“Start Everywhere” – Second Video from The Arctic Is Burning

The second video from my new album, The Arctic Is Burning, is now up on YouTube. The album is out on Sept 2nd, but can be had right now by subscribing at stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe.

The delightful humans at No Treble wrote about it here.

The title, Start Everywhere, is taken from an anarchist manifesto – ‘to change anything, start everywhere’ – in terms of our story about catastrophic climate change, it’s an invitation to think realistically about the scale of transformation needed in how we live on the planet in order to extend the viability of sustaining human life at the current scale. How that gets translated into improvised instrumental music is the topic of a much longer post than this, maybe we’ll get into that soon…

The track list for the album is:

  • Business As Unusual
  • The Arctic Is Burning
  • Wildfire
  • Start Everywhere

…so after contemplating the scale of the problem and the permanence of the change to how the world’s climate behaves, we then need to think about the scale of the response.

For now, here’s the track – enjoy, and if you want it now, along with 48 other albums, two books, and a whole ton of exclusive video – plus EVERYTHING I release in the next 12 months, please check out the subscription.

First Video From Forthcoming Solo Album

Right, two bits of news. Firstly, here’s the first video from The Arctic Is Burning. This is the opening track, called Business As Unusual:

The video angle is NOT ideal – so here’s how and why it exists…

My entire process of recording, gigging, practicing, developing ideas, collaborating is pretty much the same. I play with a view to the end result being a thing that’s worth listening to. I spend VERY little time just ‘noodling’, and if I find a thing that needs work, or a new technique or idea that needs developing, I’m constantly shuttling backwards and forwards between focused training on that thing and putting it into contexts by playing actual music with it. Same when I’m playing with other people – I’m not really down for just jamming for fun, when the alternative is to play stuff that other people would want to listen to as well, and have just as much fun doing it! 🙂 improv≠jam.

As such, I record – and film – pretty much everything I do. Lots of it gets deleted, lots of it is kept. Because it’s improvised, there are no do-overs. If the recording is great and the video is so-so, I don’t get to redo any of it. It is what it is. That’s not a bug in the system as much as it is a feature – the purpose of the video is less about making a slick promo for a release and more about inviting people who are interested into that process. Pretty much all the video I’ve got on YouTube is just a camera pointed at me recording a thing. Some of them are onstage, some of them are here in my ‘studio’ (AKA bedroom), but the purpose is something akin to what Brecht called ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ – or ‘the distancing effect‘ – the idea with that was to have the ‘playness’ of a play as visible as possible to prevent people getting lost in the work and instead helping (forcing??) them to maintain the sense that they were watching a theatrical production and engaging with it in that frame rather than with the fiction of the characters. So he had stagehands moving scenery around in the middle of scenes, not hidden in between, and actors addressing the audience. These videos function as though you’re just watching me play, and rather than being a ‘behind the scenes look’ at a thing that then gets turned into a big show, or gets polished up for a production, this is what it is. The only level of translation that goes on is mixing and mastering (generally EQing, compressing and de-noising, though I do occasionally level out particular notes in a recording by drawing in a volume curve – if you’re a subscriber, you’re most welcome to compare this video with the much less mixed version uploaded for subscribers a couple of weeks ago, the day after I recorded it ) 

So, it’s a document of me playing it, an invitation into the process of it happening, and hopefully enough of a curiosity to be an entertaining addition to listening to the music 🙂

…Failing that, feel free to put it on in a background tab and carry on reading Facebook while it plays. 😉

Which brings us to news number TWO, which is that subscribers have received their exclusive prerelease of The Arctic Is Burning today, a month ahead of the release date. So muggles get it on Sept 2nd, but y’all can join our band of merry makers of magic by heading over to stevelawson.bandcamp.com/subscribe and signing up – you’ll immediately get the new album, plus 48 (I think!) others, access to a ton of video, two books, and a bunch of other discussion about where the music comes from and how it’s made.

