service. That streaming in no way undermines their economic model, in fact it’s pretty integral to it given how easily it makes accessing the deeper recesses of your Bandcamp collection, as well as browsing other new work with a view to buying it.

Where Bandcamp and Spotify diverge in their use of streaming is the economic model around that streaming. On Bandcamp, the music that I’m streaming is either free for me to hear because the band or small label have made it so I can hear it, or it’s music that I’ve bought and I own. And by own I mean it’s mine to access and play over and over again for as long as I want without paying any more money to keep accessing it. I can download the file in as many different formats as I want, play them on any device without interference, and the amount I paid for it in the first place is the only exchange of money needed for that to continue.

In contrast, Spotify sells two things – first of all it rents access to the catalogue – you can either pay for that with time by listening to adverts, or you can pay to remove those ads and have access to it all for a monthly fee. That money you pay doesn’t go directly to whoever you listen to, but it goes into the central pot of Spotify earnings that is then divvied up amongst the rights holders, with the Majors getting their bit first and everyone else getting theirs based on a pecking order and the percentage of the total Spotify streams that their work represents.

What you also get for your money is a cloud of metadata built up around you and your listening habits. Some of it you control –

  • playlists,
  • bookmarks,
  • previously listened to work,
  • stuff you’ve favourited,
  • curated playlists that you’re subscribed to

and a load that you have less direct control over –

  • the content of those curated playlists,
  • other data scraped from your social media profiles and traded for the targeting of ads or music promo,
  • the ways in which Spotify maps your music community and includes their preferences in what it recommends you listen to,
  • and people just buying access to your ears in various ways.

These are all variously super useful or annoying depending on how well you perceive their algorithms to work at finding your taste, and how comfortable you are with their particular way of cataloging and bookmarking the work that feels like your collection.

If you stop paying, or suddenly get super tired of listening to ads and decide to delete your account, your access is gone. No matter how much you’ve previously paid, you no longer have access to that music. You are only ever renting access to that music, and there’s no point at which you have paid ‘enough’. No point at which it becomes yours beyond the walls of the service. There are myriad unlicensed ways of extracting music from Spotify, easiest being just recording the music as it plays into a DAW, but there’s absolutely no way of taking your catalogue of work elsewhere or even transferring the metadata in any useful way. (it’s worth artists being a little more aware of this when they get frustrated at people not quitting Spotify soon enough – it’s a big break to drop all of that metadata and start again elsewhere, especially if it’s a completely different economic model you’re suggesting!)

So what you’re paying for is no longer about ownership of music. It’s about experiencing music, and you pay based on what you listen to.

It’s super important to realise how hard – impossible, even – it is to usefully compare these two ways of paying for music in the short term. So much of the commentary around the economics of Spotify fails to understand who is massively advantaged in experience pricing and how much of the way we’ve always listened to music is now suddenly economically active as well as generating highly valuable metadata, in ways it has never been before. The reasons for this I’ve already explained. But what’s also ignored is how the fact that people who keep listening keep paying you impacts the longer term economics of any given track or album.

So what’s the big deal? The experience economy surely extends the economic lifespan of recorded music way beyond the extremely short shelf-life of the vast majority of music under the old system (especially when we factor in just how epically limited shelf-space was in record shops before digitsiation made it possible to access the vast majority of the history of recorded music via some means or other).

The problems for me are as follows. The first one is Spotify’s expressed and repeated action that demonstrates a desire to pay as little as is humanly possible for the rights to music. There’s no ‘how much do we need to comfortably run this service while still making the lives of musicians better?’ – the basic economics is transnational capitalism as its most fucked up, with opaque bilateral deals, lobbying and a bunch of shit that’s basically fraudulent, before we even get to the justification for giving $100M to fucking Joe Rogan to spout bullshit.

So their payment system, which works for the Majors as a way of leveraging extra money on music that people already love, makes it exceedingly difficult to justify the even modest recording and promotional budgets on which the vast majority of indie music industry machinery is built. Let’s not kid ourselves that being an indie musician has ever been easy, or a place where you’re likely to do well. But in an economic field where there are myriad ways of funnelling money into the pockets of those most in need of it, Spotify fails. If your response to this is ‘ah well, that’s how capitalism works’, then I wish you all the ill-effects capitalism has to offer. I want better than that for the world, so it’s a piss-poor excuse.

