Paradigm is no measure of quality – what to do when you're 'different'…

This post is inspired by two things – firstly, a conversation I had recently with the very lovely Laura Kidd. We’d known each other quite a few weeks before she finally bothered to listen to any of the music I did, assuming that because it was solo bass it would be a load of techno-wank bass cleverness and therefor not something she’d be interested in. She eventually listened to it, probably as much out of politeness as anything, and said with a large degree of surprise the next time I saw her how much she liked it.

She was quite embarrassed, but actually her response is pretty much mine whenever I get an email or get given a CD and told ‘you’ll really like this, it’s solo bass’.

The problem is that solo bass is neither a style of music, not does it carry any indication of quality. And, for the most part, I’m not hugely into what happens on solo bass. There are some very notable exceptions to this, and some of my favourite musicians in the world are indeed solo bassists, but as a ‘draw’, solo bass doesn’t really work for me without some evidence that there’s more to it than the tools of the trade.

Same goes for ‘loop music’, ‘ambient music’, or any other vague classification I might fit into. It’s one of the reasons I find it so tricky to accurately sum up what I do in a single sentence…

The 2nd thing that inspired this as a topic was thinking about mine and Lobelia‘s upcoming gig at Darbucka. Going out to live shows in a city as big as London can be such a chore, and venues are, by and large, becoming less and less pleasant places to hang out. I don’t want to stand around in a dark smelly hall surrounded by drunk people shouting waiting for a band to come on only to find that I can’t hear them play anyway… I’m immediately wary of any gig in a venue I haven’t heard of, and I’m guessing that most of the people who would enjoy my gigs feel similarly.

So how do you get it across to people that a night out at Darbucka is ‘not like other gigs’? That the venue is cool enough to be worth a night out on its own, that the food is great, the ambience is really mellow, the sound is always cracking, it’s a fun night, people listen, the audience are generally lovely, and there’ll be the return of the lovely bloke playing Ukulele and singing, as well as all the usual Steve ‘n’ Lobelia loveliness.

That, dear readers, is where you lot come in. Cos nothing at all beats word of mouth in spreading that kind of info. I can rant til I’m blue in the face about how fab my own gigs are, but hey, they’re my gigs, I’m bound to say that. Why should anyone believe me when I have a vested interest in them being there?

…I hope that for most of you reading this, that last bit is rhetorical, that it’s clear I do try to be honest about what I’m doing, and definitely go out of my way to put on the best gig I can (despite Darbucka having it’s own PA, and me not owning a car, I still take my own PA down there cos the sound is better, for example 🙂 )

So, if you’ve been to see us before, take the next couple of mins to tell someone about it – post a comment on last.fm or Myspace, or hey, just post a comment on here! Tweet about it, blog about it, or call up some friends if you’re in London and bring ’em along. If you’re bringing loads, email me for a group discount 🙂

Hope to see you at Darbucka on Tuesday 29th July – it’ll be a really lovely mellow, fun night out, I promise!

Tuesday night gig in London: don't miss it!

OK, this is VERY last minute news of a gig tomorrow night at Darbucka!

It’ll feature Lobelia and I playing our duo stuff (see Youtube for more on that!), my new trio with Patrick Wood and Roy Dodds (see Reverb Nation to listen to a track from our forthcoming album!), and will also feature Yolanda Charles and Miles Bould (oh yes, unbridled funkiness from two of the most amazing musicians I know) and Lloyd Davis (one man and a ukulele – he’s fab!)

It’s a celebration, which you’ll know all about if you’ve been following Twitter over the weekend, and we’d love for you to be there – So much so that it’s only £3 for you to get in if you say you read about it on the blog when you ge there… Normal tickets are £6.

So bring your friends and come on down. The gig is at Darbucka, on St John’s Street in Clerkenwell, doors are at 7, music starts around 8 and it’s wise to plan to eat there as the food is amazing, either in the restaurant upstairs, or downstairs in the venue. It’s all marvellous.

For more info, if you’re on Facebook, you can check out the facebook event page.

See you there!

Design Museum gig last friday…

About two weeks ago, I got an email from electronic drum-monkey extraordinaire, Andrew Booker, asking me to do a gig with his improv collective Improvizone, at the design museum. This appealed on a few different levels – firstly, Andrew’s a fantastic musician and top bloke. Note that the first time I saw Andrew live, I was stood next to Brian Eno who’s comment on Andrew’s playing was ‘have you got his phone number?’… yup, he’s fab. Secondly, I’ve been reading about Improvizone for a long time on his blog, and love the idea – it’s quite Recycle Collective-ish in its concept, but tends to be a little more electronica-led and not quite as structurally defined [Recycle gigs are always 3 sets, 3 musicians, 3 lots of solo/duo/trio performance].

