Two New Solo Albums + “Bandcamp Day” News

Last Friday, Bandcamp – the music sales and streaming platform that I use for all my music distribution – donated all of their revenue share back to artists for 24 hours. This was an amazing gesture, resulting in several million pounds/euros/dollars ending up directly in the bank accounts of musicians struggling to pay bills and find ways to replace lost live income right now.

I released two new albums on Friday to celebrate – a public release of February’s subscriber only album, Better Living Through Technology, and the brand new (dis)order. Listen to both here, and click through if you’d like to buy them for just £2 each :

The feeding frenzy of sales was extraordinary, and ground the Bandcamp servers to a halt at various times through the day. Still, the headline stat for me is that when you add up all the new subscribers, sales of my entire catalogue and all the people who bought one or a few albums (at the new £2 price per album across my entire Bandcamp shop), I sold just under 900 albums Between Friday and Sunday. If those had been individual copies of the same album sold to separate buyers, that’d be enough to land me in the lower reaches of the UK album charts…!

So firstly, a massive THANK YOU to everyone who bought anything during the day, or even listened to it and decided it wasn’t for you – I’m grateful you took the time, and you found something else that was more to your liking elsewhere!

These are perilous times for musicians, and my decision to focus my release strategy around the community of listeners on Bandcamp 10 years ago has made me a fair bit more resilient to these changing economic times than my friends whose strategic success plan was for a viral hit on Spotify. I really hope they find it, but I’m insanely grateful for the compact community of curious and caring music lovers who sustain me via the Bandcamp subscription.

If you’d like to join us, please head to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe – the community aspect is going to be ramped up through this time of isolation with subscriber video hangs and some creativity inspiration videos. If that sounds good to you, go check out what’s on offer…

And if you’re looking for a new soundtrack to these uncertain times, please go check out my fan account on Bandcamp – I bought more music in the last 3 days than in perhaps any comparable period in my entire life (matched maybe by a trip across the US in 2004 when I ended up throwing away clothes so I could fit more CDs in my suitcase 🙂 ) – it’s all there. <3

 

Further Thoughts On Streaming Gigs And What To Do When You’re Quarantined

Here are some extra thoughts on streaming gigs and beyond (culled from a thread I wrote on Twitter yesterday, so this may read in a slightly stilted way!):

Streaming gigs are great for capturing a moment. The sense that you’re watching with other people can be wonderful. But that requires a critical mass of whatever size you’re looking for. They aren’t so great for building a new audience AND getting paid. But let’s face it, almost nothing is good for building an audience AND getting paid.

The other big problem with running a live stream gig is that they don’t ‘fail gracefully’ – there’s no cascade of it ‘sort of working’ – if you’re trying to play live online, it either works or it doesn’t. A dodgy connection kills it, a faulty webcam kills it, sound problems kill it… It can take quite a few attempts to get right and you may not have the time or resources to properly trouble shoot your tech and platforms…

SO, here are some alternatives to just streaming a gig, that you may find useful to modify based on your own situation:

  • Recording a live-off-the-floor session, filming it properly, upload to YouTube, release the album on Bandcamp.
  • Doing a covers EP swap with another band. Do each other’s songs
  • Collaborating, filming the sessions, compiling it, putting it out as a mini-documentary with the track(s) for sale.
  • Hosting an album live stream with a live ‘director’s commentary’: talk through it, play acoustic versions of the songs, explain the lyrics. Gather your tribe
  • Host a fan Q&A – make it PWYW, or attach it to a track/album download. Chat to people, take questions via twitter, answer them on a stream.
  • Give a masterclass on how to play one of your tracks. If musos dig your music, do a live breakdown, with Q&A.

Here’s the thing – for YEARS, so many artists have been giving away premium fantastic-ness as free stuff to try and get people to listen to our music on a platform that pays almost nothing. That’s a terrible strategy, but y’all have trained your audience to think it’s OK. If you want to unwind those assumptions, TALK TO YOUR AUDIENCE.