Secondly, in order to keep you wedded to their ecosystem and keep you paying, Spotify stays as an intermediary between you and your audience, making direct communication super difficult, and/or expensive. Sure you can take out ads and target your previous listeners, but there’s no reason that should be the case in a service that’s already made billions out of your work being on there. Again, capitalism isn’t a good enough excuse for shitting on broke musicians.

Thirdly, absolutely no thought has been given to how communities form around music beyond the aggregating of massive listening data. Which works to connect you with more music in the system, but it doesn’t allow human relationships to cross-over into relationships of mutual discovery. The trust relationship Spotify is built to enhance is our trust in its recommendation engine, not our trust in each other to find and talk about music, and certainly not our trust as artists in our audience to do that. This isn’t an even vague part of Spotify’s remit, but from where I am, fostering human relationships based on care, conversation, trust and accumulated experience and wisdom is vital to every context in which I’ve ever found out about music, from hanging out with friends through to what I learn from my own subscribers on Bandcamp.

So how does this reflect on streaming? It doesn’t. There’s nothing inherently bad about streaming. There are streaming services that pay masses more than Spotify does. There are other possible economic models that make experience pricing way more meaningful and viable, and there are ways to enable fan communities to function as communities rather than an algorithm-generated blob of metadata.

There are experiments with new ways of doing this that are worth looking at – Resonate, while not actually functioning in a way that I find useful yet, is a cool and helpful way of thinking about fair trade experience pricing and the transition to ownership. At least one of the bigger streaming companies has suggested it will switch to a model of dividing up what you pay to the people you listen to – no more communal pot to pay for the free/ad streams out of other people’s paid accounts. FairMus seems to be an experiment in this model – it seems like a supremely obvious one to me – I can’t see any decent reason why this wouldn’t be the model from the off, but it’s another reason to hate Spotify. I have no desire for my subscription money to go to making rich people more rich while the broke-ass band I’ve listened to for three hours this week only gets pennies.

I have no innate problem with experience pricing – as a man of a certain age, I am still a fan of ownership, I like the long term implications of buying things on Bandcamp and being able to download them, them being mine, but that’s a cultural thing, not an ethical one. Ownership doesn’t really matter, and I love the fact that experience pricing makes it possible to get paid for people loving your music more. It’s not true at all that the more you pay for something the more you love it – that’s another weird myth that’s totally undone by the number of favourite albums I and many other have that we bought for 50p in a discount bin – but it does make sense that the opposite is possible, that my money is somehow divided up amongst the people I listen to most.

But that’s not the whole picture. There are artists whose music I barely listen to who I still want to give money to for their work. Not by ‘tipping’ them but by buying their work. I actually really enjoy being able to encourage people who make interesting work to keep doing it even when it’s not what I am in a position to listen to all day long. I don’t think that the estates of Miles Davis or Jimi Hendrix or The Beatles  need any more money from me no matter how much time I spent listening to them. With a product-based economy, I’m continually investing in new work, and I can do it at the point of departure for a project, and it’s not spread out over the next few years. So the economic return is front-loaded, but may actually end up being smaller in the long term than via a fairer trade experience pricing model.

So maybe what we need is both. I know a LOT of people who have told me over the years that they use streaming services to predominantly play music they already own. This points to the inherent conservatism of older people’s music taste – genuine new music foragers above the age of maybe 25 are fairly rare as far as I can see. They are a significant chunk of the music buying market, because they have disposable income, but the majority of their peers are spending their money on vinyl reissues or Sonos systems, not investing in new artists. I’m not one to put much extra weight on what ‘the mainstream’ does, simply because it’s never been a place where epically creative work has been the norm, and while it did for years sustain a middle class of performing musicians who are struggling today, that’s as much about the cost of living and the significant relative drop in the cultural standing and meaning of music against other forms of entertainment as it is any internal collapse in the music industry. If you want to campaign for musicians to live better, your energies are probably best used arguing for rent control and UBI rather than railing against the significantly less impactful internal economic squabbles of the music industry.

So streaming is OK with me, Spotify very much isn’t. Should you use another streaming service? I’ve not yet seen one that interests me as a listener, but I’m really not sure what I’ll do the next time I want to buy an album that isn’t on Bandcamp – I used to shop on Google Play, but as I won’t shop on Amazon and iTunes is a giant ball-ache to use, I’m not sure where I’ll go. It’s getting harder and harder to just buy non-Bandcamp music for a sensible amount. We’ll see where that goes.