I then find out that while the gig doesn’t pay (I knew that, no problem), the event we were playin at was a ticketed thing, with peoples paying money to be there… uh-oh. That’s not so great: I’m working on a ‘creative commons’ type manifesto for these kind of gigs (more on the blog soon), and that clearly went against that idea – offering my music free to soundtrack someone else’s money-making didn’t sound good at all… Quick chat with Andrew, and it seems there’s some expenses available, so not completely free and that, combined with the enticement of great people to play with and some connections at the venue for further gigs makes me stick with the gig.

I’m rather glad I did, as it was musically a hugely satisfying experience – the line-up was completed by laptop twiddler Os, who, as well as triggering and manipulating samples of guitarist Michael Bearpark (some great sounds there!), would be processing and looping me, in Ableton Live.

Now, after a chat a few years ago with David Torn about group loop-infected improv, I generally take Torn’s view that it makes most sense to have a ‘master looper’ in a band, and have them take the most responsibility for that side of things. This doesn’t preclude other looping, it’s just like having a producer on a record… the Recycle Collective usually works like this, even with all the other musicians looping and processing up a storm…

The nice thing about Os looping me is that a) he’s very experienced with looping ideas b) he had headphones available for previewing stuff rather than just randomly processing things that may or may not work and c) Ableton Live is a pretty versatile platform on which to loop things.

So the upshot was that I played less than usual, often tossed a bassline and some ambience in Os’ direction at the beginning of a tune and then had him grabbing snippets of melody as we went on. If I was playing a ‘normal’ bassline, he’d quite often tell me he’d grabbed that, and I could move on and do all kinds of interesting Looperlative mangling of my own, while he looped and processed what was coming out… All kinds of fun. And his Ableton set up was sending a click track to Andrew on drums…

All lots of fun, and it made for some fabulous, enjoyable, freewheeling and at times downright funky improv!

And, what’s more, the venue loved it, and want us back. We’ll have to negotiate on money, clearly, as their expectations may well be tainted by the ‘freeness’ of the first gig, but they know what we do, how well it works in that setting so we have known skillz to bargain with. Hurrah!

And, once again, I’ve got another gallery show experience to throw into the pot for the new album ideas, to combine with all the twisted country stuff that came from the Rob Pepper Gallery show… twisted country electronica, anyone?

"Nobody owes you their attention" – thoughts on multi-act gigs and audiences…




Miriam and Jez again

Originally uploaded by solobasssteve

Friday night, I went out to a fabulous gig – Miriam Jones was playing at The Perseverance in London, with Jez Carr on piano, so Lo and I, along with lovely Susan went to see them. And they were, in a word, outstanding. Miriam’s amazing (check it out for yourself, she’s got a free album to download from her website) and you all know Jez is great from his playing on Conversations.

Anyway, their fabulousness is not the primary reason for this post. It’s what happened when they finished that inspired this… Miriam was the middle of three acts on, all doing half hour sets. The times weren’t announced before the gig, so we turned up at around the start time, and sat through the first bloke. Not great, but not dreadful either.

Having not seen Jez in months, or lovely Susan for even longer cos she lives in NYC, one of the main reasons we were there was to catch up with them. The gig was in the upstairs room of a pub, so we headed downstairs for a chat. This clearly riled the guy that was on last, whose behaviour implied that we should somehow feel obliged to stay and listen to him… We didn’t feel obliged, and didn’t stay to listen – his was a name I recognised from the circuit (the gig was put on by Freedom Of Expression), he wasn’t someone I’d had recommended to me, so didn’t feel any urgency to check him out either way. But crucially, I also didn’t feel animosity towards him either.

However, at the end of his set he came down to the bar, across to where we were sat and said to Miriam, curtly, ‘I enjoyed your set, shame you couldn’t be bothered to listen to mine’. OWN GOAL!!! With that one sentence he pretty much guaranteed that no-one at that table would EVER bother to go and see him play. Before that line, we’d have all probably checked him out next time as a name we were familiar with. After it he was put in the box marked ‘miserable shitheads’, not to be bothered with.

His problem was assuming that his music ought to be at the top of the priority list of people who know nothing about him. People who all had VERY good reasons to not listen to him on that night. People who if they had been forced to sit through a set instead of chatting would have ended up resenting him, and certainly wouldn’t be predisposed to liking what he did. People who, if he’d left them alone may well have stuck around to see him next time.