The subscription is how this music is even possible. There’s no sustainable model for this kind of practice either in an old school ‘release everything to shops and do radio and magazine promo’ kind of way, or by dumping it all on Spotify and seeing thousands of listeners result in a couple of hundred pounds a year and no way of justifying the time it takes to do any of this. The subscription offer is ridiculously cheap in a ‘per album’ kind of way, and offers great value for money in an ‘access to a streaming catalogue’ kind of way, only instead of you renting access to that catalogue, it’s yours for life, whether you continue to subscribe or not. Bargain, huh? Go check it out. And I hope you enjoy the video x

Steve Lawson releases 30th Solo Album in 20 years, The Arctic Is Burning

[Here’s the press release for my new album, which will also serve as a blog announcement, because hey, why write two different versions of the same thing? Ergo, Steve would like to apologise for egregious use of third person, if you’re not reading this with a view to cannibalising it for your review or the news page in your magazine 😉 ] 

The UK’s leading solo bass guitarist, Steve Lawson releases his 30th solo album, The Arctic Is Burning on Sept 2nd 2019. The album thematically picks up where 2018’s celebrated Beauty And Desolation left off, once again weaving a narrative relating to climate change around a set of improvised, unedited solo performances.

“It’d be tough to demonstrate in a concrete way how the theme and the music are linked, if someone was being cynical about the presence of a narrative,” explains Lawson, “but improv is always about something, even if you’re just responding to the things you’ve been recently practicing and how they sit in relation to other music that you consider meaningful. For some people, those ways of relating are technical or genre-specific, but for me the desire is – at least until the technical side falls apart – emotional. I want to make music that makes me feel the way the artists who move me make me feel.” He continues, “I want the brokenness of The Blue Nile or Talk Talk, the sense of place of Bill Frisell, the honesty of Joni Mitchell, the anger of Bruce Cockburn, the wilful naivety of The Minutemen, the pristine poetry of Jonatha Brooke, whose music is such a natural and flowing extension of whatever she’s singing about…”

Indeed, across the four tracks on The Arctic Is Burning, Lawson’s melodic turn is towards a slightly more straightforward rock-based language, in contrast to the some of the obtuse harmonic complexity of Beauty And Desolation. The album is not without it’s moments of dissonance and angularity but they tend to be crescendos to otherwise more pop-oriented melodic adventures, rather than the backbone of the entire track. “I’m not entirely sure how that happened – the subscriber-only album I released in the run-up to making Arctic… has plenty of the more angular freaky melodic stuff on it, as well as some very prominent field recordings that are entirely absent from this album. One of the joys of being ‘pan-idiomatic’ is that I have a dialectical relationship between the continuity of my own voice and the disparate range of genre signifiers I can drop in and out of.”

The role of the Bandcamp subscription is never far from Steve’s explanation of his music, frequently inspiring extended Twitter and Facebook commentary relating to the ongoing sustainability of making niche music.
“It’s SO obvious to me,” he says, “we just don’t have a streaming model that offers anything like sustainable economics to niche artists. It’s a world that doesn’t reward artists who form communities, just those who chase ubiquity. It’s great for people whose music-making aspirations are towards producing fodder for playlists or chasing pop stardom, but if your music practice has no path to a couple of hundred thousand listeners a month, forget being able to feed yourself with it. The Bandcamp subscription is absolutely the economic and social lifeblood of my music making world. The subscribers provide not only the financial resources to make the music, but an orientation – a direction in which to project musical ideas. The myths around creative freedom can end up with artists spouting all kinds of nonsense about just chasing our muse, but ultimately there’s a direction to what we do, whether that’s our peers, radio, our existing audience or the malcontents who post abusive comments on YouTube. For me, it’s been vital to cultivate a space where people who are materially and psychologically invested in what I’m up to get to encounter more of it than I could ever release to the wider public, and where we get to talk about it and go back and forth over its meaning without it clogging up more generic social media forums. The subscriber community is growing steadily and provides a level of continuity to my practice of documenting all the music I make. I get to release upwards of 8-10 albums a year because of them, plus extra video!”

Indeed, being that prolific, it can be a challenge to decide what to release to ‘muggles’ and what to keep just for subscribers, especially with some of Lawson’s own personal favourites still squirrelled away in the subscriber allocation – “My album from 2017 with Bryan Corbett is easily in my top 2 or 3 favourite musical things I’ve ever done, and I’m still waiting for the right time to put it out. I should just get on with it, cos it’s not like it’s suddenly going to be a hit whenever it happens, but I do like to leave a few months between each public release!”

2019 marks the 20th Anniversary of Lawson’s first ‘proper’ solo gig (“I’d played solo tunes in other settings before,” he explains, “but never a whole show to people who’d paid just to see me!”) – so 20 years on and 30 albums in, we get to experience all over again why he’s been one of the most talked about British bass experimenters for those two decades. The musician Bass Guitar Magazine described as ‘Britain’s most innovative bassist, no contest’ is still pushing boundaries, and exploring just how far the scope of live solo performance with nothing pre-recorded can be pushed. The Arctic Is Burning reaches new heights while still being instantly recognisable as a Steve Lawson record. Here’s to the next 20 years!

