Creative Freedom And Your Audience

[Warning: LONG read] I’ve just got back from a properly brilliant academic conference exploring Audience Research In The Arts – Audience research crosses a whole ton of disciplines and sub-disciplines, from sociology and anthropology to musicology and the science of memory. It was so invigorating to be around a massive group of people much smarter than me all trying to understand and illuminate different research angles on Audiences – who they are, what they do, how to reach them, the spaces they occupy and what those spaces mean, how they influence artists, and what kind of things they like, dislike and respond to… A dizzying array of magical goodness. If you want to see exactly what was on, here’s the conference program.

The main thing I brought away was a huge pile of methodological considerations that I now need to research and write up in the hope of getting back on track with my PhD, but there are a couple of things I want to think out loud about here. The first of them is this idea of creative freedom.

There was a really interesting paper given about contemporary composers and their variable perception of who their audience was and whether or not the only opinion that mattered was actually that of their peers. The starting point for it was this essay by Milton Babbitt that suggests ‘normal’ listeners aren’t sufficiently clever to understand the arcane workings of contemporary classical composition and that’s OK. The research project in question found a spread of opinion amongst the composers in its research data, but the bit that most intrigued me was the prevalence of uncritical takes on the concept of ‘creative freedom’ as an active state explicitly free from audience consideration. Given the many other research projects being presented that looked at imagined audiences, ad hoc audiences, that explored some of Bourdieu’s theories on how culture operates as an audience context for work created within that culture, and the 50 year history of reception studies acknowledging that even in broadcast media, the audience reception of a piece is an aspect of its production (creating a feedback loop), the uncritical lean towards the concept of artistic freedom seems particularly odd.

All the more so because it is utterly central to what I do to consider my audience and their relationship with the work, with the context within which the work is produced, even seeing our community of makers and listeners as ‘the work’. I have pretty much no interest in ‘purity’ as an artistic aim, and even authenticity I interpret in an Erving Goffmann sense, to be about consistency of messaging and intent across different “presentations of self” rather than as relating to some fixed notion of creative agency.

Because, of course, I have by the standards of contemporary music making, a ridiculous amount of creative autonomy – I have no label, no manager, no band, no commissioner, no funding body, no institution… I’ve built a set of tools and skills over the last 30 or so years explicitly designed to get to the point where I have the absolute minimum marginal cost for music making. I get to do whatever it is that I feel is interesting and worthwhile in my creative life. So when I started on the path to funding that journey through a subscription, it was with the explicit intention of becoming MORE accountable and visible to my audience rather than more independent of them. There is now a community of people numbering only a few hundred who are collectively responsible for the financial viability of my current work mode, but who are also the social context for me understanding what it is that I’m up to. Because, as anyone who has spent any time attempting to uncritically discuss intention with musicians will know, musicians with any degree of success are mostly terrible at articulating the honest/real/material/social context for how and why they do what they do. I have so many dear friends whose explanation of their process, aims, career and relationship with the culture and economy that they operate in bears zero relationship to anything you could actually measure.

As an avid reader of the music press from the age of about 11 – starting with Smash Hits and Number One, and moving through Kerrang and Metal Hammer, then onto the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds, and eventually to glossies like Q and Vox and Word before finally ending up with online magazines and blogs, I’ve always been fascinated by the importance of wilfully delusional thinking in the self-mythologising of musicians (and of course, the enabling role that the press have played in rewarding the sensational, rarely if ever offering any kind of meaningful behavioural critique of rock excess, and building an economic model for themselves that relies on the amoral documentary work of celebrating sociopaths as iconoclasts). Indeed, that self-mythology often exists to justify (to themselves and the reader) their abhorrent behaviour towards fans and peers, but it also serves a less dystopian purpose in creating a space in which their own mythology can feed into work that desires for itself an absence of doubt and an abundance of self-confidence. It is, after all, pretty much impossible to apologetically play an arena or stadium show (perhaps providing one explanation for the prevalence of cocaine use amongst creatives, as a counter to self-doubt in an environment that eviscerates the doubtful). Even the glorious self-effacing asides of performers as engaging as James Taylor or Paul Simon rely on the reality that here is an audience made of thousands of people willing to spend significant chunks of money to hear this incredible band of musicians. There’s almost nothing to be won or proved, just a glorious legacy to be confirmed.