Look, there’s always a load of great reasons for someone not watching you play, for them not turning up early enough to see your support slot, for not sticking around to see you play last, for not coming to your show, for missing your bit on the radio… Nobody owes you their attention. Attention is a currency we trade in. We earn it, we should respect and appreciate it, and we shouldn’t ever get upset when live music isn’t at the top of someone’s priority list.

Maybe it’s part of the artistic temperament to be utterly self-absorbed, but it’s a tendency we HAVE to get away from, or we end up doing what sh’teed did on Friday night and actively turning future potential fans off from ever wanting to hear us.

If we’d sat at the back of the venue and chatted, he’d have had reason to be annoyed. That’s just rude, and it spoils it for everyone else. But the simple equation is it’s way better to play to 5 people who REALLY WANT TO BE THERE, than to 30/50/100/whatever who are there out of some misplaced sense of obligation or etiquette and really want to be elsewhere.

Don’t get caught thinking you’re the centre of the universe. You aren’t. I’m not, no musician is. And next time you play, thank your audience for being there and mean it! 😉


Exclusive track on Reverb Nation + gig news…

I’ve FINALLY got round to adding the latest bunch of gigs to Reverb Nation. The first of which is this sunday, at the Brickhouse, on Brick Lane in London (deets below in the gig cal widget).

The gig’s with my new trio with Patrick Wood and Roy Dodds – two of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever had the privilege to play with. I’ve just added a fan-exclusive track to the Reverb Nation page, which you can play from from the widget below if you’re already on the mailing list, or you can just sign up! Enjoy…


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Etiquette for soliciting press-quotes from people…

I’ve been asked a few times lately to give quotes to people to use for promo purposes, so I thought it would be a good time to offer some thoughts on the process. Largely because it’s something I’ve done myself from time to time, and continue to do when the conditions are right…

Firstly, it’s worth thinking about why we do this, and what value it carries as a promotional tool. Like most promo ideas, it has nowhere near as much influence as we’d like to think, but it can provide context for people who have found our websites or press-packs via other routes, and can also be good for putting on posters and flyers. The value lies in a few different areas –

  • firstly in the quote itself; having anyone say that you’re a badass is helpful, especially if it provides some context as to how they think you’re a badass – some kind of stylistic reference, a particular skill they are into etc.
  • Secondly, there’s the association with that artist – if fans of artist [a] see that they are a fan of you, they may well be inspired to check you out. More often than not they won’t, unless artist [a] is actively promoting what you do, but a few will…
  • and Thirdly, quotes are most useful en masse – have a body of evidence from different sources provides people with a framework for understanding your place in the scheme of things.

OK, so that’s why they are useful – what of how to get them? Here’s my rules that I work by –

  • I never ask anyone for a quote who hasn’t already expressed – privately or publicly – a positive opinion about what I do. Cold-calling someone you’ve never had any contact with is not only bad manners, it’s a recipe for getting either criticism or worse, a lame half-quote that will ultimately make you look like an amateur (no one wants to read a lame quote about you, no matter who said it – you’d be better off getting one from your high-school music teacher or your mum than that).
  • I never quote anything said to me in a conversation, without getting permission in writing, and offering the person a chance to write something else instead.
  • if I’m re-quoting what someone has said about me elsewhere, I try and give context for it.
  • When asking someone who has previously liked what I do for a quote about a new product, I explicitly let them know that I’m totally fine with them not saying anything if they don’t like it, or don’t want to say anything about it.
  • My default is to expect to not get a quote. If I do, and all the conditions are right I’ll use it.
  • I never push people on it – I have a fair few musician friends who’ve expressed a liking for what I do in person, some of whom have offered to give me a quote, who I never pressure for them. They may happen in time, but if they don’t, my career isn’t built or crushed on whether or not some bassist or whatever says what I do is cool….