The Arctic Is Burning will be out on Sept 2nd 2019,
exclusively via Bandcamp at music.stevelawson.net

For interviews contact Steve directly.
For press photos click here.

Why Bandcamp: Part Two

Yesterday I wrote about what Bandcamp offers me as a music fan. Today it’s all about how I use it as an artist.

First some background: My solo career started before the age of download sales. My first 6 albums were all pressed as CDs, and sold via a range of online eCommerce solutions – from a shop set up by my friend Tim to help his friends sell their CDs, to CDBaby, back when it was offering a truly revolutionary solution for independent artists trying to work out how best to leverage the internet for global reach. The streaming media of choice was Real Audio – generally terribly low res, but it was the stuff that generated enough interest in my music to result in me turning those live recordings into my first album! When download sales became a thing and CDBaby worked out a deal to get our music onto iTunes, I did that too, and slowly onto the other emerging download stores – Amazon, Google Play, eMusic… I also had a self-hosted download store of my own, and mistakenly sold 128k MP3s from it… I was learning all along and made a number of fairly heinous mistakes.

Then in 2008 Bandcamp came along. I still had my hand-rolled sales site, so it took me a few months to sign up, but from mid 2009, I started selling my music on there. Immediately, the possibilities became apparent. The first things I uploaded were my existing albums, and added CD sales too, but then in mid 2010, Lo and I were on a house concert tour in the US, I’d just bought a MOTU soundcard, and we’d worked out how to multitrack record all our gigs (Geek facts: I was running Reaper on a Hackintosh’d Dell MINI 10v, and recording EIGHT TRACKS!) As the tour progressed, I was mixing the live recordings on off-days, and uploaded the first six tracks of what straight away promised to be our first updateable album. Live So Far ended up being 10 tracks long, captured a number of lovely spontaneous musical happenings along the way, and helped fund the tour as it progressed. When we eventually made a limited edition CD run, we sold that on Bandcamp too.

My first solo album to come out on Bandcamp was 11 Reasons Why 3 Is Greater Than Everything. I experimented with pricing that scaled over time, with free download codes, and found that there was a direct link between streaming numbers and sales – the more people heard it, the more were likely to buy it. So I just kept directing people to Bandcamp to hear it – no 30 second previews, no tricking people into buying shit they might not like. Just ‘here, fall in love with this…’ – and they did. Because, as we know, music is the one artform you’re more likely to spend money on it the more you experience it – listening to an album a lot so rarely causes us to get bored of it. Listening to it a lot is evidence that it means a lot to us, so encouraging people to do that invests it with increasing levels of value, not decreasing. This flies in the face of music marketing logic, but the clever people at Bandcamp understood it and we’ve been leveraging it ever since. The flipside is, of course, that a ton of people have been able to audition my music to see if it was for them and decide not to buy it, but that’s great too – I have no interest in subsisting on the poor choices of people conned by duplicitous marketing…

My next album was another live album – recorded in Minneapolis, Believe In Peace was the first album I put out exclusively on Bandcamp. In all honesty, I think I intended to put it out on all the other platforms, I just never got round to it. I was having way too much fun getting to know the people who were discovering the music.
This was possible because Bandcamp really values the relationship between artists and listeners. It has the option to have an email link on your page, it gathers together the email addresses of everyone who buys your stuff, allowing you to stay in touch with them via whatever platform works best for you. It has built in ‘tweet this’ links for albums and at the sales completion stage, and it has fan collections where you can see everything that someone has bought.

The value of this is SO much greater for niche artists than a bunch of algorithmic aggregate data. Because it’s about forming relationships not gathering information. I know what my listeners like because I follow the fan account of everyone who subscribes to me. I find a LOT of music because of their discoveries getting passed on to me. I can see what really works for them in my catalogue by how they review it – and in the stats portion of the Bandcamp For Artists App – or in the case of the subscribers by how they comment on it in the subscriber discussion thread. They’re real people not data points that represent financial transactions from months ago. I have no idea who it is that buys my music on iTunes each month (I get about £20 every couple of months from them) – I don’t know who they are or what they like. But with Bandcamp, I get to learn a bit about them.

