The dangers of technodarwinian web 2.0 marketing for musicians

There’s a way of viewing online marketing that I’m going to characterise as Technodarwinism. [Just to clarify, I didn’t invent the word, but I’m using it in this context to refer to a kind of ‘survival of the best proliferated’, rather than the more positive possible meaning about the continuing evolution and bettering of technological solutions for a particular problem]

There are some good and some bad things about the way that this phenomenon plays out. Or at least, some good things about the environment in which is it played out – let’s pick one or two –

Good – the product has to be ‘good’ or people just won’t be drawn in. No more albums with two great singles padded out with filler tracks, disappointing the listeners who bought them without hearing them first.

Bad – the idea that the measure of one’s ‘success’ is to have the most listeners, the most hits/visits/subscribers/comments – this drives people to do the kind of traffic-attracting BS that many of the ‘how to be a pro blogger’ sites come out with about being controversial to drive traffic, or spamming the services that may send traffic your way with misleading info just to ‘raise interest’… that only breeds discontent and argument, not a quest for shared ground, consensus and mutual growth. It also makes no measure of the quality of interaction with each of the people behind those hits/visits/plays.

Good – theoretically there’s a level playing-field. The chances of an unknown going ‘viral’ under the old model were zero, because even pressing up enough copies for blanket radio airplay cost thousands of pounds/dollars. Now, via youtube/myspace/last.fm/bit torrent, a track, album, band or even a genre/movement could become the next big thing in a matter of days… However, IT DOESN’T HAPPEN AS OFTEN AS PEOPLE WOULD LIKE YOU TO BELIEVE. Almost every act that ‘went viral’ had a team behind them, being paid a LOT of money to make it look like no-one had spent any money.

Bad – The race to be the most tech savvy can lead to people look for ways to market a product that doesn’t deserve it, or to read as validation of the art the amount of exposure it receives… YouTube is full of dreadful music clips that are initially impressive, funny or quirky, but don’t follow through… in the currency of YouTube though, that doesn’t really matter as most youtube views are seconds rather than minutes long, and for an artist it creates a false sense of worth. Unless your views are in the millions it’s unlikely that YouTube virality is going to have a significant impact on your sales/concert figures…

As I mentioned in the last post, the beauty of web 2.0 for musicians/creatives is that rather than having a publisher/record label/manager breathing down our necks about the next ‘hit’ or whatever, we can do what we do without worrying about that stuff, and then market it.

The key point here, in terms of my perception of how this stuff works, is that this is a FAR MORE EFFECTIVE WAY OF PRODUCING ART OF QUALITY – as I’ve said a million times trying to second guess your market is nigh-on impossible, so being able to produce the music that you LOVE, that you yourself crave to listen to is THE BEST CHANCE YOU HAVE OF MAKING SOMETHING WORTH RELEASING.

Do you remember the bargain bins of the 80s and 90s? Endless piles of lushly produced records that sold pretty much nothing because record labels got it VERY wrong a lot of the time too. The industry-heads want us to believe that without them we’re screwed, we won’t be able to produce anything of quality, or be able to sell it, because we’re unrefined bundles of creative genius, but need them to shape it, make it palatable and marketable.

But it was always pretty random. And some great bands made crap albums, some crap bands made nearly-great albums, some bands found the right producer, some found the wrong one, a lot of people wasted a whole lot of money, and a lot of artists ended up paying for those experiments.

The old model produced some outstanding music. That’s not in question here. What is in question, in my mind, is what is the best way for me to continue to make the music that I HAVE to make and find the audience for it, whilst hopefully finding a way to be remunerated for it. I don’t have a desire to be famous or ‘successful’ for its own sake. Actual fame would be a right pain in the arse, and fortunately I’m a solo bassist, so unless I somehow morph into the British Victor Wooten, it’s not remotely likely to happen.

So all this geeking, the social networking, the microformatting, the blogging and myspacing, facebooking and youtubing is about letting people know what I do, giving them paths to find it, easy ways to connect with it, and then opportunities to buy the product if they want to, or come to the shows, or even book the shows, or just drop me a message and say they enjoyed it, and maybe tell a few friends about it too.

What’s in it for the audience? Well, the best case scenario for them is that I make enough money to be able to do what needs to be done to make the best music I can, and to come and play it near them. So they can download it for free, if they want (let’s face it, there really is no stopping your stuff ending up free somewhere, even if you wanted to) but if they do, the chances of them a) getting something equally good from me next time round or b) me coming to where they are, aren’t improved at all. They aren’t noticeably diminished, but unless there’s someone else near them who is making some kind of active steps to make me doing a show near them possible, then the chances of that happening are close to zero anyway. On one level, it doesn’t matter – there’ll be other bands and other music, and people who will find a way to tour… So the social media proliferation is important because the raised awareness IS monetizable in concert ticket terms, and useful as leverage, but it’s art first, marketing second.