OK, that’s how I go about getting them, what about what I do about giving them – here’s the list:

  • If I really like what you do, I’ve probably sent you one already – I spend a large amount of my online time putting the word out about music I love. And by love I mean ‘love’, not ‘music by people who might be able to do favours or who are just mates of mine but aren’t very good’.
  • As a recommender of music, I’m building a brand, a brand that I actively protect from the accusation that I’ll give a quote to anything. So my default for people who ask is ‘no’, just because I only push things I think are fantastic. It’s like my policy for inviting people to play at Recycle Collective gigs – only my most favouritest musicians are in there. I might like what you do, but just not be into it enough to put my weight behind it (and, to be honest, a quote from me REALLY isn’t worth that much…)
  • That said, I’m very much aware that there are a growing number of people who DO buy albums that I recommend (most of my recommendations are made either here, on my forum or via my Twitter music recommendation feed, To The Left Of The Mainstream – if you find your music on TTLOTM, I REALLY like it, and am willing to put whatever reputation and credibility I may have behind it.
  • Getting a random email out of the blue asking me ‘for a quote’ that you can use, without having any idea whether I’m remotely into what you do puts me in an awkward position. I’m left with four options – I can lie and say I love it, I can give you a weedy quote that means nothing, I can email you and tell you I don’t like it, or I can ignore it and not reply. None of those are ideal, and certainly none of those are likely to get me to do what you want, even if I like what you’re doing. A little interaction first, and maybe even asking for my honest opinion privately might make more sense than a ‘hey’ gimme a quote. I’m well aware that a lot of people aren’t going to like what I do. Same goes for what you do. I may not like it. That doesn’t mean I don’t like you, and it doesn’t mean you’re rubbish, it just means it’s not my kind of thing, and would be misleading for me to be pointing people towards what you do.

In terms of measurable value, I find that the support, encouragement and advice of musician friends is infinitely more value than a public quote from them – I have an unofficial ‘council of reference’ of older experienced musicians who seem to get what I do, and are willing to offer support, advice and encouragement. Most of them haven’t ever said anything publicly about what I do, although one or two of them have got me gigs, and in one case taken a whole pile of my CDs out to Japan to get me some radio play and work on gig promo…

Of the quotes that I do have on my quotes page – all of the non-printed media ones are from people who had said either to me or elsewhere that they like what I do. I then dropped them an email thanking them for the encouragement and asked if they wouldn’t mind giving me something that I can use publicly, always with the caveat that I’m fine with it if they don’t want to.

As I said before, you put people in a tricky spot asking stuff like this, so choose your people well, and start with some normal polite human interaction before asking for a press quote… …I don’t mean to come off like a curmudgeon, and it’s always nice to get a message from someone who wants to know what I think of what they do, but spam and marketing BS definitely trigger the red flag with me.

…and if you want to know what I’m digging right now, do check out To The Left Of The Mainstream and comment on the artists there my forum…

Two more videos from the sessions with Dave Bainbridge

Well, those were two of the most enjoyable days of music making I’ve had in a long time!

Here are two more videos from the recording session today – both of the same tune, the first one is of me recording bass fills between the vocal, and the second one is a bass solo on the same tune… lovely stuff. Dave writes such great progressions for this kind of thing – it’s in a similar vein to tunes like ‘Treasure’, ‘Chi-Rho’, ‘Irish Day’ etc… the big emotional melody songs that Iona did so beautifully on every album.

A lot of the rest of the day was spent working on some prog-tastic basslines. Some fast twiddly, tricky stuff, one of which would be great played with a pick, in a Trip Wamsley stylee… Going to ask Trip for some tips, methinks…

All in, a most enjoyable couple of days, playing great music with Dave – a top bloke and outstanding musician… watch this space for more news about the Open Sky project (3 gigs are booked for July…)

Thoughts and Questions on Originality.

Been having some fantastic conversations with creative people of late on the subject of originality. It’s a subject that seems to lead to wildly different comments and responses from creative people, but rather too often seems to become deified or fetishised to the detriment of the resultant art.

With solo bass being such a niche musical pursuit, I often end up with people thinking that what I do is ‘completely original’, in that listeners outside of the solo bass/looping/etc. cognoscenti have probably never heard anyone doing anything quite like what I’m doing before. It would be very easy for me to claim that I came up with the whole idea and convince people – at least in the moment – that I’m some kind of pioneer in a way that I’m not.

But, it’s also worth noting that some of what I do has been described as ‘pioneering’ and even folks within the ‘scenes’ from which I draw most of my influence have recognised bits of it as being in some way ‘original’.

So what is one to do with that? In both situations the result is that the people involved have another level on which to engage with what I do, but it’s one that holds precious little ‘real’ value.

The first question that comes from this is a) ‘how many records have you ever bought just because the artist was flagged up as ‘original’?’ – and part b) of that question is: of those, how many did you stick with just because it was ‘original’?

The answer to the first bit is probably – if you’re an early adopter and enthusiast like me – ‘a few’. There are a few things I’ve checked out (though these days more via downloads/myspace etc.) that I’ve being pointed to because the persons approach to music making was in some way novel. However, it’s the second half that concerns us – Long term engagement with an artist’s output is based on quality, value and integrity, not gimmick.