If you’ve made it this far, well done – email me and I’ll send you a download code for something lovely on Bandcamp.

More Nonsense Music Economy Quotes, this time from Vince Gill (in 2012!)

As is the way with Internet things, just as it happened with that Joni Mitchell quote a while back, there’s a Vince Gill quote that’s circulating as a meme again after a few years away. The actual quote is apparently from an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in February 2012, and begins ‘I still want to have hit records’, which points to a slightly different set of concerns than the bit that’s circulating.

The quote in the meme is this, “The devaluation of music and what it’s now deemed to be worth is laughable to me. My single costs 99 cents. That’s what a [single] cost in 1960. On my phone, I can get an app for 99 cents that makes fart noises — the same price as the thing I create and speak to the world with. Some would say the fart app is more important. It’s an awkward time. Creative brains are being sorely mistreated.”

Now, remember that this is from 2012 – the streaming economy was in a wholly nascent form, and the idea of railing against a download costing 99¢ seems absurdly quaint in these days of micropayments and disappearing songwriter royalties. Continue reading “More Nonsense Music Economy Quotes, this time from Vince Gill (in 2012!)”

Subscriber Economics – The Value Of Resourcing An Expert Audience

This post was originally posted as a Twitter thread about the subscriber release schedule and its creative implications. Here’s the first one if you want to click on it and read it in its original form:

https://twitter.com/solobasssteve/status/1347492120026869760

And here’s the post edited slightly to turn it into a readable blog post. It’s more thinking out loud about my PhD (specifically chapter 3 of my PhD 🙂 ) but may be useful for those of you trying to make some sense of the various release models for music and various non-monetary considerations when trying to map value in the exchange between artist and audience.

-o0o-

Recorded a thing last night. Liked it, but wasn’t sure how much. Still, mastered it so I had a ‘finished’ version. Have listened to it three times in a row this morning, all 24 minutes of it. So I guess that’s good, eh? Subscribers, first new release of 2021 coming soon 🙂

I once read Brian Eno quoted as saying that he doesn’t read reviews of his work because it’s always years behind what he’s actually working on at that time. That disconnect from the people experiencing your work struck me as a problem to be overcome, rather than embraced. I’m HUGELY grateful for informed, generous, interested commentary on what I do. Not magazines telling us what’s hot or not, but people who are genuinely invested in the art and the artist discussing its meaning and value to them…

So having created a space in which the people who care about what I do can get it within hours or even minutes of me recording it means that I don’t rely on some delayed commentary from people who want to position my work within some much wider contextual field. (not that that’s not OK, just that it’s not interesting or particularly informative for me as an artist) – instead, I get feedback and commentary from people who understand it as the next chapter in a longer journey, people who’ve often heard more music by me than ANYONE else…

…I don’t mean many of my subscribers have spent more time listening to me (that may be true of a few, but I don’t think I dominate the listening of most of them 🙂 ) – but that they’ve heard more recordings by me, by virtue of them existing. 90-something albums, so far. 🙂

So, that body of knowledge, opinion, experience, expertise and – crucially – care becomes a resource. Not just for me but for the community as a whole. It gets shared, stories get told and I get to make more music in response to it, liberated and educated by it. And the series of recordings function not as commercial commodities with a fixed unit value but as what Jyri Engeström called ‘Social Objects’ – entities around which social interactions can happen. Interactions which accumulate multiple forms of capital and meaning through the process

So narrowing that temporal gap between recording and release, between my experiments and the response and reaction of a caring, informed community who – collectively – know more about what I’ve done than I do, becomes an act of creative liberation, enabling more art to happen.

I couldn’t do this, or extract meaning from it, if I had to record it then market it, send it to journalists and radio, harangue my extended listenership into adding it to playlists, liking and sharing & all that bullshit in the hope that someone would add it to a sleep playlist. The unit value of any one of these recordings is wholly undetermined. I’ve no idea which elements of the subscription people find most value in, or if as I suspect it’s ‘the whole experience’ that gives it meaning. Along the way, I get to document it and make more & better music

A vital comment on this came from Chris Mapp who made the distinction in relation to all this between curation and archiving. I think I’ve gradually shifted from being a curator to an archivist, the greater my degree of trust & experience of value in the expertise of the community. I have a threshold for the value of a subscriber release, but it’s not ‘will this make money? Can I recoup my investment?’. It’s ‘does this add meaningfully to the existing body of work? Will the subscribers find this interesting, enjoyable, worthwhile & value the time spent?’