Remember that we’re doing the marketing because we love our art and want people to share in it, not professional marketers desperate for some kind of trinket to sell on our virtual market stall – we don’t want to end up the musical equivalent of a stall holder whose product changes every week depending on what weirdness he’s managed to pick up cheap down the pub and thinks he might be able to sell.

All of which is at least partly another way of saying there’s no ‘one thing’ to any of this. No way to make a silk paypal account out of a sow’s myspace page. There’s no ‘secret to unlocking your marketing potential through social networking’, or whatever. Your number one priority, as an artist, is to make art. Make YOUR art, do what you do best, as well as you can possibly do it. And THEN, to find an audience, look for community spaces, places where people can get to know about you and your art in the same place, where they can interact, ask questions, and build a relationship with what you do, by broadening their understanding of who you are. Then those people will WANT to tell their friends, will do the rest of the marketing for you. You just have to resource them with great art and value added – the ‘just’ in that last sentence is going to take another series of about 10 blog posts to unpack, fear not.

How many times have you consciously bought a CD or download of someone because they blogged well? I’m guessing never, unless you’re really odd. However, you may well have discovered a musician or fifty via their web presence first, and THEN gone on to investigate their music. And the chances are that most of the music you heard was a disappointment. Because making great music is really hard. Making great music that meets the taste-criteria of any one person is even harder. Don’t take it personally if someone doesn’t dig what you do, and don’t get lost in trying to sell something that doesn’t deserve to be sold. And by ‘deserve’ I mean isn’t the best that you have to offer in terms of the art that is YOU.

I’ve heard musicians with 100,000 myspace friends who were, by most estimations, appalling. And I’ve heard incredible/engaging/deep/funky/magical/inspiring music from completely unknown, unmarketed musicians.

The Awareness Doesn’t Validate The Art and conversely, obscurity doesn’t invalidate it. There needs to be a synergy in the way we make art and tell people about it because we love what we do and we care about them. Your audience are not just your ‘market’. They’re a community of people who find that what you have to offer is worth spending their time and money on.

That’s worth engaging with, being grateful for, and relating to. Whether that’s 10 people, or a million.

Solo bass night, last night…

Back at Darbucka for the first time this year, last night was my solo bass night gig with Yolanda Charles and Todd Johnson. It was a pretty special evening on a few different levels. Firstly, it was Yolanda’s first EVER completely solo gig – this is a bassist who has played to live audiences in their hundreds of thousands, and TV audiences of millions, who was SOOO nervous before she went on! She needn’t have been, as she was fantastic. Yo is without doubt one of the finest funk bassists I’ve ever seen. We’re talking Pino-with-D’Angelo level funk. Her feel is amazing, the basslines are slinky, and she’s got a really lovely voice. The entire room was rapt. Just marvellous.

Second reason it was special was that it was Todd’s first ever gig in Europe, let alone the UK… I’ve been fan of Todd’s playing for years, and his knowledge of jazz chording on the 6 string bass is pretty much second to none. His music is straight down the line jazz, but he does it so well, his gimmick is just being great at it.

I played between the two of them, and as usual for a Darbucka gig, it was fine, though I didn’t play particularly well – I’ve kind of resigned myself to the knowledge that if I’m organising, compering, loading in and setting up the gear and then playing, one of those things is going to suffer, and given that it’s the last one, it’s usually the playing. It’s not that I was shit, just that I wasn’t as on top of my game as I should be for a gig like that. I did one new improv piece, and was, as it were, hoist by my own petard… it was a couple of different ideas I’d been working on over the last few days, but it fairly quickly went in a different direction from where I thought it was going, and unlike on a gig where I’m all prepared for such things, it threw me a bit, and I ended up thinking ‘was that any good?’ – the feel on it was nice, and there were some marvellously random moments when I’d forgotten about stuff I’d sampled at the beginning and wanted to bring back later, which suddenly appeared to my great surprise… Finished with a really nice version of ‘Kindness Of Strangers’ though, which was good.

A really lovely crowd – Darbucka gigs for me work on a lot of different levels – it’s a really lovely environment in which to play, and the owner is very supportive of what I bring there. It’s a chance to try out new ideas, new line-ups and have some fun, and it’s a way of building an on-going rapport with the audience, as there’s no pre-conceived notion of how to present a show there, so I define it myself. Which involves talking a lot of bollocks and making the evening as much about having fun as it is about hearing great music.