Your fans are NOT to blame for listening to you on Spotify if that’s where you put your music. If the streaming economy is failing you at this time, you need to go back to your audience and talk to them about the realities of trying to make the music they love.

We’re facing a situation where there’s literally nothing about the Spotify economy that’s going to help us. We’ve bought into the idea that competing for the lottery win of a viral hit is motivation enough to make & release music on poverty wages, & we’ve had gigs to plug the gap. That’s not the case now. The task at hand requires us unwinding some of the assumptions that we’ve made, and some that our audience has made, and perhaps embracing the smallness of an audience that give enough of a shit to help us stay afloat…

building that tribe is a totally different strategy to hoping for 200,000 active streaming listeners a month to help make your recording career work.

So, you need to find your audience, talk to them, and make the music available in places where they can help AND feel a sense of belonging

right now there are two places that do that better than all the others combined – Bandcamp and Patreon. It can be a massive struggle to get your listeners to care. People with huge audiences that are vaguely interested in you can find that their core audience who actually care is tiny

Focussing on that audience and its growth can feel insane. Like, why wouldn’t you try and reach out to the 500,000 people who’ve watched your stuff on someone else’s channel YouTube? Because the clickthrough rate to buying music from YouTube is appalling. It happens, but it’s not a solid strategy.

If you want and need a bunch of people who will sustain you, you need to work at it, and that may initially be really small. I have a HUGE diffuse audience of people who know my stuff through YouTube, ScottsBassLessons, Bass Guitar Magazine, radio etc. But I have 250 subscribers who sustain me, materially and spiritually.

Growing that 250 is what matters to me. Feeding them, nurturing them. So almost all my output is subscriber only. I could stick it all on streaming platforms or YouTube and it’d be worthless. There’s enough stuff of mine on YouTube sending people my way. I’m building the tribe. So many things about what I do are utterly specific to how and why I make music. They’re things that rely on me having had a 20 year career, an incredibly high rate of production, being a writer and audio engineer, collaborating widely. NONE OF THAT HAPPENED BY ACCIDENT.

Bottom line: Your process and intended output need to match. I’ve spent 20 years getting to here, because I made the music the most important thing and build a life around making it possible. So now that so much of the infrastructure around the expected way that musicians operate is threatened, I don’t need to do a u-turn to talk to my audience…

So yes, you need technical strategies and know-how for streaming gigs etc. But you REALLY need to think about how you’re going to talk to your audience, where they are & what you’re asking from them vs what you’re offering them in return.

I really hope you find a way through this – let me know if I can help.

Steve’s Top Tips For Running A Live Stream Gig

In the midst of all venue shut downs and tour cancelations over the COVID-19 pandemic, lots of people talking about streaming gigs while quarantined. It’s a great idea. The bummer is that most of the best platforms to have emerged over the years got shut down eventually through lack of a funding model (or acquired by tech-berks who wanted the tech for something else)
 
Anyway, this document has a bunch of info about the ones that are still in play if you want to get your stream on…
 
 
If you’re going to do it, here are my top tips, from the last 13+ years of doing live streaming gigs:
 
  • Get the audio as good as you possibly can. That’s way more important than multi-cam complexity. Use a desk/soundcard to mix it, or quality mics if it’s just acoustic. If you have to use a built in mic on a webcam, spend some SERIOUS time getting the levels and positioning right.
  • Lighting really matters. Get it right so people can see you. A fairly crappy webcam can look great if you can get something resembling daylight happening in your house. Practice this the day or so before you actually do the stream.
  • Get someone else to man the stream. Trying to monitor the stream while playing is really hard. It can be fun on an IG live stream, but if you’re doing a paid event, get a family member or friend to help monitor the stream and respond to comments etc.
  • If you can, film it with better cameras for later upload. Archiving a stream is fine, but if you can get an HD version for upload, you can even upsell it to people who watched the original gig for some extra $.
  • As with everything like this, if you want people to do this, plug everyone else’s live streams too. I can’t stress enough that every aspect of our attempts to keep the arts economy alive HAS to be communal. No-one has the luxury of just wanging on about their own shit as though they’re the only thing that matters. If people get into streaming gigs and buying on Bandcamp, we all benefit. Just plugging your own stuff over and over means you’re trying to do the conversion to new platforms and new experiences all on your own, so it’s not only selfish, it’s stupid and laborious.
Please feel free to share this around if it’s useful to you… 