All of this, of course, relies on it being improvised (or perhaps I could do it if I composed very quickly, but the lines between improv and composition get rapidly blurred there), because 200 versions of my greatest hit would be meaningless without each having its own community…meaning, when Pearl Jam released a CD of every gig on a tour, they did it not really expecting anyone to find much value in hearing all of it. Owning all if it, perhaps, for the social capital, but the personalisation of getting the gig you were at was the real value. The body of work was still those 20 or so songs that everyone knew. The value was in hearing it and saying ‘I was there’. I’m working on making the entire catalogue have cumulative value, with the added bonus that many of them are live recordings so ‘I was there’ is possible too!

[addendum] It’s perhaps worth distinguishing between this model and asking my audience what I should release, in the style of a crowd-funding vote-for-your-favourite tracks model. Cos that’s a million miles from this. The joy of the subscriber community is that their involvement is not conditional on a particular response from me. The buy-in is ‘be a part of this’, not ‘if you do this, I’ll record this kind of music for you’ or ‘let’s have a poll and see what the most popular choice is’. The beauty of this – and why I experience it as a community of practice – is that I never get subscribers saying or even implying ‘you need to do this or I’m withholding my support’. These are smart people who share their wisdom with care and concern, but let me make art, and are explicit about it. Constructive criticism is often couched in terms of ‘I don’t want you to stop what you’re doing, but this is how I experience it’. That’s never happened to me in any other context other than a gathering of fellow musicians trying to get better.

I experience it as a flattened hierarchy where I’m not being aloof, but neither am I doing a focus group to find out what the most popular choice is. I’m inviting commentary from people who know more than me about what I’m doing and then they let me get on with it.

the new thing is released for subscribers – go get it if you’re on board 🙂

https://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/album/resolution x

Favourite Albums of 2020

As is usual at this time of year, here’s a selection of my favourite records this year. Thanks to the Bandcamp Friday initiative, I’ve bought more music this year than certainly any time since my late teens, possibly ever. Over 200 albums, in fact. Some of them came via Bandcamp subscriptions (the option to subscribe to an individual artist for a set annual or monthly fee, the same model as the subscription I offer), but many were single album purchases.

These are not the only albums I really enjoyed this year, but a selection of my favourites and the ones I listened to most…

Dishevelled Cuss – Dishevelled Cuss

Pop-punk greatness from one of my favourite guitarists on the planet. Dishevelled Cuss is Sugar to Tera Melos’ Hüsker Dü:

Jasper Hoiby’s Planet B

Jazz with electronics and speech samples from the genius Danish bassist:

Pulled By Magnets – Rose Golden Doorways

Anything Seb Rochford releases is cause for celebration, but Neil Charles’ bass on here is just extraordinary. Doom jazz? Not sure what to call this, but it’s brilliant.

Throwing Muses – Sun Racket

I’ve said quite a few times that I can’t think of another band of their vintage that are making the best music of their careers and doing it without even the vaguest hint to nostalgia. Kristin Hersh is one of the greatest guitarists, songwriters and makers of records of her generation.

Field Music – Making A New World

I bought a LOT of Field Music Music this year, filling in my collection each Bandcamp Friday. This was their new one, and it’s outstanding. The cleverest pop band on the planet, without ever sounding remotely smug.

Beauty Pill – Please Advise

Chad Clark has been making pretty much flawless music for well over two decades. I love following his journey and learning new things from everything he releases. Another absolutely killer mini-album here. He’s a sonic wizard, with some of the best production and arrangement ideas happening anywhere in music right now:

Stillefelt – Stillefelt

three of Birmingham’s (the UK’s?) finest improvisors making absolutely glorious experimental, minimalist, ambient music. Love this so much.

Liz Frencham – Love And Other Crimes

Liz is one of those artists whose self doubt drives them to be better and better. I wish she could hear her music the way we do, but I’m also grateful for the incredible music she makes being just the way she is.

Michael Manring – Small Moments

A new Michael Manring album is cause for an actual party, such is their rarity. But when it’s this good it’s so worth the weight. The absolute master of solo bass, making music that renders the bassness of it utterly irrelevant to the experience of listening to it. Just incredible.