My audience doesn’t grow particularly quickly through it, but each time people bring friends, or the other artists draw people in, and they wouldn’t have seen me before. I never sell more than a couple of CDs there as most of the audience who want my CDs already have them, but it’s such a lovely venue.

Anyway, I’m REALLY looking forward to the gig in Milton Keynes on March 16th – me, Yolanda and Kev Cooke, and Lobelia will be with me so we’ll get to do some of our songs – that’s what I miss the most now on all-solo gigs, getting to do those songs…

Michael Manring and I on video…

Here’s another video from the gig in Santa Cruz – this one is of Michael Manring and I. It’s the second half of a REALLY long improv, and goes through about 5 or 6 big changes of direction, all seemlessly transitioned, thanks to the magic of the Looperlative.

Michael and I have been playing together for about 7 years, touring in England or California. We’ve never played together not on stage, and have only once or twice even vaguely discussed what we were going to do before a song, and that was usually because there was some hidden comedy element that one of us had come up with… We just get on stage, smile and start playing, and see where the muse takes us. It’s proper ‘pan-idiomatic’ improv (thanks to David Torn for the description) – it goes through any genre or idiom of music that we choose to steer it, from folk to metal, avante garde to funk, minimalist to contrapuntal neo-fugues…

Anway, here’s the video – it’s a lot of fun, but sounds pretty muddled on laptop speakers. Break out the headphones, or plug into a hifi to get some idea of what we were actually doing!

London Solo Bass Night – March 4th!

I’ve just booked a really amazing gig for March 4th at Darbucka World Music Bar in Clerkenwell (the venue home of the Recycle Collective).

The line up will feature a really diverse range of solo bassists –

TODD JOHNSON – Todd is one of the finest electric jazz bassists on the planet, and is known to many via his amazing DVD tuitional series, his loads of youtube clips and his amazing playing with the Ron Eschete Trio. Not to be missed!

YOLANDA CHARLES – playing her [b]first ever all solo show[/b] (!!) Yolanda is one of the most instantly recognisable bassists in the country, thanks to her work with Robbie Williams and Paul Weller. She’s also front woman for her own amazing funk band, MamaYo, who some of you will have seen at Bass Day 2006. Her songs are great, her bass playing’s funky, and this is one debut you really don’t want to miss!

and ME – this’ll be my first solo gig in London for MONTHS, and hopefully there’ll be some new material on display… 🙂

There’ll also be time for some Q and A with all three performers.

Tickets will be £6 in advance or £7 on the door – advance tickets will be available ASAP from the online shop at

Why I love David Byrne

Three great reasons to love David Byrne:

Firstly, Talking Heads are one of the greatest bands in the history of music. Right now they’re also probably the most influential band on the planet, given how many crappy indie bands are trying to sound like them and failing miserably… But that aside, they made some of the most engaging, interesting, funny and downright funky music of the 70s and 80s.

Secondly, he writes one of the most interesting blogs on the planet. My understanding of the sub-prime mortgage fiasco came from reading his blog (I’d seen all the news reports, but no-one had explained it with the same clarity as he did…) Reading it makes me want to live in NYC, not to say play bass in his band.

And Thirdly – and for now most importantly – he’s just written the best article I’ve yet read summarising what’s going on in the music world, Music 2.0, digital worlds, indie marketing etc… loads of great recorded interviews with people like Brian Eno and Radiohead’s managers… It’s utterly unmissable for anyone wanting to see where things are going.

One of the most glorious things about the internet is that people like David Byrne are emerging as creative industry polymaths – he’s a great musician, thinker, writer, cultural critic… and we can find out about all of in a way that wasn’t really possible before the interwebs. Hurrah for le net.

(thanks to Jeff Schmidt for the link to the David Byrne piece….

busy busy busy

It’s all go here!

We’ll start with last weekend – two gigs, Saturday/Sunday.

Saturday’s was a gig with Lobelia in Brighton at the Sanctuary Cafe, opening for MAP – that’s and Peter Harris – both incredible acoustic guitarists, writers of sublime melodies and fantastic performers. Also on the bill before us was a marvellous singer/songwriter, Conrad Vingoe – as well as having one of the most rock ‘n’ roll names ever (not much chance of that domain name being taken), he writes great songs and has a gorgeous voice. All good. ‘Twas a small crowd, but the venue was intimate and sounded good, the people lovely and a fine time was had by all… I’ll put photos from it up on Flickr soon.