Brand New Career-First Live Video :)

It’s been quite a while since I last posted here. Sorry about that, will try to be a better blogger in future 🙂

Anyway, big news – for the first time, an entire show of mine has just gone live on YouTube. It’s the middle one of the three gigs from Italy a couple of weeks ago, the album of which has just been released too, for Bandcamp subscribers. Watch the video here – it’s pretty moody and atmospheric, but the wider angle shot gives a good view of what I’m up to!

If you want to get the album of the show – called Half Life – along with the first Italian show, released two weeks ago, called The Aesthetics Of Care, and 55 other albums from across my career, PLUS everything I release in the next 12 months, you can subscribe via Bandcamp.

As we’re staring down the wrong end of the entire live music sector facing several months of cancelations for touring and shows, now is a really good time to have a think about how the music you care about is financed – the streaming economy just isn’t equipped to respond to a crisis of this magnitude, especially for the thousands of niche artists for whom there is no one form of income. Everything is piecemeal and everything is precarious. So album sales, merch and subscriptions via Bandcamp or Patreon provide a source of more instant cash to both live and carry on making music when the gigs that often keep us going week to week have fallen through. No-one plans for a pandemic when thinking about the economic framing of their music life, so almost no-one has any savings or a back-up plan. As this runs into festival season, even those musicians who teach during term time are going to struggle.

So as well as inviting you to buy my music or subscribe at music.stevelawson.net, here’s a link to my Bandcamp collection, where all the music I’ve bought on Bandcamp lives – a massive amount of music that I love and recommend to you to investigate and buy what you dig – bandcamp.com/solobasssteve

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

A Thank You, and a Reason to Subscribe at the Dawn of a New Decade

I’ve finished off 2019 – and the decade – with a bit of a release flourish. December started with the release of my first ever Best Of compilation – a look at my solo work from the very beginning up until I introduced percussive samples and keyboard sounds into my live set-up in 2015. Then last weekend’s gig celebrating 20 years of my solo career (exactly 20 years from my first ever solo gig!) yielded not one but TWO new albums that were released this week to my Bandcamp subscribers. The first is the solo set from the show, and the second is the audio part of my Illuminated Loops collaboration with genius visual artist Poppy Porter. So at first glance they’re two solo sets, in that all the sounds made are made by me, but the contrast between the two is pretty huge, and certainly the memories attached for those who were there will be, I assume, rather different!

I want to finish the decade with a huge thank you to all of you who’ve bought and listened to my music over the last ten years, who’ve subscribed, who’ve told friends about the music, come to shows, messaged me on social media to offer encouragement, reviewed the records on Bandcamp or come and said hi at the various events where our paths have crossed. It’s such an amazing luxury to get to make music and share it with people, and this path towards carving out a sustainable ongoing way of releasing a lot of both solo and collaborative recordings would feel pretty exposed and out on a limb if it wasn’t for your encouragement and patronage. So thank you.

If you haven’t yet subscribed, or used to subscribe but are interested in getting the new music that’s been released since you let it lapse, I’d love for you to join us for the end of the decade. It would be amazing to finish the journey over 2020’s threshold with a subscriber boost, and it’d certainly give you a massive amount of music to investigate during any down time you might have over the festive period!

So head over to http://stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe now and see what’s on offer. There are 50+ albums that are yours the moment you subscribe, along with whatever I release in the next 12 months, a couple of eBooks, and a ton of subscriber exclusive video and conversation to investigate in the subscriber area on Bandcamp.