David Binney and Kenny Wolleson – Basu

I think possibly the only club gig I went to this year was David Binney, with Billy Mohler in LA. This album with one of my favourite drummers, Kenny Wollesen, is a glorious slice of jazz, improv and electronica

Azusa – Loop Of Yesterdays

My metal album of the year, Liam Wilson on bass, incredible changes of mood and emotion. Deeply inventive, expressive metal.

Ren Harvieu – Revel In The Drama

I’ve listened to this LOADS this year. I met Ren at UnConvention in Manchester in March, bought her record soon after and absolutely love it. Scott Walker, Tori Amos, Everything But The Girl, and all kinds of other amazing influences combine into something totally beautiful and original

Lobelia – Positive Songs Project 1 and 2

For all it’s horrors, the Pandemic created space for my amazing wife to record some of the best songs of her career. I REALLY need to go back and remix a load of these (don’t mix vocals on headphones, kids, you’ll overdo the reverb something rotten), but this is glorious music.


Hope And Social – S.E.N.T Vol 1

Hope And Social making records by chain letter. Such a great idea and such genius execution.

Billy Nomates – Billy Nomates

Found randomly via a Tweet from somone at 6Music. Post Punk Electronica with some killer bass grooves.

Yvonne Lyon – Growing Wild

I’m unashamedly a MASSIVE Yvonne Lyon fan. Such a great songwriter, and here she digs into the experiences of growing older and wiser.

Colfax – The Jupiter Expeditions

Quite a few of my collaborators in different fields released music this year, and this record by Daniel Berkman is just marvellous – old school electronica with field recordings and vocal samples. Wonderful.

David Torn – Fur/Torn

A solo Torn album on Bandcamp. There ought to be LOADS of these, given how much great music he’s dropped on Soundcloud over the years. But this one is marvellous. One of the most important guitarists in the history of the instrument.

Harry Styles – Fine Line

Obviously not on Bandcamp, but special mention to Harry Styles for making an absolutely killer pop album. The first time I heard Adore You, I was blown away by its brilliance. Love this insane video:

There were other things I really dug this year, other music that I bought that I’ll spend more time with over the coming months and be in love with by this time next year, but for now here’s the Good Stuff that got me through the shittiest of years.

New things for Bandcamp Day!

Today is Bandcamp Day – the day that Bandcamp waives their revenue share, giving it all back to the artists and small labels who sell their music on the site.

Bandcamp, in a paragraph: 

For those that don’t know, Bandcamp is the Farmer’s Market of music online. Music and merch from independent artists the world over, in glorious HD formats, with the vast majority of the money going to artists. Counter to pretty much every other digital music business model, they don’t make a penny until we make many, many more pennies than they do. There are no fights to pay musicians less, like the Spotify lawsuits, no attempts to take rights away, or keep musicians away from their listeners. It’s the perfect Fairtrade music platform. It’s also where I host my subscription offering – that’s the best possible way to support what I do and get everything – head to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe for more on that.

Anyway, I’ve released a few new things for today. The first is one of my favourite projects I’ve ever been involved in. Beautifully Disturbed is a duo live album with trumpeter Bryan Corbett. Bryan is an incredible musician, and a truly brilliant improvisor. I feel deeply inspired every time we play together. Here’s the album – it’s only £2 on Bandcamp, so you can use the rest of your money to buy other things, or you can pay more if you feel so inspired.

Next up, I asked my subscribers which of the three albums I should release from my recent Italian tour, and because the spread was across all three of the albums, I decided to make all three available Pay What You Want. PWYW means you get to decide what you can afford. You can spread your money out across whatever it is that you want to buy. Give it all a listen, and see what grabs you:

There you go. A ton of new stuff from me for your lovely ears.

If you want some recommendations, my bandcamp collection has everything I’ve ever bought there, and will be updated through the day as I buy new things today! I’ll be reinvesting 20% of everything that comes in to me in new music.

