Open Letter to the UK Jazz Community Pt III – recordings continued…

picture of Beth Rowley live at the Troubadour in LondonOne of the weird ways that a lot of the UK jazz players have been corrupted in their thinking by the pop world is the infrequency of their recorded output. As I said in my last post, cost has a fair bit to do with that. But the reason that cost has become a factor is that we’ve lost much of the spontaneity that made jazz so interesting, and instead have tried to match the production values of the pop world, where the life of a performance is wrung out of it, and then dropped back in by the ProTools surgeons… Continue reading “Open Letter to the UK Jazz Community Pt III – recordings continued…”

Creativity and Socially Networked Marketing – the good and the bad.

So much is being written about the egalitarian nature of online distribution, it would be easy to believe that all our worries as wannabe professional musicians are now over. We all know that we can get a myspace page and a facebook music page, a reverbnation widget and a last.fm page, just like the big boys. We can also get our music onto iTunes and eMusic, Amazon and Rhapsody, just by sending a CD to CDBaby and paying them less than $40 to set it up. Easy, huh?

Well, not quite. It’s true that the music economy in the last couple of decades has shifted from hundreds of acts selling millions of records to millions of acts selling hundreds of downloads, but two things are still problematic – monetizing the attention that we’re given, and building online spaces where attention is available in units greater than 30 second chunks.

You see, the huge problem with the MySpace/Youtube/iTunes generation is that it favours instantaneous gratification. It favours music that ‘wows’ in the first few seconds over music that takes a while to grow – in much the same way that mainstream pop radio has done for decades. It’s just that now, it’s not just the top 40 sector that’s expected to fit that paradigm, it’s everyone. There’s no special version of myspace for people with long songs, where the listener knows that it’ll take a particular piece of music a good few minutes to get going and reveal its hidden magic.

It’s true that to a degree it has always been thus – playing music to your friends in a ‘hey, check this out!’ scenario has always been a less comfortable proposition if you’re introducing them to the magic of Steve Reich or Brian Eno’s Music For Airports than if you were letting them in on the hitherto-undiscovered-to-them genius of Chic or Duran Duran. Pop music is by its very nature more immediate.

No, the problem here is a slightly more insidious one – it’s that all of us, ‘pop’ acts and more difficult to classify musicians alike, are being encouraged to market what we do via these channels in the same way, and music lovers are being encouraged to look for it in that way, and it can have a negative effect on the way we create and the way we find the music we love.

The fantastic potential that Myspace/Youtube/iTunes gives us to connect with an audience that we’d previously have needed a record label and radio plugger to connect with is still largely bound up in the ‘instant gratification’ notion of where the value lies in a piece of music. 30 second previews of tracks are useless for through-composed or gradually evolving music. 30 seconds of just about anything by Michael Nyman or Philip Glass isn’t going to show where the piece goes as it unfolds over the course of minutes rather than seconds.

How do we deal with this? I think acknowledging it is the first part of the answer – once the influence has been ‘named’ we can see if for what it is, and hopefully recognise the difference between our own creative urge pushing us towards brevity or accessibility (certainly no bad thing if that’s where you’re leaning) and the crippling of a deeper more evolved sense of where a particular piece of music should be going out of a fear that it just won’t work on myspace.

Download culture is wonderful in that it frees us up from the limitations of length – in both directions – that vinyl/casette/cd/minidisc had – we can put out tiny short works and not feel like we need to pad it out to fill a CD, or we can release massive epic hours-long single pieces if that’s really where our muse is heading. There’s nothing to stop you putting out 10 hours of continuous music, other than the limitations of the download speed of the person trying to get hold of it. We’re no longer constrained by pressing cost or media size, but we are still subject to the evolution of the music-discovery culture, and we all need to be thinking hard about how we build a space where we encourage people to investigate music that takes many listens to sink in, music that doesn’t reveal any of its complex magic in a 30 second low-res preview, but given time will seep into our consciousness and affect us in a unique way.

We need filters. We need

  • people and
  • media-outlets and
  • blog groups and
  • socially networked advisors who will recommend great music to us in the way that magazines used to.

Magazines still provide some of that, but they are very limited in their scope, because they are beholden to their advertisers and the broadcast nature of what they do, so are constrained by the need to write about people their core readership already know about. Those people aren’t really our concern. The ones who already have a career, a fanbase, a stream of self-generating traffic to their sites and online store. Finding out about the new Nick Cave or Pat Metheny record is rarely going to prove difficult.