The streaming economy still offers nothing like sustainability to niche music makers, so I rely entirely on the generosity and patronage of those who are curious enough to come and find out what’s on offer. In return I promise to make the best music I possibly can! 🙂

I hope you have a wonderful festive time, however you choose to celebrate at this time of year, and that despite whatever set-backs and sadness we’ve experienced on a global scale over the last decade, we’ll be able to muster enough hope and resolve to greet the new year with love and gratitude, and a commitment to being a vital and positive presence in it. Aside from anything else I’m able to do, I’ll do my best to provide that journey with a soundtrack…

Bandcamp Magic from 2019

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

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

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

The Long Game by Liam Noble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two New Albums and My Anniversary Gig!

So, last week, I released my first ever best-of album. It’s culled from all my solo work between 2000 and 2013, and is a pretty lovely summary of what I got up to as a solo performer before I added the Quneo into my performance set-up and started to experiment with percussion and keyboard sounds.

The album was put together by two of my long time friends/listeners/subscribers, Tom and Mike, and their sleevenotes are on the Bandcamp page, so you can read a little about their thoughts on each track. Tom also provided the photos for each individual track, so if you go to the track pages on Bandcamp you’ll see those, or if you buy it and download the files…

Anyway, have a listen here:

Then Sunday was my 20th Anniversary gig – it was a deeply special show at my favourite venue in Birmingham, Tower Of Song. As part of the evening, I hosted pre and post show discussions about improv, which were recorded as part of the research for my ongoing PhD. What became apparent fairly quickly is that these weren’t ‘pre and post show discussions’, detached from the rest of the ‘event’ – they were the first and last acts of a four act play, ones that centred on conspicuous listening, and gave space for the audience to register their presence, preferences, gratitude, and anything else they wanted to talk about…

As an improvisor it was quite a profound moment, to have an entire audience talk about their anticipation of what was to come, about their reasons for being there… The permission to ‘do what we do’ comes from the audience – lots of people have theorised this, but I’ve never actually encountered it in quite such a clearly expressed form!

And what’s more, the first album from the gig is out today! The subscriber-only, 42 minute album is the whole of my first set, the solo one which preceded the Illuminated Loops set with artist Poppy Porter. That’ll be up next.

It’s been a really interesting year for music-making – The Arctic Is Burning is one of my favourite albums I’ve ever made, and ended up being a really fitting part two to Beauty And Desolation, despite that not really being the plan initially.  There have been two LEYlines albums (vols IV and V), four other live solo albums, Seeing Sound with Daniel Berkman (recorded in 2014!) and my most recent duo album with Pete Fraser, Restless got a public release this year.

But it’s been a year of solo experimentation, mostly. The explorations with field recordings have been a really inspiring addition to my sound, and have given me so much to thing about and experiment with. Perhaps I’ll do more with that in the new year.

I hope 2019 has been a good year for you – I know that politically it’s been a struggle for a huge number of people, and I’ve seen various friends struggling under the stress of the way things are going, but I hope that in the middle of that you’ve been able to find a sense of purpose, have some fun and explore ways to be part of the solution rather than buckling under the weight of the problem. Peace to you and I hope you get some time off through the festive period.

(top photo by Richard Hallman) 

Improvisation, Audiences and The Magic Of Live Music

Right, so my 20th anniversary gig is coming up fast! I’m super excited about it, and wanted to tell you a little more about the non-musical PhD research bit of the evening (if all you want is practical info about that, skip to the end 😉 )

But first, I want to talk about improvisation and specialness. One of the tricky things about being an improvisor is that making a gig ‘special‘ is never going to be about the setlist. If you go and see a Greatest Hits tour, or that thing where a band plays a classic album top to bottom, you know what you’re getting, and the enjoyment is linked to your history not just with the band, but your memories of those particular songs. And your expectation is linked to that. The promotion of concerts, and even the language that we use to get friends to come with us to gigs, is built around the motivating power of familiarity, nostalgia and the safe expectation that you know roughly what’s going to happen…

But, as someone who makes it all up as I’m going along, I don’t have that list of track names on which to hang a set of expectations (for me or you!) I don’t get to do a set of ‘songs I don’t normally play live!’ as a special treat, but on the other hand everything is stuff I’ve never played before, and thus every gig is a completely unique treat for whoever shows up. That is – over 20 years of talking to my audience – one of the things that comes up most often as being the ‘wow’ moment at a gig – the realisation that this music would never happen again. Back when I was playing a mixture of improvised tunes and things people were more familiar with from my records, that was mixed with people who were super-happy that I’d played their favourite tune, and sometimes the two experiences were combined, because I’d played a familiar tune and made it new by taking it off in a new direction.