Sunday’s gig was back at Smollensky’s with Luca Sirianni, this time with Sophie Alloway on drums. The gig with Luca is becoming a fairly regular thing, and a whole lot of fun – the chance to play a lot of pop/latin/jazz tunes, do some interesting arrangements, get funky and get paid (a bit). Luca’s a fine guitarist, who does enough ‘dinner jazz’ gigs to know just the right kind of things to play, but also likes to stretch out, improvise and have some fun. It was the first time I’d played with Sophie, and she was a treat to play with – not having come the usual ‘3 years at music school’ route, she plays with the maturity of a player who’s been gigging twice as long as she has, because she learnt on gigs. One of my main gripes with so many drummers is the don’t listen well – they establish a beat and stick with it, instead of letting the grooves grow and expand. Sophie listened really well, and also – crucially – understood the space a drummer has to occupy in a trio. As usual, I hit my stride about half way through the second set, but that’s the price I pay for not playing with drummers often enough…

…Though that’s not the case right now – I’m in the middle of a really fun recording session with Patrick Wood and Roy Dodds – if you saw the last Recycle gig, you’ll know this is a pretty special trio… We spent most of yesterday setting up, but got about 20 minutes of amazing music recorded last night, and will spend much of today on it as well… except the time that I’m teaching – thanks to my going away for Christmas and January to the US, I’m having to fit in as much teaching as possible before I go, partly because lots of students want lessons before I go and partly because I need to earn as much as I can in order to be able to pay my rent, and renew my car tax in january…

in between all that, I’m booking things to do in the US (masterclasses and gigs in California), sorting out my tax return (spending a lot of time buried under piles of receipts) and somewhere this week, I need to fit in a few hours to record some tracks for an italian electronica project that I’ve been meaning to record some stuff for for over a year, and HAVE to have done before Christmas…

Add to that regular trips to the post office to send off CD orders for the new EP and people ordering other stuff as christmas presents, and you’ve got yourself one seriously overworked Stevie.

Roll on Ohio…

'Too much music' – further thoughts on filters.

As I’ve said here recently, part of the problem with the notion of limitless downloads is the basic flaw in thinking it to be a good thing.

There’s never been an easier time to record and release music as a band or solo artist – anyone and her mum can get Garage Band or Audacity and record their songs. Then via the wonders of the web, you can even do one CDR, and then get it onto iTunes etc. via the internet miracle that is CD Baby.

This is, obviously, largely a really really good thing. The problem is that of filtering, and the part of that task that both cost and record labels used to play.

See, back in the day, you recorded a demo – it was probably live in a rehearsal room. You sent it, or took it to someone at a label, and asked them to come to your gig. If they bothered to turn up, they then acted as the first filter, but were obviously also influenced by audience reaction – same as it ever was, getting your mates out to a gig can really help…

Anyway, what this meant was that little labels sprang up all over the place, specialising in different kinds of music, and acting as enthusiastic ambasadors and as filters for what was good in that scene.

That’s now gone – the labels are still there, it’s just that a lot of people (like me) don’t even bother to contact them, and lots more contact them, and after endless rejections, they convince themselves they are misunderstood geniuses and release it themselves. And some times they are right.

However, a lot of the time, it’s that the music is substandard. And, back to the point about ‘value’ having a cost, when the recording hasn’t cost you anything to make, you’re automatically going to be less disposed towards making sure that it’s the VERY best you can do before releasing it. If putting a record out was going to cost you 6 months wages, you’d make pretty damned sure that it was the best possible representation of what you can do. You’d probably make sure that some of that spending went on getting an engineer who knows what he’s doing, maybe even a proper producer to oversee the project. You get outside help to make sure that you were fooling yourselves into thinking that you’re legends when in fact you’re substandard MySpace-filling nonsense.

So where does that leave artists. It leaves us needing to be mindful – mindful of the pitfalls, of the potential to overestimate how good we are, mindful of the things that we’ve overlooked because we live in an immediate culture that is all about cheapness masquerading as ‘value’. We need to make sure that the record we’re putting out there is one that we believe can become the soundtrack to people’s lives.

Why? Because if we don’t, we’ve lost. We’ve lost the battle with those who are trying to reduce the place of music in our lives to something that is measured not by its quality, integrity and creativity, but by it’s all encompassing availabilty and usefullness as an advert for some other commercial process – ours or someone else’s. We abandon ourselves to a world where we don’t get the music we want or need.