This is something that we’re all too aware of when it comes to the marketing aspect of what we do – trying to rebrand dogturds as caviar isn’t going to make people enjoy the taste of dogturds – but originality is trickier because it’s a) less easy to quantify and b) it feels like an artistic consideration first and not a marketing gimmick.

So, here’s the question that will help you to gauge your own reaction to concepts of originality – if everyone in the world did things the way you do, would what you do still have value? In otherwords, when your schtick ceases to be a schtick and just becomes a creative model like ‘being in a band’ or ‘taking photographs’, what is the innate value in the way your story informs the output?

For me, it becomes this – if all the world were solo bassists, would my music as a solo bassist still be worth anything? Or, to frame it in now, ‘what’s the value of what I do to an audience saturated with looped solo bassists?’ This last question is a key one when it comes to putting on ‘branded’ gigs – if I put on a solo bass night, does it water down my brand to the detriment of people’s perception of how ‘original’ I am, or does it just remove the ‘originality/novelty’ element from how they engage with it, and cut to the storytelling?

The reality for me is, as I’ve been telling my students for years, it’s way more important to be ‘good’ than it is to be ‘original’ – a whole load of the willfully obscure experiments that one can end up with when looking for a ‘new sound’ are things that other people have tried and dismissed before inflicting them on an audience.

Influence seems to be the dirty word in so many discussions about originality. The equation seems to go thusly –

Being original is key to my success, therefor I mustn’t experience anyone else’s art that may shape what I do in an overt way because if I hear them, I’ll want to sound like them, and that will ruin my USP (unique selling point), and I’ll be finished as an artist. So as a result, I’ll live my life in seclusion from talented people operating in the same field as me.

This, dear bloglings, is what’s known in the trade as UTTER BOLLOCKS. I’ve seen a few people’s musical paths really messed up due to their phobia of influence. I’ve seen people torture themselves when another band came up with a title similar to the one they wanted for their next album! It’s crippling creatively, but more than that it bears no relation at all to how we relate to art on any non-superficial level.

So from my observation of my own and other people’s reactions to these questions, here are a few thoughts on the creative process as it relates to originality and influence:

  • We are all aggregators: or as Bono put it (possibly quoting someone else) ‘Every artist is a cannibal’. Very very little in the development and progress of human existence has appeared in an intellectual vacuum. Our progress on a macro and micro level is way more often than not evolutionary rather than eureka-moment-driven. We take in our observations of what’s going on around us, filter them through eachother, through the world as we see it, through a complex-but-contained set of experiences and ever-growing opinions and tastes, and decide what to do, what to create, how to create, how to tell our story. Those Eureka moments that do happen are too random to be factorable in steering our creative path. What influences we choose to subject ourselves to is something we’re very much in control of.
  • Influence is influence, whether the influence is from within your own discipline or outside: If I stopped listening to all music, I’d still be shaped in my music making by politics, art, comedy, love, life, illness, nature etc… Everything I do as a musician is shaped by influences, millions of them. Influences won’t negatively impact my art, only unhealthy obsessions will.
  • The problem isn’t influence/no influence, it’s self-awareness or the lack-thereof: People who make great music in isolation won’t suddenly start making crap derivative music if they open themselves up to influence, and likewise people who are so unable to figure out what they want that they just ape someone else’s process to the point of plagarism aren’t suddenly going to discover their creative focus by not listening to their main influences. The problem with obsession is bigger and more fundamental than whether or not your music sounds like another band.
  • Influence is like a diet – it’s the mixture and balance that keeps us healthy: Obsession is not a healthy state to be in. Like eating only potato, or drinking nothing but tea, listening to one artist is going to mess you up. I have for a long time viewed my music listening as a diet, and as such cherish my music listening time like a meal. I avoid junk-food, and crave sumptuous filling meals that meet my dietary requirements. I don’t like eating the same thing day after day, and definitely enjoy the effects of seasonal variation.
  • Style is a medium, not a message – how you say something IS important. Vitally so. But talking shit with a soothing voice is still talking shit.
  • Speaking someone else’s language doesn’t make you think like them, it just makes you able to communicate with the same people they communicate with – this blog doesn’t come across as derivative just because it’s in English. None of us trawl the interwebs looking for ‘new languages’ just because they’re new. Language is there to communicate ideas.
  • Storytelling is an artform that exploits shared history and narrative form: If you’re telling your story through music, things that are familiar have a different resonance from things that are completley alien to both artist and listener. This is one of the reasons why so many creative musicians still find so much to stay within the confines of ‘blues’ – despite the restrictions of the form, there’s still so much great original music that’s coming out that is blues-based and blues-influenced. The language, imagery and resonance of the blues still provides a channel for so many people’s unique stories.
  • the quest to be original might actively prevent you from soundtracking your world: If I attempted to do away with my influences, most of the stuff that makes my music important to me would vanish; the melodic forms, the chord progressions derived from folk, pop and jazz idioms, the phrasing that I’ve absorbed from Joni Mitchell, Bill Frisell or Michael Manring, the bass techniques that I’ve nicked from Trip Wamsley or Victor Wooten. What makes me sound like me is the combination of everything that goes into my music. I throw it all into the mixing pot, and out comes my music. I practice to learn more about how to channel the feelings and emotions that those independent influences bring out in me, and look to find the right amount and blend of ingredients to make me feel the way the combination of all of them makes me feel.