So what happens when your musical journey requires an ongoing dialectic of instability, questioning and perpetual forward motion on one side and a community of support and informed care on the other? How does that marry with the quite specific economies of scale that define the relationship between music as a product that accrues nostalgic magnetism over time through repeat exposure and the larger performance contexts within which it resides? Can we move beyond those growth/scale metrics of success to see the audience as the community vessel within which the work exists? In the same way that U2 or Coldplay songs can sometimes sound ridiculous robbed of the sense of meaning that 80,000 people singing along can lend to even the most banal of sentiments, is it possible to create work that only makes sense within a community invested in being the embodied vessel for the work?

The level of listener engagement required to make sense of my recorded output is at odds with both a commercial recording-as-product-to-be-marketed understanding of what recordings are ‘for’ but also with the idea that I should have a group of expert peers who should tell me whether or not what I’m doing is significant within its elite field. I mean, I DO have those reactions – I have a commentary going back 20 years from experts in the field saying nice things about what I do and how I do it, and it would be wholly spurious to attempt to downplay the significance of press and radio coverage, or the endorsement of musicians like Victor Wooten or Michael Manring or Danny Thompson – but that’s not the ongoing purpose of the work. I rarely send any of those people or media entities links to my new work. They have the same invitation as anyone else at this point to engage with the subscription for what it is if the work, the story of the work and the broad idea of the work and its processes and contexts has meaning to them beyond a request for a quote that I can use to perhaps validate the experience of another listener who likes what they’ve heard but in the parlance of High Fidelity, isn’t quite sure if they should…

So, my subscribers are deeply and utterly integral to the work. Our relationship is in one very real way ‘the work’ in its entirety. The recordings are a documentary process, a soundtrack to a community who either listen to recordings from afar, or show up for a set of sparsely attended but intensely enjoyable and communal gigs. The recordings are, by sheer virtue of the increasingly unknowable volume of the back catalogue, an unfolding narrative comprised of episodes rather than being best experienced as a series of products designed to build on the commercial success of the previous one and relate to the changes in culture and media in an explicit way.

It’s closer – perhaps – to a steady state economic model for music making, in that there’s a very low bar for economic viability (the project is viable at this level with 230-ish subscribers, and would be entirely sustaining of my family’s economics at around 1000 annual subscribers), and that is both a hindrance to growth (in that the point of economic engagement – and access to the vast majority of the catalogue – is your first year’s subscription fee of £30) but also is (in Bourdieu’s formulation) a position taken in opposition to the prevailing quest for an ever expanding streaming listenership, where 250,000 people contributing fractions of a penny per listen each is the aim. There is an affordance within that model for a specific kind of creative-economic aspiration, and it’s not one that favours the kind of thought process, time scale, work/life balance or narrative context that interests me as a creative person.

Given that ‘creative freedom’ is a mostly nonsensical formulation acknowledging the complexity of influences that we’re all consciously and unconsciously subjected to every time we even think about music let alone engage with activities around making it and learning how to make it, I’m happy to hitch my music waggon to a community model that brings with it an affordance for a more reflective mode of music making, and a more episodic, decommoditised context for the releasing of recordings. It’s not like the subscription itself isn’t still a ‘product’ or commodity – it has a price and with that price comes a perception of the value of the offering in relation to that price, but what’s beyond that as an experience both live and recorded is what my PhD is all about… I’m currently about 18 months behind where I should be with written evidence of what I’m up to, but the thinking (and non-official writing) part is pretty well developed. Hopefully there’ll be a bunch more shows for y’all to come to in the very near future…

Anyway, the one open-ended question at the end of this is directed at current, former and perhaps even future subscribers – how does that lot map to your experience of being a subscriber? Is it just an economically meaningful way to get a bunch of music that you can’t get elsewhere, or is there more to it? Answers in the comments please 😉

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.

