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!”

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

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

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

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

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

Steve Lawson and Lobelia in Birmingham on 25/11/12 (finally!)

Steve Lawson in Sheffield on 11/09/12