So, where does all this leave me? Well, right now, I’m working on a new album, or at least, I’m getting ideas together to start working on a new album. Some of that involves working out what’s physically possible with the Looperlative, but a lot of it is working out what I want to say and how best to say it. So I’m putting myself on a fairly strict diet. A diet that will contain a whole range of music that generates the kind of response in me that I want from my own music. I’ll be listening to a lot of The Blue Nile, Joni Mitchell, Eric Roche, Rosie Thomas, Theo Travis, Alan Pasqua, Nels Cline, Bill Frisell, and then a whole bunch of extreme stuff in as many directions as I can to help me push back the walls that define the stylistic parameters of what I’ve done up until now.

And how I deal with notions of Originality and their value or otherwise impacts every minute of my practice time – do I get frustrated when I play something and it reminds me of some other musician, or do I use that as a model for saying something in their language? Do I get fixated with listening to other solo bassists because I am one, or do I realise that solo bass is in the grand scheme of things nothing to do with whether my music is any good or not, and look at developing the component parts of my musical narrative via influences that are best at those bits – for example, looking to singers for melodic influence, pianists for harmony, and classical guitarists for phrasing and shaping chord/melody ideas?

The end result of this is whether or not you hear those influences, the music is 100% me. It might be a different angle on me that hasn’t come out in other ways before. It might be me as expressed through the playing of other musicians on music that I’ve written for them, but it will be a combination of all the various influences that make me want to do what I do, and will at the same time be both entirely derivative and completely original.

Some thoughts on 'Free' methodology and practice…

It’s the big buzz-concept in the online world – the new currency is attention, recorded music can be duplicated at zero cost, so we should all give it away in order to promote ourselves as a brand, and the caveat often added to this is that we make our money off live shows.

OK, let’s contrast this with a distinction I’ve pointed out quite a few times over the years between bands from the US and bands from the UK. As a general rule (and there are exceptions on both sides, but it pretty much stands) American bands are ‘better’ live, while British bands are more creative in the studio. The reason for this is one of necessity and scale: the live circuit in the US means that you could quite easily play 250 nights a year and not repeat yourself for a couple of years. It’s quite possible for a coffee-shop-sized artist to literally ‘live on the road’ – if you want to know more about that, I seriously advise that you get Seth Horan’s ‘Between Two Oceans’ DVD – this isn’t a slick presentation about how touring works. It’s a fly on the wall look at actual life on the road. Some of it’s funny, some of it’s silly, some of it looks like proper fun, some of it looks like purile nonsense. All wrapped around Seth’s fantastic music…

The thing with Seth’s DVD is that it looks like some kind of weird fairy tale from this side of the Atlantic. Here’s why. if you are gigging in the UK alone, VERY few bands ever get to do more than 30 or so gigs a year. I asked a Live Nation employee recently about the bands they promote here, and who is doing more shows than that. Off the top of her head, the only name she could think of was Status Quo. Not one ‘new’ artist.

So, unless you’re clearing at least £500 a night as a solo artist, you aren’t going to be making a living out of gigs. The musicians I know who make sensible money playing live music in the UK are playing weddings, jazz or are in tribute bands.