Why “Follow For A Follow” On YouTube Isn’t Helping

A few thoughts on this YouTube subscriber swap thing that’s going around… (in case you’ve missed it a LOT of musicians have been promoting the idea that we should reciprocally follow one another to help reach the 1000 subscriber limit so we can start monetising YouTube channels, and then play each other’s videos on mute to gain revenue) 

FWIW, I’ve been on YouTube for 14 years, have just shy of 2K subscribers, have other videos on there posted by bass accounts that have generated hundreds of thousands of views, but IF I’d been monetising my account from the start (that wasn’t even possible back then – at least a third of my views on there were from before there was ANY money in YouTube), my total number of views would’ve made me significantly less than $500. In 14 years. Maybe a few bucks more if I could’ve persuaded people to watch ads on them.

See, you get paid almost nothing on YT for your music. Like, effectively nothing. You get paid for people watching ads. So you’re asking the people who are watching your videos to spend hours and hours collectively watching bullshit so you can make pennies. If that’s a byproduct of you doing what you do anyway, knock yourselves out. Go for it.

But making ‘content‘ so that you can somehow start from scratch while quarantined to make any money at all through YouTube views, AND trying to get that happening through a network of other people who are also trying to make content and aren’t even following anyone based on whether they actually like what they do??? Are you high? If your understanding of who you are is that you are an artist trying to sell your work, this is not your business.

I get that you’re trying to come up with strategies to make this work at a time when we’re REALLY struggling to stay afloat, but getting people to spend hours watching stuff they aren’t invested in so you can make pennies is not a good use of our time in quarantine. It’s not good economically and it’s not good spiritually, and it’s not even remotely likely to make any sensible money for anyone but Google.

If you already have stuff on YouTube and want to earn some scraps for it, sure get registered for ad revenue. But honestly, it’s not worth anything unless THAT’S YOUR BUSINESS. Like, a full time job. A quick google search suggests that 7 MILLION views a year (it’d be a hell of a production/marketing task to get 1% of that on content you own the copyright on – remember, you won’t get paid for videos of cover versions unless you license/register them, the writer will) will pay you LESS than I make a year from 260 Bandcamp subscribers.

I’ve said it god-knows how many times, the streaming economy has no response to this. The major labels and streaming companies COMBINED initially donated less to help musicians through this than Bandcamp earned for them in one day of waiving their fees and promoting it as a day to help. One day. Rihanna has donated more than her entire industry combined, just because she gives a shit. (Spotify have since announced $10M of matched funding donations to three music-focused charities )

An economic model designed to massively prioritise paying people for already-famous music that doesn’t require a marketing or production budget is never going to be a sustainable ecosystem for a mass of creatives to earn a living. Stop trying to make fetch happen. If you’ve had a viral hit on a playlist or two on Spotify and have made some money, that’s brilliant. I want my friends and colleagues to make money, but it’s not sustainable across the system, and trying to game YouTube with some ‘follow for a follow’ nonsense is not going to suddenly get you all the kind of resilient audience who are willing to watch ads to see your stuff that is needed to make money off this.

Last thing – every person I know who is making SERIOUS money off YouTube (or is using YouTube as a significant part of their marketing funnel to a business that makes money – not the same thing) has studied this stuff to a significant level. They aren’t just great musicians or teachers or gamers or whatever. They are deep into marketing techniques, into the kind of video they need to make to get views, they study click through rates and patterns, interpret YouTube stats about viewer retention, they are constantly tweaking that shit to make it work.

My advice? Make the best art you can. Focus on the art right now. YouTube aren’t throwing anyone a lifeline. Everyone’s at home watching video, and you’re competing with people who’ve been in this game for a decade, have teams and a strategy. Just make great art, and make a case for the people in your audience who REALLY CARE ABOUT WHAT YOU DO and have the means to pay for it to help support it.

Reciprocal follow-me-back strategies have been around since MySpace, and they always suck. They are never pro-art, and result in a bunch of pushy, aggressive people seeming way more popular than their art deserves because they chase the follow-backs, not because they have anything worthwhile to share.

In short, the massive problem with this is that it assumes the the number of followers that it says you have on your YouTube page is more significant than the community of interest that the number is supposed to represent. Follow for a follow is a low-grade simulacrum of an actual community that are invested in what you do and care about it. It represents how many people were needy enough for their own follower count to go up that they would also click yours. You and your art deserve much, much better.

Do your art
Shout about the stuff you love
Invite the people who can afford to to support art – not just your art.
Stay safe.
Wash your hands.