No, we need microfilter channels, groups of 5,10,20,50 friends who get excited about new music and do the research for eachother, in the same way that Google Reader lets us search out news and blog posts for eachother.

There are already music blogs like this – audioblogs that feature MP3s on a daily basis. Some of them are fabulous. Many of them are less helpful in that they are basically a mashup of bit-torrent and blogger.com – illegal giveaways of whole albums that don’t actually help the band because they direct no attention or traffic in their direction. I was talking with a guitarist friend in LA in January who found that only a week or so after his latest album had come out, someone was giving it away on an audioblog based in Holland. The sales in the first few weeks of any project are important because that’s when the publicity is focussed on, so to be offering illegal free downloads of an album that close to the release date is particularly galling.

The new currency online is attention. Time is valuable, and it is possible to monetize that, through sales of CDs, downloads, DVDs, t-shirts, gig tickets, teaching weekends, meet and greets, promotional spin-offs, advertising revenue. But directing attention is best done by communities, by trusted advisors, but bloggers and twitterers and facebookists and friends of friends who know their subject and seek out the best new music around and tell people about it. And do it because then their love for it is propogated, the artform and the creators are encouraged, make enough money to make the next record, and the cycle of soundtracking a part of our lives is completed and begun again.

BUT if you’re a musician, unless the career part of being a professional musician is more important to you than the musician part, all of that has to be at the service of getting the word out about YOUR art. That which you hold most dear. Not an advert for what you hold dear, not a truncated, MySpace-ized version of it, but the real deal, however dense, complex, mellow, subtle or otherwise it is. Which brings me back to a point I’ve made a few times on here before – BE THE KIND OF FAN YOU’D LIKE TO HAVE – musicians need to be using the attention they have from their audiene to share the love, to let their listeners know about the music they love. It’ll come back, karmic-stylee, and will solidify your position as a guru of great music, a person of taste and discernment and the hub of a music-loving community. That’s how we build RELATIONSHIPS with the people who connect with our art – relationships built on shared knowledge and an unfolding understanding of where our aesthetic tastes overlap…

That is, as the yanks like to say, all good.

New Steve Lawson and Lobelia EP to download

You may remember back in December, Lobelia and I put out a limited edition CDR release of our live in Nebraska EP – 5 tracks taken from our forthcoming live album (release date TBC!)

Well, it’s now avaliable for download from the online store here – for &3.50

It’s over half an hour long, and the track list is

happy 7:34
mmfsog 4:09
i’m lost 5:11
rain 9:14
jimmy james 6:51

and it’s fab – if you go to my myspace page you can hear the first song from it.

anyway, you can get it as a download, it’s fab, you’ll love it, I’m sure. :o)

It’s worth noting that in general, I still sell way more CDs from the online store than I do downloads. I sell more downloads from itunes than I do here, though probably the highest volume of track sales is from emusic, though the unit price is much lower… I’m guessing, I’ve said before, that is at least partly because as a solo bassist/jazz/ambient/whatever artist, my core audience is that bit older, and not comprised of the digital natives in the 15-25 age-group that seem to dominate so much of the discussion around online music. I have a number of listeners who would be unhappy even with 198kbps MP3s (the new ones are 256k VBR), and so still want CD for the quality… I think the next full album will come out on high res MP3 and flac… I may do what Trent Reznor and Saul Williams did and put out a free low-res version, and a paid download much higher res version… we’ll see…

If you want me, you can find me…

…left of centre? well, yes, but also at these places (just as a recap, in case you missed some of them!)

Facebook
Reverb Nation
iLike
Last.fm
iSound (I’d pretty much forgotten that this one existed!)
MySpace
YouTube

and then just for buying stuff there’s

Cdbaby (there are a host of other MP3 stores linked from here).
iTunes
Emusic
Amazon.

….and also on Rhapsody, Napster and god-knows-where else!

Which of them do you use? Which sites are useful to you as a listener? Which sites have features that draw you in to spend time browsing for new music? It’s amazing that after all this time, there’s still nothing that can top Myspace, exposure-wise, shitty design or no shitty design. Last.fm is now definitely the go-to site for hearing music on demand, and emusic is my download site of choice, though the Amazon store is pretty kick-ass too..!