So, giving away your recorded music as a way of getting more gigs makes far less sense in the UK than it does in the US. A lot of British bands get signed without having played even 15 or 20 gigs together. The standard model was to put together a band, play a few local shows, then try and get a ‘showcase’ at some shitty venue in Camden in order to ‘get signed’. (If you see footage of really early Coldplay, Stone Roses or Travis TV appearances, you’ll see what happens when a band doesn’t do the road work… painful…)

One possible answer to this is ‘well, tour abroad then!’ – which is a great suggestion, and one that some artists are able to take up. Sadly, the cost of being on the road away from home is ramped up that much higher than if you’re near friends and family that will put you up, so the chances of you making money at it are negligible. In fact, what you need in order to make money abroad are merch sales… including CDs…

As for UK artists touring in the US, that costs a HECK of a lot of money. Seriously big money. You need a major following at home, or a US record label to make it work, or to do what I do, which is to only do things that are sponsored by a European company and not get paid for gigs, but for ‘demos’ and trade shows like NAMM or bass-day events. That’s not an option for ‘bands’ or people who don’t have those kind of relationships with gear companies…

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OK, that said, what’s the value of ‘free’ for us then, given that we need to make some money off this. A few observations on the current trends in ‘free’ music:

  • Radiohead didn’t ‘give away their album for free’: no, what they did was use a low-ish resolution copy of most of the tracks from the album as a way of generating MASSIVE publicity for a normal CD release, but also monetized their obsessional fan-base by selling vinyl to people who don’t even own record players. They used the leverage they had from already being one of the world’s most successful bands to create MILLIONS of pounds worth of column inches and airtime in every conceivable media channel. The amount of money they ‘made’ from their venture HAS to have factored in the amount of money they SAVED that they would normally have spent on advertising, and the amount over and above any ad campaign they could ever afford that they got from the stunt.
  • Ditto Nine Inch Nails. Trent Reznor putting out an instrumental album is not a particularly ‘newsworthy’ event. Trent Reznor ‘reinventing the way bands market and sell their product’ is. The fact that it was a 5 album set of instrumental stuff is neither here nor there. Just like Radiohead, Trent leveraged and amplified the residual level of interest there was in him as an artist already associated with the zeitgeist, albeit one quite a few steps down the food chain from Radiohead in terms of mainstream public perception. So Trent made his own album newsworthy by coming up with a payment pyramid that again leveraged his obsessional fans’ commitment to the band by offering massively overpriced limited edition packages (back to scarcity as a selling point…) and making the price on the download so cheap that the teaser ‘free’ bit of it drew people in.
  • Both bands got huge exposure, but still relied on it being any good for word of mouth to sustain it or for the success of the record to spill over into live success – Neither made a loss on the music in order to promote gigs: I think in the final analysis, both bands will have made more money from these ‘upscaling’ adventures in progressive scarcity than in any previous album… but that’s a guess. We’ll see when the stats come in.
  • The bit of this that can be drawn out for a starting artist to use is the pyramid –
    • at the bottom is freely downloadable lower resolution partial release/live set/older material/live video compilation etc. that provides the curious with something that gets them involved in what you do. It gets clicking, it demands time and means they’re more likely to stay than click away.
    • Next up is ad-supported listening – napster/last.fm/rhapsody/reverb nation – you get a coupla cents for each play, but often they’ll show up on playlists or in tag clouds and you’ll reach people who might never have heard of you that way…
    • From there we have low priced download albums – higher res than the freebies, easy to get (either from your own site or via iTunes/eMusic/CDbaby/Amazon – those are the big four) and coming with extra tracks not in the free version, sleeve notes, photos, printable artwork etc… drawing people in…
    • Next up from there is CDs – the old faithful. Audiences still want something to take home! The value of CDs at gigs is massive. Feel free to do USB sticks/MP3 players/DVD discs/whatever as well, but good old fashioned CDs might be declining, but for the next few years, you’re going to make more money on gigs if you’ve got something physical to sell. A lot more if they’re any good!
    • Then we’re into the tip of the pyramid and what goes on here depends on your audience. Some possible options – 24bit audiophile downloads :: CD/tshirt/poster packages :: CD/DVD double packs :: boxed-sets of your entire catalogue :: street-team-only dinners :: fanclub only gigs :: weird freebies (food, stickers, domestic items relating to the name of the band or the artwork etc.) :: instructional material :: remixable files :: anything personalised…

Free is all about attention. Making product available for free is utterly VITAL in the current climate. However, there HAS to be a degree of subtlety and nuance in how it is applied, how you make it work, how you reach your audience, and how you move them on from the ‘gateway drug’ of free low-res MP3s to Class A merch-buying.

And on that note, you need some free stuff, so go Here and Here to download over 2 hours of free fabulous music!. Go on, you know you want to…

And if you’ve already done that and want some more, there’s The webshop here for CDs and other downloads. :o)

One True Fan – thoughts on Street Teams.