(for those who joined us recently, the point at which I stopped playing versions of things off my records was when I realised that all the magic in those records, for me, came from the fact that they were improvisations (that’s always been my recording method of choice, with a few notable exceptions around the time of Behind Every Word) – so the recreation of them resulted in an oversimplification of what was special about the original, and a split in terms of the improvised music being FOR that place and time, and made in collaboration with that audience and space, and those that were tunes I was playing in order to trigger a memory or sell a CD or two… in a nutshell 🙂 )

So I’m left pondering of all this from two angles – one is how to market a 20th anniversary gig that doesn’t have a bunch of old tunes in it – how to create a sense that this gig is the culmination or the celebration of 20 years of work, when it will be demonstrably an hour or so of completely new work. Though when I say ‘completely’, the process of  being an improvisor is an evolutionary one – you are both bound by your physical relationship with your instrument(s) and any sounds you’ve pre-programmed/selected for it, but also freed by the permission you’ve given yourself (and crucially are able to feel from the audience) to play what feels right for that moment. Defining the aspects of the moment is quite an interesting task – those that are present, the conversations that take place, the music that plays before you go on, the specific placement of the music gear, the length of time since you were able to practice (gigs with a ‘warm up’ are palpably different from gigs where you go from chatting to friends to playing in the space of two minutes), and of course any preparatory work you’ve been doing – developing ideas, expanding your vocabulary and listening to music that may influence your sense of what the music ‘ought’ to be right there.

The language around the process and practice of improvisation is thorny and rich with the potential to contradict another musician’s entire sense of what they’re doing and why (so if you’re an improvisor who doesn’t see themselves in this description, that’s absolutely fine 😉 )

But the key thing is that the ‘specialness’ that we collectively experience at a gig where we expect to hear a set of songs we know, get to hear them at high volume with cool lights and excellent posing and dancing from the band is a very different type of specialness from the utterly unique sensation of going to see an improvised show and knowing that you are IN it. That if you weren’t there, it would be different. That anything you’ve said to the artist before they play will shape it, that your smiling and nodding is felt in a deeply practical way. The music is for you, you are present in it, we make it together, and the sense of place is embedded in it. It’s not just the case that a gig on a tour where the set list is largely the same is remembered by what went wrong in a particular place, or how crazy the audience were… Every set of music is a collaboration, and for me that results in a massive amount of releasable music… 71 albums in the last 20 years, at the latest count…

There’s a lot of discussion (and scholarship/writing/theory) that places live music and recorded music as opposing experiences, where one is meant to be better than the other, or one embodies qualities that the other can never share… but for me – in a way that has grown throughout my PhD research so far – the relationship is a cumulative one, where one informs the other, where the recorded work is both a product of the live gig and a way to revisit and experience in an entirely new way the audio bit of the experience. Removing the sense of place from the experience – the smell of the venue, the lighting, the price of the beer, the journey to get there, the dressing up (all the things Walter Benjamin told us in 1935 were the rituals of concert-going) are stripped away and we’re left with a trace. But it’s a trace that we can revisit, that allows us to experience it away from that context, to hear it on headphones, on a train, in a car, in bed, in the bath, with friends. We can project onto the music recording whatever set of meanings, images, mythologies and emotions we like, uninfluenced by the gestural quality of the performance (note: if you’re a subscriber, go read the essay I wrote about my Belfast Guitar Festival gig – it digs deep into this idea!) It enables us to talk over it, to read to it and sometimes it becomes that reminder of the magic of the gig. It reverses the nostalgia-relationship of falling in love with songs on an album then going to hear them live, and instead invites us to experience unique new deeply personalised music at a live event and then to revisit the recording for its nostalgia.