Which ones do you think will last? the Facebook fan-page thing doesn’t seem to have caught on all that much as yet, mainly because Facebook is ALL about connecting with people you know… I guess the artists need to do more interacting on there! Last.fm seem to have a really good thing going, and they are going to start doing subscription downloads too, it seems… What about myspace? The news about their open access API seems great if it works and we’re not just swamped with spam through it…

Thoughts please, bloglings. :o)

Traveling with music gear – prepare for the worst!

One of the favourite points of discussion amongst touring musicians is the whole twisted world of planes and instruments. From baggage limits to carry-on details, plane-side checking of bags, to buying extra seats for cellos, there are a million different takes on it, thanks to airline policy being so utterly baffling most of the time.

For years, I travelled everywhere with my bass in a standard lightweight gig-bag, and took it onto the plane. I even managed to get my bass onto Ryanair flights, but smiling, looking horrified if they suggested checking it, and in one instance, having a friend hold it while I checked in my luggage, but then taking it with me through the screening thing…

then a couple of years ago things started to tighten up, initially, i think, due to fuel price increases (and the ensuing panick about plane weight) and then it all went nuts after the london bombing (it had actually settled down a lot after Sept 11th, only to be reignited by London).

At that point, I switched to a foam bass case – I serendipitously lucked into a really nice lightweight case when a student of mine wanted me to help him sell his bass, which I did on the condition that I could keep the foam case and sell it with a gig bag instead… So I had that for a couple of years, and a great case it was too.

Then last year at NAMM, I picked up an InCase gig-bag – it’s a backpack style gig-bag, with shoulder and waist straps, but is more than padded enough to go in the hold. Since then I’ve been checking my bass in the hold, but carrying my rack-gear in a carry-on suitcase, and it’s proved to be pretty effective – no damage at all to my bass since I started doing it, and the case itself is holding up really well too.

Effective, that is, until flying back from California to Ohio, and the plane being completely full, so they checked my carry-on suitcase in the hold, and not via the usual ‘pick it up on the gangway’ method, but actually sending it through via checked baggage to my destination.

Because it was intended as hand luggage, I hadn’t packed the stuff in it all that well, and was pretty horrified by the idea of them checking it. I kicked up a fuss, told them what the contents were worth, but after a half-hearted attempt to find space in the plane, my bag was taken and checked.

I got off lightly, really – at the other end there were some marks on the faceplates of both the Looperlatives, but all the gear in it works fine.

It could’ve been a lot worse. A LOT worse. So what’s the moral of the story? Prepare for the worst. That’s part of the reason I started checking my basses in the first place – just couldn’t risk them putting a gig bag in the hold again. But now I need to do the same with my carry-on bag. Wrap the gear in clothes or towels, pack everything tight so it doesn’t rattle, and make sure that your travel gear is as SMALL AS IT CAN BE. I have a friend from California who toured Europe a couple of years ago, and got stung with a MASSIVE baggage overweight fee on the way from Sweden to Scotland… The worst I’ve had is about £30 on the way from London to Italy, back when I was trying to carry two Echoplexes in my bag (those things weighed a tonne!)… There are loads of bits of gear I’d dearly love to check out and use, but I stay away from as I don’t want my rig to become non-portable. and portable means ‘can fly with it on a cheap-ass airline’.

Anyway, for reference, if you’re flying in Europe, Easyjet have a ‘no weight limit on hand baggage within reason’ thing going on – if your bag fits the size restriction, they let you take it on. I think it’s because it saves them money on ground staff dealing with checked luggage, but it’s great for us, as you can pack the heavy fragile shit into your hand luggage. No such generosities from Ryanair, who have very tight weight limits.

Within the US, limits are generally much more generous than in Europe, but it’s definitely worth checking on policies, and PREPARE FOR THE WORST.

Also, for the americans reading this, you may well find that trains in Europe work out cheaper and easier than planes – there are no baggage weight limits (though if you turned up with 15 basses and a couple of ampeg stacks, you’ll probably get stopped!), and your gear stays near you. Look into Eurail passes for touring – it’s a great way to get to see the continent, and you aren’t penalised for changing your travel plans if a gig gets cancelled or swapped like you would be if you’d booked it all by plane…

Bass 2.0?