Thoughts on Starting a Subscription

Right, these thoughts come from a place of having had a subscription running on Bandcamp for over 5 years. I was one of the first three artists on there to get to trial it a full year before it went public. I was also consulted on what features it should have before they went live with it, so there’s a load of my thinking in there.

I also subscribe to a whole bunch of people on BandcampThomas Truax, Corey Mwamba, Andrew Howie, No Treble and Julie Slick – and a range of stuff on PatreonDivinity Roxx, James Chatfield, TheLitCritGuy, Double Down News and Jay Smooth.

I’m seeing a ton of people set up subscriptions and Patreons in the wake of the Death Of All Gigs thanks to COVID-19, and I thought it might be helpful to offer some advice. Take it or leave it, but at least give it some thought:

  1. Think about the value of what you have to offer. This may seem obvious, but it’s really easy to get caught up in what you think it’s worth to you to make it. But what you’re offering is a service. It may well be that people who sign up to it are doing so because they care about you and want to help maintain you through difficult times, but you’re doing that via the mechanism of a subscription to your art, not a begging bowl. So give a good thought to what you’re providing for the money.
  2. This is a marathon not a sprint – be realistic about the work rate you can sustain when declaring what you’re going to do for people’s money, and don’t over-stretch yourself. I’ve seen so many people burn out by over-committing themselves to Kickstarter pledges, and it only gets worse if every month you’ve got to make a whole bunch of postcards or cakes or whatever and mail them out to people to keep your subscriber commitments. If you’re really into making stuff, that’s absolutely fine, and if the quality of what you make is consistent, and acquiring a lot of it is valuable that’s brilliant, but give some serious thought to what you promise. My own Bandcamp subscription promises 4 new albums a year – two public, and two exclusive. Last year my subscribers got 11 albums. The promise hasn’t changed. I love being able to over-deliver and not having to charge them more. It means people are way more likely to stick around, and you can have hilarious conversations with them about not being able to keep up. I’ve also included a couple of eBooks as extras, and as much video as I can produce that’s of high enough quality to deserve their time. All at no extra cost. The key concept is under-promise and over-deliver.
  3. Think about how what you’re asking impacts their ability to support other artists. I keep going on about this, but if you’re asking someone to spend the same on you as they would on their Netflix account, you’re leaving little room to support other artists. If any of the people I support in the list above were asking for £10 a month, I’d have had to decline. Because if they all did, I’d be broke. My subscription started at £20 a year, and has gradually increased until it’s now £30 a year. It’s still an absolutely ridiculous amount of stuff you get for that money – and the original subscribers are still on the £20 rate cos they get grandfathered in – and a lot of people have chosen to voluntarily pay more because they want to support what I do. That’s great, but I fully support them also being able to unsubscribe and resubscribe at the lower rate at any time so they can use that money to spend on other people. At the very least, it’s wise to have various tiers so there’s room for people who aren’t loaded to subscribe to you and not have to miss out on everyone else.
  4. Talk to your subscribers. This one is more about sharing some of the value I’ve got out of this. I’ve never had any interest in the idea of “fans” – I don’t want a bunch of fans who just get my music and dig it. I want a community of listeners who are actively engaged in the how and why of the music’s existence. So much so that I’m doing a PhD exploring what that means. (I’ve often described my grand project as being ‘how do I make music that matters without pretending I’m special?’) A subscription is an incredible opportunity to get to know the people who dig your music. Your subscribers aren’t a cash cow that pays your bills. They’re people who for whatever reason believe in what you do and the value proposition of the subscription offer. Do not disrespect that. Talk to them, find out about them, what they’d like, what else they’re into. Point them to other people’s work, build a wider community of people whose work your subscribers can share in.
  5. Think about the production values of what you can put out. Hearing crackly tape recordings of the Quarrymen rehearsing in the late 50s is amazing. Hearing your poorly thrown together demos for your next album is less compelling. Live bootlegs can be fun, but an endless supply of hissy recordings of the same tunes loses its interest pretty quick. If you’re an improvisor, or are constantly remixing and rejigging your material, or regularly learning cool covers, that’s tailor-made for a subscription model. Plenty of value, plenty of surprise. If you can collaborate, so much the better for adding variety to what you have to offer. If you’re going to do video, work on making it better and better over time. Running my subscription is an invitation to me to get better at every aspect of what I do – music, mastering, artwork, videos, story-telling… My subscribers aren’t a necessary nuisance that I’m putting up with for the money. They’re the most brilliant context within which to make work without having to come up with a marketing strategy for every album. If you’re not an improvisor, you need to work out how to tell the story of the one album you make a year in a way that is compelling enough to get people to pay for the privilege of being a part of it, or just charge way less so it’s basically an album pre-order thing that spreads out the money through the year. I’m surprised there aren’t more of those, to be honest…