Fans have been doing this under their own steam for decades – I remember visiting Camden Market and see a number of stalls devoted to cassette bootlegs of classic bands. For fans who already had all the officially sanctioned studio and live records, these filled in extra knowledge, provided the social capital of hard-found experiences and foraged expertise, but also meant a gig that you were at might show up as a thing to be revisited. However, they were rarely official, rarely well produced, often terrible quality, and didn’t come with any real connection to the artist. Being a self-archivist was a rare practice – such that Frank Zappa’s predilection for recording everything and producing live albums that combined his favourite bits from different takes became a defining trope in his public persona, in the story of his idiosyncrasy.

But from here – as a self-releasing, self producing artist with a desire to make the best work I can – it feels like a way of taking back my music life from the constraint of making-a-product marketing-a-product recouping-the-costs-of-a-product. Because even the Kickstarter model – hailed by so many as the new mechanism of indie sustainability – required a level of emotional investment in a future wow that exhausts me and demands of the product a level of hype that is wholly unsustainable if the product comes along 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 times a year (such is the quest for novelty cache in the pre-funding market, that some artists have done entirely unrepeatable offers, scorching the earth for themselves and others in the process).

So by improvising I get to make music FOR that situation, but by recording it I get to build that catalogue that documents the journey, that captures the unique music and packages it in a way that isn’t about reminding the live audience of the moment they coughed or the funny thing that was said, (my live audience is WAY too small and geographically constrained for that to be meaningful) but recognises the unique musical aesthetic parameters of making things up from my particular set of creative interests in response to the stimulus of a room full of curious amazing people… The entire thing becomes more episodic, almost like a podcast or a Netflix digital box set, even while each album is experienceable within the semiotic boundaries of ‘an album’. The decision to treat it as an episode in a story, or as an album that soundtracks your life for years is entirely in the hands of the listener. The agency to make it be what you want it to be is yours as the listener, and isn’t constrained by my sense of what it might be FOR.

But of course – and this is where the research bit comes in – absolutely none of this summary may be in the minds of a specific audience (beyond the fact that I’ve seeded it by writing this screed in the first place! We’ll dig through that at the analytical phase!) – and even though the impetus to do this was a series of conversations with listeners over the last 20 years, the actual thoughts, ideas, experiences and expectations of a given audience are likely to be way broader than this… so as part of the research for my PhD we’ll be talking about this before and after the gig on the 15th.

DETAILS

So, starting at 6.30pm, we’ll be having a pre-show discussion about improv, about live music, about people’s specific expectations and reasons for being there, and how it fits within the rest of their life-with-music. It’ll be wide open, there’s no sense at all that there are right and wrong responses, and it’ll be recorded. Because of all that, there’ll be a consent form to sign (you can’t just go around recording conversations with people and writing PhDs about them without the proper ethics clearance, of course!) but the conversation is just a chance to talk about it all. To ask questions, and for me to find out what’s going on in your heads when you show up.

And again, after the gig, we’ll have another chat. Because it’s an Illuminated Loops gig, I’m sure a lot of the questions and comments there will end up being about Poppy’s artwork and its relationship to the music, but that’s all great. It’ll be another open forum to talk about your experience of the gig, what you remember, what you liked, didn’t like, what was exciting/confusing/good/bad/etc. etc.

Does that sound like fun? Good. Now, go get a ticket from Bandcamp and as soon as I get my ethics submission from the Uni signed off, I’ll send you the form with a full description of what’s going on that you can sign and return to me. 🙂

I’m SO looking forward to playing for you, but also to talking about making music. This is the stuff that goes through my head as I’m cycling round Birmingham, walking round shops, lying in bed at night… I’m fascinated by what, how, why and with/for whom we make music. And your voice as the audience is often one that artists ignore. So I’m listening… 🙂

20th Anniversary Gig on Dec 15th!