The “…2.0” suffix is being widely used to denote a significant leap forward from the first version of something, inspired by the description of changes in the way the web is used and perceived as ‘Web 2.0’. So we now have Media 2.0, Music 2.0 etc… It’s quite a useful shorthand, if a little nebulous, but it did make me wonder if it would work as a way of describing what I’m up to musically – Bass 2.0 – Bass 1.0 being the use of instruments within the bass family as defined by their role as ‘the bass’ within the music, and then the extensions on from that (taking that role and expanding on it, making it more twiddly, but still sitting well within the tradition of what’s expected of a bass instrument.)

Bass 2.0, as I see it, is where the role becomes something entirely separate from the instrument.

Q: What makes the bass an instrument distinct from the guitar, and why is that important?

The instrument is defined by it’s place within the lineage of bass guitar luthiery, the descendants of Leo Fender’s Precision and Jazz, which set the parameters for scale length and string spacing in place, no matter how many strings. String spacing can be tighter or wider, and scale length moves around, but even then it’s defined by it’s relation to the standard – short scale, long scale, etc.

So it’s a different family of instruments, originally designed with a particular role in mind, but now designed to be more of a blank slate, maximising the tone-shaping potential via electronics, and accentuating certain resonant characteristics via advanced building methods.

For quite a while, people playing bass as a solo or melody instrument did so very much within the lineage of the role – there was a continuum between what bass guitarists (instrumentalists) did as ‘bass players’ (music functionalists) – even Jaco stayed largely in that world, in that there’s very little of what he did that is unrecognisable as a bass as we know it (though I can’t even begin to imagine what it must’ve been like to hear ‘Portrait Of Tracey’ when his self-titled debut first came out…!)

The first person that I’m aware of to really take a ‘Bass 2.0’ approach to the instrument was Michael Manring – the redesign of the basic properties of the instrument that he and Joe Zon did to create the hyperbass have yet to be surpassed or even matched in terms of what possible in extending the possibilities of the 4 string bass (interesting the the most radical bass design ever is still a 4-string.)

There’s some stuff on his album ‘Drastic Measures’ that hints at what’s possible, but it’s his next three solo albums – Thonk, Book Of Flame and Soliloquy – that as a trilogy set the standard for Bass 2.0 – music conceived from the mind of someone who is very much a bassist, but who uses the instrument as a tool to create incredible music, rather than turning ‘bass playing’ into a circus trick or parlour game by just doing the same old shit faster and twiddlier than anyone else.

Where does my music fit into this? Well, i was deeply influenced by Michael’s ideas, even before I’d ever heard him, and took ‘Thonk’ as a green light to move away from the slapping and tapping I’d been doing before (even though there’s loads of slapping and tapping on Thonk) and do my own thing. It was a few years before I played a solo show, but as I’ve mentioned here before, the concept for my solo music was in place by the time I did my first gig (the track ‘Chance’ on And Nothing But The Bass is taken from that very first gig.)

And I’ve been trying to build on that ever since, holding in juxtaposition my love of the bass, it’s history, it’s place in the last 50 years of popular music with my desire to make the music i hear in my head. Tellingly, very few of my influences are bassists, because it’s always been about music first. Most of the ideas I take from bassists are physical ideas rather than compositional or emotional ones – the stuff that really counts.

And of course, within Bass 2.0 there’s an even deeper understanding of what the bass does when it’s being ‘the bass’ – I talk about this a lot when I’m doing looping masterclasses etc. – when I started playing solo, there was a fear projected onto me by some ‘older and wiser’ musicians who suggested that it would spoil my ‘normal’ playing, that I’d lose the joy of playing simple lines because i’d always be wanting to take solos and play melodies. In reality that couldn’t be further from the truth – because i spend my days thinking in layers, I’m happier than ever to just be one of those layers, to play the simple bass parts that hold everything else together. I haven’t had that many chances to do it of late, which made last night’s gig with John Lester at the 606 all the more frustrating, as I couldn’t hear John’s guitar at all, so wasn’t able to play with the level of confidence that his music really needs. It wasn’t rubbish by any stretch, just not as on it as it should’ve been… Shame, cos the rest of the gig was amazing.

Anyway, so, Bass 2.0 seems to be a nice way of categorising a desire to take the bass instrument to new places musically – there are certain tonal things that the physical size, shape and string length of the instrument allow that mean that even things that ‘sound like guitar’ or ‘sound like a synth’ have a unique quality to them…

more on filtering out 'junk-music' in a digital age…

In this post from a couple of days ago, commenting on the need to find ways to filter for quality at a time when it seems financial constraints may end up providing less of an incentive to seek out great music to buy, I finished by saying,

“Which only goes to say that we need filters. It doesn’t prove the monetary filters are the only ones, or even the best ones, but it does suggest that we need a way of making sure we doing overdose on junk-music.