And I get to enrich the experience of my listeners with extra info. Every Bandcamp album page has a section for a description that I fill up with sleeve-notes – I accompany everything I release with an essay. Sometimes I write track-by-track explanations of what’s going on, and I bundle those with the download as a PDF and include in the lyric field for each track. Everything gets uploaded as 24bit audio, and the listener can decide what resolution and file type works for them, knowing that whatever they get, it’ll have all the correct metadata and info with it, and they won’t be left having to pay more for a high res file like it’s 2003 or something…

Because there are few digital things that annoy me as much as buying music with either messed up – or no – metadata. Selling WAV files is completely insane, given how hard it is to attach info to them, or embed artwork (can you embed artwork in a WAV? I’ve never ever had one arrive with track data embedded, let alone artwork) – FLAC sounds identical (is genuinely lossless) but has fields for all the info you could ever need.

I occasionally get asked why I don’t run my own download site, but having never ever seen one where the experience for the buyer is even a quarter as good as Bandcamp, it strikes me as a really bizarre question. Running a successful ecommerce business if you want to sell multiple file types and resolutions with accurate metadata, streaming possibilities, payment options and have the audience trust what you’re doing is such a massive, massive task, there’s really no reason to think that it’ll be worth the 10% you’ll ‘save’ by not having Bandcamp do it. But you’ll also almost certainly make less money. Because all the stuff I said yesterday about how I find music applies to how people find me. Bandcamp is such an incredible discovery platform. It makes it so easy to share music, to find things, hear them, follow a trail of connections, browse what other people are listening to… You’ll see the players littered throughout this post and the last – imagine trying to code all the possible variations yourself. Imagine hosting all that bandwidth, imagine trying to build a platform in which your fans can show off how much they love your music on a page of their own. You can’t imagine doing it, because what you’d be imaging is Bandcamp, and it already exists.

Five years ago, I realised that my shift to all-improv shows was producing a crazy amount of release quality music. That set-up I’d started with in 2009 that allowed me to multitrack gigs had been refined with every single gig, getting better and better recordings, getting better at mixing… I did a mastering course to learn how to make the end product better, and in 2013 released a 10 album set of live recordings (all exclusively on Bandcamp), and was able to do a presale for them, sell the USB Stick physical bundle, and offer download codes to my collaborators so they could use them to add value to other sales, or just sell full sets of download codes at gigs. The pricing was wholly variable, and we could do discount codes and sales and free download days and…

Well, I’d started to meet up with Ethan Diamond, the founder of Bandcamp, every January while in California, and he mooted their idea to launch a subscription service. I was asked what kind of features I’d want, and I was then invited to be one of the three artists who trialled it, and I properly found the home for my musical output. I didn’t want what some of the subscription services were offering in terms of charging my subscribers more if I released more, instead I wanted to be able to increase the sense of value for them over time if I happened to make more great music. Gratitude is the essential currency of the indie music economy. People will pay for things they are grateful for. I didn’t want to be releasing music for the sake of it, just music that was amazing, so the actual promise of the subscription is about a third of what I actually put out in a year – the extra 200% on top is there because it deserves to be there, not because I feel obliged to release it…

But I now get the economic latitude to mix and master every quality gig that I do, release it and tell the story of its genesis. I get to throw it out to the subscribers for discussion, offer them exclusive video, essays about the motivation and technology behind the music, and even eBooks about playing music, or my novel. It’s my ever-expanding digital box set, but without the crazy premium cost that comes with reissues of classic albums.

The community of subscribers is now big enough that they almost cover our rent for the entire year. I’m about 30 subscribers short of covering it all at this point. That for me is a sustainable practice. I’m not having to pay for billboards or Facebook ads, or trying to get radio play for particular tracks or promoting a single with a promo tour… I get to make albums that I’ll never be able to play live, release them and get on with the next one. I recently put out three albums in a month, because I did three gigs that were really, really good. Subscribers got them all, and even though not many of them had time to digest all that music there and then, it’s theirs for good. They own it, whether or not they remain as subscribers. And we get to revisit not only the music, but the story that those three gigs tell in aggregate. John Coltrane would record multiple albums in a week, Miles Davis recorded Agartha and Pangea on the same day, but they were released detached from that context – presented purely as ‘albums’ not as episodes in a longer story…

I’m not trying to get rich, I’m not trying to be famous, I don’t want the audience of hundreds of thousands of listeners that I’d need to make Spotify sustainable. I really don’t. I love having a community of people who are invested in what I’m doing that I can talk to about it, that I recognise when they turn up to gigs, that I get birthday messages from, who make suggestions about what the music means to them…

Back in mid 2016, one of my subscribers sent me a set of incredibly detailed notes he’d taken about how he understood what I was doing as an improvisor and performer. It was meticulous and filled with care and attention, and he’d written it while in hospital, I still get emotional thinking about it. He died not that long after he sent it, but the sense that somehow I’d ended up in this space where the people who find the music not only get to enjoy it but may want to spend time thinking how it represents new ways to think about music making and why we release music was such an inspiring one. The feedback I get from my subscribers is irrevocably woven into the way I make music, and the permission I get from them to continue on this path is a motivator like no other.