That’s why I make the music I make – I make it because it’s the music I want to hear, it’s part of a way of making music that I value hugely as a listener. It’s not fundamentally about it being marketable or popular or radio friendly. It’s about me believing that I am my own target market. What kind of music do I love most? How do I go about making that music?

That’s it, that’s what I do, and that’s what the feedback I get suggests is what my audience connects with. They’re a bunch of people who have similar taste to me, and thus click with the music that I’ve made for myself.

Of course once it’s recorded I then market it, promote it, advertise it, hope it gets radio airplay, hope it makes its way onto TV and film and into the iPods and CD players of the world’s music lovers.

And what does it mean for us as fans? It means that we need filters, we need both practical filters and abstract ones. Having to go out and buy a CD is a practical filter that stops us from wasting time on music with no pedigree. It means that we tend to buy things we’ve discovered somehow via a trusted source, be that friend, radio, review, TV, whatever…

But it also limits us to that. The digital realm, at it’s best, allows us to dip in and out of the filtered world – we can listen to a radio show, hear some great new music, then immediately get onto our music buying site of choice and buy the download, if we want to hear more at higher resolution. If we want to gift that music in a nice package, or we just like having physical product, we can order the CD.

Having access to all the music in the world doesn’t help anyone, because there’s too much of it. In the same way that very few people trawl wikipedia for news – it’s almost entirely search driven, so people find info about a subject they are already interested in – but still read random news from trusted sources (I read stories about all kinds of things in The New Statesman, just because they are in there – I don’t go searching for stories on the potential for civil war in far flung places, or the plight of migrant workers in the Caribbean… I read them because the New Statesman is my filter – if they deem it important, so do I) – we need ways of filtering for QUALITY, not just STYLE. you can search on myspace or wherever for funk bands with loads of plays, and that has some kind of popularity-related filter, but that kind of interest is driven by the degree of geekiness of the band and their ability to mobilize a an e-team, not just the quality of the music…

No, we need to be mindful of how valuable our listening time is, what a great addition truly great music can make to our lives. And artists need to think about that as an aspiration – not just putting it out cos it’s cheap and easy, but genuinely writing world-beatingly great music.

It brings me back to one of the many great points in Hugh McLeod’s How To Be Creative post – “The idea doesn’t have to be big. It just has to change the world.” – I want to write music that changes the world. It probably won’t change all of it, but I aim to make music that is significant, of value, and that represents everything I have to say in music, and hopefully becomes part of the soundtrack to the lives of the people who hear it. Whether I’m successful in that or not is almost moot… That’s not really anything I have control over beyond aiming for it.

The important thing is the intention. Be mindful of your intentions.

Recycle Collective gig, Tuesday 30th…

(this is cross-posted from my mailing list – thanks to the lap-top problems I’ve been really slow to send out info about tomorrow night’s Recycle Collective gig, so am putting the word around as much as I can today, giving you the chance to make a last minute decision to come and spend the evening listening to marvellous music in the gorgeous surroundings of Darbucka…)

Sorry for lack of communication over recent gigs (if you have a look at www.stevelawson.net/gigdiary.shtml you might see some stuff that you’ve missed) – broken laptop has messed up my web-life all round… all the more reason to subscribe to the gig RSS Feed on that page… :o)

But anyway, this is really a reminder about tomorrow night’s Recycle Collective gig at Darbucka in Clerkenwell, London – www.darbucka.com is their website.

The line-up is me on bass and loopage, Patrick Wood on keys and Roy Dodds on drums. This is a bit of a dream line-up for me, as I’ve been a fan of Roy’s drumming since his days with Fairground Attraction (yup, that was him on ‘Perfect’) through to his beautiful playing on Theo Travis‘ new ‘Double Talk’ album. And Patrick is a regular at Recycle gigs, having played with us at Greenbelt this year, and is never less than amazing – melodic, funky, inventive; the ideal improvised music collaborator! :o)

So PLEASE come down – it’s only £6 to get in, and Darbucka does fabulous food either upstairs in the restaurant beforehand, or while you’re sitting listening to gorgeous music!

Music starts at 8pm – www.stevelawson.net/gigdiary.shtml – head there for a link to a map for where Darbucka is. The address is 182 St John Street, London EC1V 4JZ and the nearest tube is Farringdon, and we’ll aim to finish in time for you to get the last tube home! Music starts at 8pm.

thanks – please check out the gig calendar for more dates and my blog for more on what I’ve been up to. Hope to see you soon,

take care

Steve
www.stevelawson.net
www.recyclecollective.com
steve.anthropiccollective.org
www.last.fm/music/Steve+Lawson