And of course, those filters are already there, and I use them. The two i use are Last.Fm and Emusic. Last.fm offers a few different services that can help you discover new music, as well as the option to listen before spending money… firstly, there’s the radio stations, stations that are digitally programmed according to your taste, the tastes of people who like similar things to you, or by the taste of people who happen to also be fans of a particular band, or use a particular tag, so the level of randomness in relation to your own recorded playlists is affected by which of those radio options you choose, and how much listening time you’ve logged. Still, it’s an amazing site, which provides purchasing links with all the artists, data for tracking live music details, tools for blogging about music, forums for connecting with music fans connected by musical or extra-musical interests and a host of other things to make researching music fun.

Emusic is a very different formula, in that it is primarily a shop. The difference being that you ‘subscribe’ for a certain amount per month, and get a certain number of fairly high quality DRM free downloads for your fee. In my case, I get 50 tracks a month for £11.99 – which is about the standard price of a single CD in a specialist music shop. If you happen to like styles of music where the artists record long songs, you can get a heck of a lot of mileage for your money (for example, you could get almost all of the Jonas Hellborg back catalogue with 50 downloads, as few of his albums feature more than 5 or 6 tracks).

This month, I’ve just downloaded John Patitucci’s latest album, ‘Line By Line‘ (which is playing as I write, and is excellent), Gary Willis’ newest project, ‘Slaughterhouse 3‘ (marvellous heavy avant-fusion), and a glorious Kenny Wheeler record called ‘It Takes Two!‘, which I can already tell is going to be become a huge favourite. 3 amazing albums I would have been unlikely to buy on CD, but which I found on emusic via review and recommendation. You see, every artist and album has links next to it to things listened to by people who like that. You also get recommendations via friends and again via digitally compiled lists of users with similar data to your own. The option is there to listen (though the M3U playlist system used to preview music is clumsy and a pain in the arse), or you can just download a couple of tracks and see how you get on.

Both great filters, highly recommended. if you want to find me on either of them, at last.fm my listener page is here and my artist page is here. For emusic, my listener page is here and the place for downloading my music is here.

I really like the emusic model for downloading and paying for music – you’re paying a fraction of the cost of what you would for a CD, but you’re also committing to a certain level of investment each month in the ongoing success of recorded music. Everybody Wins!

Four gigs coming up in the London area…

After a bit of a barren time gig-wise, I’ve got four London shows coming up – a couple more half hour sets at the Freedom of Expression nights in Croydon and Marylebone, a return gig at a church event in West London called The Waiting, and the much later on in the month, the Recycle Collective is back at Darbucka, this time featuring the genius talents of Patrick Wood and Roy Dodds.

Patrick’s done lots of Recycle gigs before, and always brings a whole load of beauty, funkiness and melodic magic to the gigs. His playing at this year’s Greenbelt Recycle gig was some of the finest Rhodes playing I’ve ever witnessed, especially in an improv setting. So I’m really looking forward to that!

Roy is an amazing drummer that I first heard playing in Estelle Kokot’s trio, then played with him in John Lester’s band at the 606, and recently heard him playing with Theo Travis’ new project Doubletalk at the Vortex. But I’ve been listening to him play for 20 years, as he was the drummer in Fairground Attraction, and has played with Eddi Reader ever since. I’ve found over the years with the RC that the musicians who are primarily ‘song’ players tend to improvise the most coherently; players who are as happy supporting what’s going on as they are leading. and both Patrick and Roy have that quality by the bucket-load. They’re both fantastic versatile musicians, and I’m really excited about it…

So for more details see the gigs page on my website, or the event page at last.fm, or the event page on facebook.

My Music on EMusic…

If you’re an Emusic user, you can now get my solo albums on there – head over to the Emusic page with my stuff on it for more info, and to download them…

If you’re not an Emusic subscriber, you really ought to check it out – you get a certain number of downloads a month for your subscription fee – in my case, I pay £8.99 a month and get 30 downloads, though it gets cheaper per track the more you pay, obviously… lots of great music on there, fo’ sho’.

We’re in Dallas now, and I’ll hopefully blog tomorrow about what we’ve been up to…