One of the most linked to blog posts in the last few months in the musical blogosphere is Kevin Kelly’s piece on 1000 True Fans – it’s a great piece of writing, and quite inspiring too.

However, I’d like to get away from the numbers for a moment and talk about this whole thing of connecting with and relating to ‘true fans’. Or ‘friends’ as I like to think of them.

I’ve commented before that I really like my audience. Not because they’re my audience, but because my music seems to draw in the kind of people I want to hang out with. That is a good thing. For sure.

What often happens is that ‘fans’ turn into ‘friends’ long before any level of ‘wow I’m getting to hang out with the guy on the CDs’ kicks in. This, on a human level is also a good thing, given that the ‘wow’ factor is BS anyway. It’s a great way to make money if you can make people think that you’re somehow special/elite/of more value than ‘normal’ people – they’re probably more likely to buy t-shirts and pay high dollar ticket prices (or stupid money ‘meet-and-greet prices) but it’s pretty much total bollocks. So the switch from fan to friend is a good one.

However, those new friends who dig your music are a VITAL part of the propagation and proliferation of your music around the world. They provide a few things that are integral to any marketing strategy, paid or otherwise – experience, enthusiasm, motivation, trust, social connection, the opportunity to acquire social capital through your music (what Hugh MacLeod likes to call A Social Object).

What’s also true is that most people don’t do that stuff on their own. When prompted, they often go ‘of course!’, but unless they are a) musicians doing it for themselves, b) work in marketing, or c) are just incredibly self-motivated and externally-aware, they are unlikely to take it on themselves to start promoting what you do. The chances are that most people who listen to your music aren’t aware that telling their friends about what you do is a vital part of your ongoing income stream, and perhaps, as a result, your ability to keep producing music that they love…

So you need a place where you can let them know about that stuff, and that’s were the idea of a ‘street team’ comes in.

Street Teams have been around for years. They’re an extension of the idea of fan clubs, where people who dig what you do are actively encouraged to – and given the tools to – tell other people about what you do. The name obviously comes from the idea of getting out there and handing out flyers and sticking up posters – and people who are willing to do that are worth their weight in gold to an indie – but more useful and immediate, and certainly a more accessible form of support and interaction for the ‘regular’ fan would be the idea of street team as social media team.

In our culture of attention, people need peer approval to find where the cool shit is on line. Most of my new music discovery these goes comes via links sent to me on twitter, facebook, email and IM. There are people who act as new music filters for me and send me the stuff they like. I do it for my friends all the time, currently through To The Left Of The Mainstream.

So creating a space where you can share ideas with those people, offer suggestions, keep track of actions carried out, and hopefully get some community happening is a good thing. And gives you the chance to reward people who help you out a lot.

I’ve had a street team for years. My street teamers have access to a whole load of MP3s unavailable elsewhere, and some of them have been able to get on the guestlist for sold out shows and such like. They get to order CDs earlier than everyone else, and in exchange, I ask them to spread the word.

Up until yesterday, my main point of contact with my street team was an email list, where I would send out all-too-sporadic emails asking them to do things. It got some stuff done, but gave no room for feedback and cross pollenation. I had a street teamers forum on my site too, but because of the mailing list, I neglected it, and so, largely did they…

So yesterday I sent out a message saying it was moving there permanently. I’m not going to send out the emails any more, and instead will interact with anyone who wants to help me out in the Street/Social Media Team forum on my site.

So, if you want to sign up, head over the forum on my site sign up for the forum, then send me a message via email or forum PM and tell me why you want to join. It’s not a cryptic question, it just stops the list from being an impersonal opt in.

The question here is not one of building 1000 true fans, but is about giving the people who like what I do but don’t think like marketers a space to explore how they can help me out. Ideas for spreading the word, and some insight into how it works. Not many people know that just by adding a blog post or website page to stumble upon, they can send upwards of 500 new people to see my site. If 10 people stumble it, it can have a massive impact. Same goes for fowarding pages to facebook an myspace friends, reTweeting information about new blog posts etc. on Twitter, and posting links to stuff on their own blogs.

As well as all the more traditional street team stuff such as sticking up posters, emailing radio stations and magazines, handing out flyers and bringing friends to gigs.

I’m thinking later this year of doing a Street-Team only gig in London… will have to see how that pans out.

A blog like this one, or even Twitter can act as an informal Social Media Team suggestion place, where your listeners and friends can get links to click, or can forward posts like my post about the two free albums to their friends, but it’s definitely a good idea to provide a space for clearer discussion about actual promotion…

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