Bandcamp is the mechanism that makes all of this possible. It doesn’t force it to happen, and I’ve not found that many other musicians who’ve managed to leverage its affordances to the same degree (I know a lot of people who sell more music than me on there, but not as many whose music life is as heavily entwined – maybe my commitment to it as a music listener as well has helped build those relationships…)

I can’t at this point imagine wanting to release music any other way. I’d rather wait til someone eventually finds a way to buy it on Bandcamp than pander to whatever preconceived notions they have about where they want to find music. The idea that we have to be ‘everywhere’ in order to reach our audience is only true if you don’t see the experience of your music as concretely wedded to the context – the words, the connection, the artwork, even the delivery mechanism. So if you currently buy music on iTunes, that’s OK, eventually you may decide that your desire to investigate my music is strong enough that working out what Bandcamp does is worthwhile. But if it doesn’t, I don’t feel any burning need to water down the experience of my music in order to put it out in an inferior form in a worse context.

I’d love it if you subscribed to me on Bandcamp. The current offering is (I think) 47 albums the moment you sign up, and then everything I release in the next 12 months – go check it out, and have a listen to the albums throughout this article to see if any of it takes your fancy. If it does, come join the party – you’ll be a tangible part of the sustainability revolution.

New Live Album… Recorded Last Week!

Ahh, the future – it’s a wonderful place to live.

So, as I said in my last post, our live set up now has a MOTU Ultralite soundcard at the heart of it, is wired with all super-high-quality Evidence Audio Cables and on this tour we’ve got killer live sound from QSC K8 speakers. Which all adds up to us being able to record ourselves, multitracked, on every gig, and to play very well given the consistently marvellous sound that we have at the shows.

So here’s our brand new live album, Live So Far: Continue reading “New Live Album… Recorded Last Week!”

New Live Solo Tunes!

Recorded at Friday night’s gig at the Islwyn Guitar Club in Crosskeys, Gwent, South Wales, here are two new tunes that ’emerged’ – they’re both improvs, but I like ’em, so will probably have a bash at something like them for the new album…

The recordings are remarkably good considering they’re just on a little Tascam digital recorder thingie (recorded by Andrew Buckton – fab singer/songwriter who came with me, and sang beautifully on the gig too).

here they are – enjoy!

New Tunes from Islwyn Guitar Club by solobasssteve

A Decade In Music – The Solo Bass Years.

First Ever Solo Gig, London, December 1999

My first ever solo gig was at the Troubadour in Earls Court, London, on Dec 15th, 1999 – 10 years ago last week.

The eve of the new millennium, and a gig that started with a lie (the lovely chap who booked the gig asked me if I had a whole set of material after seeing me do one solo tune in a band-gig. I lied and said ‘yes’ 🙂 ). It wasn’t the first time I’d played solo bass in public – that was a product demo at the National Music Show for Bassist Magazine in Nov 97. I also played weird improv noise stuff for a contemporary dance company in Nov 98.
Continue reading “A Decade In Music – The Solo Bass Years.”

Independent Music Manifesto Pt II – The Video!

So, after having posted yesterday’s blog spelling out the ‘State Of The Indie Union‘, I found a tweet linking to this video of me talking at Leeds Metropolitan University a couple of weeks ago. The event was organised by JAMESJoint Audio Media Education Services – who booked me to talk about the state of play for musicians in the new music economy.

Given that it was a room full of educators and students who were also musicians, it’s leans further towards the education end of the spectrum in places, but is pretty much a video version of the manifesto in yesterday’s blog. Enjoy!

Announcing 'Beyond Bass Camp'.

photo of Steve Lawson live at the Greenbelt FestivalIf you’re an avid watcher of my various online streams – be it Twitter, Facebook or Friendfeed – you’ll have noticed over that last few days I’ve been talking about, and link to, BeyondBassCamp.com.

It’s a series of monthly masterclasses, inspired by the ones I give in California every January – for the last 4 or 5 years, I’ve been doing a day long seminar there, for up to about 25 bassists. Some years I’ve done two – a more general bass class, and then a solo bass focussed class on the Sunday. Continue reading “Announcing 'Beyond Bass Camp'.”