Twenty years
Twenty years of solo shows
Twenty years of explaining that no, I don’t have a band, and no, none of it is pre-recorded
Twenty years of curious sonic adventures
Twenty years of playing all over the world, in all kinds of venues, to all kinds of people
Twenty years of refinement – of getting better, of going deeper, of exploring the edges
Twenty years of wondering when I’ll run out of inspiration and do something else…
Twenty years of recording and releasing music – 71 albums so far!
Twenty years – a milestone worth celebrating! 

December 15th 2019 will be a really special show for me, here in Birmingham. I’d love for you to join me. Here’s why: 

December 15th 1999 was my first proper solo gig. I’d played solo before that, but never a whole set to an audience coming to see me. I’d done product demos at Guitar Shows, and solo tunes in gigs with Ragatal, but a whole gig? That was the first.

Twenty years often feels like an impossibly long time in music. When I went to music college aged 18, anyone with a 20 year career would’ve started in 1971, and been at it for longer than I’d been alive. 20 years in music is inconceivable from the start, but feels like the blink of an eye from the other end… I still feel like I’m just getting started with my creative path, I feel like there’s so much more I want to do, so many more ways to explore what the bass can do, the kinds of music that I can make within this set of constraints that were set in motion at that first gig – everything is live, everything is me and it’s all based on improvisation.

At that first gig, I had start points. A handful of loop ideas that I could play and then see what happens… The versions of the tracks that became my first album that were played at that first gig had completely different melodies – the only fixed part was the chord progression. Over the years I went back and forth between playing tunes from the records like that, and playing all-improvised music.

The point where I stopped playing those tunes was after my tours with Daniel Berkman, listening back to the recordings of our first 10 shows, which became the FingerPainting set – the low point of every single gig was my solo tune. Because it was the one thing that was set in stone before the gig, and wasn’t made FOR that moment. It existed so I could let people know I had new music out and maybe encourage them to buy it. That’s not a terrible motive, but it really stands at odds with the kind of dangerous, in the moment music making that Daniel and I were up to for the rest of the gig. Everything else that was happening was about what was happening. Our conversations were the score, the audience were the score, the room was the score. And we played to that. Across the 10 albums of the FingerPainting set, there’s a massive range of musical territory that we got to explore. It all sounds like US, but it sounds like us in all those different spaces to all those different people.

So, soon after that, I gave up on revisiting old tunes. I was just much better at playing new music rather than recreating old music. And that was the origin of all of this – those ‘starter loops’ that were present in the first couple of shows and eventually had fixed melodies and were given names were just launchpads for improvisation. Training wheels for this fledgling improvisor.

It’s a tough sell to promote a gig where none of the music that you’re playing has names that relate to the music that’s gone before. But weirdly this improvised work is perhaps more connected to the journey because it contains EVERYTHING – everything I’ve played and loved is in the toolbox. Everything I’ve played and failed at is there as a cautionary tale. Sometimes I revisit old ideas thinking I may have a new take on them, sometimes the spirit of those ideas is manifest in whatever it is that I’m excited about right now.

Five years ago after a week of jamming and experimenting with Divinity Roxx I added a MIDI controller and a laptop to my live set up and started playing percussion and keyboard sounds along with the bass stuff. Still there were no pre-recorded loops, no beats that I could just trigger at the same tempo and feel every night. Everything was played FOR the event, every sound was made with tonight in mind. On one level it felt like a transformative step – ‘SoloBassSteve’ had been a brand identity for a long time, and I guess this wasn’t strictly solo bass anymore, right? But on another it made perfect sense. The all live all-for-now constraint was way more central to the musical ideology than the all-bass bit. Bass is my voice, my language, my vernacular. What I’ve chosen to avoid isn’t a character, it’s a script. The story begins anew and builds on the last episode.

So this 20th anniversary gig will be a celebration of that journey, of the evolving newness that includes its own story in every note. Where the names of tunes are not the locus of familiarity, but the sound and the adventure offers a point of remembrance, of revisitation. A space to hear sounds and ideas that are woven through 20 years of live and recorded music, are embedded in my head and that of my longer term audience.

Please join us on Dec 15th…