  6. Don’t judge your own artistic merit by how prolific someone else seems to be. The way I make music, and the world I’ve built around me to make it possible is all 20+ years in the making. None of this is accidental. The actual terms of my Bandcamp subscription offering makes sense because I’m an improvisor who records every gig and collaborates as much as possible. I can make a LOT of music of a consistently really high quality and release it without any extra overhead. I did a mastering course to get better at it, I constantly practice the artwork side of it, I’m a journalist so the writing part of it is easier than it might other wise be. Your subscription doesn’t have to look like mine! If you want to have a really low stress, low impact one that just lets people support you in exchange for a new live track each month, it’s fine to charge 8 or 10 quid a year, and not pile on the expectation. Those people will hopefully stay with you, and as your offering increases, you can up the price. It’s also OK to make one album every so often and make the subscription about some other aspect of your work – lessons, or a studio documentary. Get the best camera you can, do it right, but telling stories is a brilliant use of a subscription. Beardyman has set one up that’s mostly about his process. You get his weekly songs, but also the chance to get deep inside how he does what he does. That’s a much higher value offering than most, because it’s lesson-based. Tuition has a different value metric to documentary work or finished art. People often have different budgets in mind for art-stuff and learning-stuff.
  7. Choose the right platform for what you want to do – Patreon and Bandcamp offer completely different sets of affordances for your art and storytelling. Bandcamp is, not surprisingly all about music. You can upload photos and video in the main message feed to your subscribers, but if you want to offer PDFs or any other file type, it either needs bundling with a single or album, or your need to host it elsewhere. On the other hand, Patreon is really rubbish at metadata on music files. And as far as I’m aware, still doesn’t do conversion to other files types for you. If you want it available as MP3, Flac, ALAC, AAC etc. You need to upload them all. The files can end up all over the place, with bogus formatting and variable quality. I couldn’t deal with that at all, so it would never work for me. That said, you can have a Patreon for storytelling, and just send your Patreon subscribers download codes for Bandcamp when the album comes out. Think about how the flow of media and information works and which offers the best platform. Neither is gofundme, neither is a begging bowl, both place you in an ecosystem where the people offering similar things around you become the standard against which your output and value will be measured to some degree. So think about it, and check out how easy it is to change the offering as you go along…
  8. My recommendation would be to start really cheap. Especially if you don’t have a ready made audience that have expressed a desire to support you like this. Get your initial backers in at the ground floor at a low monthly or yearly rate. These are the people who will be with you for the long haul, get them onboard ASAP for a low price and keep them close. You can increase it over time as the offering gets more polished and the value is reflected in the size of your audience. But don’t price yourself out of existence to start with. We have two main things against which we measure ‘value’ here – subscription costs to everything services (Spotify is $10 a month, Netflix a little more these days) and the cost of ‘albums’ – a similar amount for a single non-discounted album on iTunes or Amazon. Work out how to make your offering look like unmissable value. Then go to town telling people the how and why.
  9. Talk about it a lot. I’ve been on board with Bandcamp since almost day 1. I took all my music off almost every other platform 8 years ago because I was committed to what Bandcamp had to offer me in terms of the relationship with my listeners. I’ve been talking up its benefits for a decade, and the subscription specifically for 5 years. It never stops, you need to make a case for what you do. You need to make it compelling, and you need to do it over and over. For some of your audience, they’ve been told relentlessly that ‘no-one pays for music any more’ and that Spotify is how you ‘support music’. That’s clearly bollocks, but don’t look down on people who’ve bought into it. Spotify is horrible, and you may have to explain repeatedly why you’re not just putting all your music on there or the video on YouTube. Make the case firmly but gently.
  10. If you’re unsure how it works, subscribe to someone else for a while. There’s no better way to know what it’s like for the end user than to become one. Try some subscriptions out, support some other artists, see what you like and don’t like about what they do and how they do it. Research your project like you actually want to get it right!

Now, go do your research, and if you’ve got any questions, hit me up in the comments below.

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