Spotify Is Broken: The Lie Of ‘Feels Like Free’

One of the big questions hanging over Spotify for me has been ‘do premium plays pay more than Spotify Lite plays?’ – I.E., do I get paid more if someone with a premium account plays my tunes vs. someone using the ad-funded version.

It stands to reason that the person with the premium account is paying more to listen, so surely you’d imagine that’d be reflected in the royalties?

At SXSW this year, the CEO of Spotify was giving a talk, I asked the question about royalty rates via Hugh Garry and apparently they are distributed evenly.

This is, as far as I can see, Spotify’s MASSIVE mistake. A deal-breaking, game-not-changing, screw-up of gargantuan proportions.

Here’s why.

The people best placed to promote Spotify are artists. We can link to it from our sites, we can provide links to it when we release new music, we can blog about how great it is and share music by our peers via the links.

If we push it, it becomes the place to find our music.

Spotify needs premium accounts for it to work. At the moment, their strategy for getting people signed up is to annoy the shit out of you with adverts until you capitulate. So you get irrelevant adverts that provide no value at all to the user, and therefor no value to the advertiser. Ergo, the amount paid per advert is likely to go down not up, killing the ad funded model. If I was an advertiser there’s no way I’d bother with Spotify. ‘Can you pay to produce an advert that we’re going to use to annoy people into paying not to hear it?’ no thanks.

So what would work? Spotify’s (and the other streaming services) best chance of success is if artists see it as a viable alternative to selling individual albums and tracks digitally. If it becomes that, the amount of traffic will go up and all that listening will be happening in a discovery environment, so more music will be heard by more people.

They could also make way more if the ads were something other than anti-value annoyances to be got rid of. There are loads of ways of making ads work in this setting – referrals, targeting, favouriting, user-profiles, profit-share, in-browser special offers… all kinds of stuff that would make the ad-side of the site self-supporting. If it isn’t currently viable, then the solution is to up the level of the ads even further til it is viable. The listener needs to FEEL what their listening is actually costing.

Why? Well, contrary to what Gerd Leonard has been telling us for years, ‘Feels Like Free’ is not the answer. It never has been and never will be. Free is, in fact, better than ‘feels like free’. I’d rather make my music free to download, no strings, and be rewarded in gratitude than have some weird filtered, taxation-based payment mechanism for it where people are left thinking music has neither cost nor value because there’s no tiered pricing, no opportunity to ‘pay what you like’, no thought about the value over and above the experience that access is via a portal and detached from the artist…

Listening to ads is a form of payment. We all know that. If the ads don’t cover it, then it’s a lie to keep that system going by subsidising those listens from people who are actually paying – people who are quite explicitly paying a subscription rate that puts a distinct value on their listening time. To not divide those up is to say that the value of both listens is the same. It isn’t.

  • Spotify Lite is a limited but hugely useful discovery platform. If you have the kind of life where Spotify Lite is ‘enough’, then you weren’t about to pay £10 an album for CDs anyway. You’re probably the kind of person who listens to the radio and buys the occasional compilation. Certainly not the kind of person for whom £120 a year for Spotify premium is workable.
  • Spotify Premium is an alternative to buying music. It’s also, when you look at how long people spend listening to music, a great model for paying a sensible amount per listen. If – and only if – it’s not being used to prop up a broken ad-funded ‘feels like free’ bullshit model.

If you want me to pay £10 a month for music, let me allocate where that £10 goes by choosing what I listen to. Make that £10 count, make it mean something. Cos otherwise, I’m going to stick with eMusic, where I know that my monthly sub goes to the people whose music I’m downloading. I know they get a set amount per track, that they wouldn’t get if I wasn’t paying for it. Real end to end value.

‘Til then, there’s no way on earth I’ll be paying for Spotify premium, and I won’t be encouraging anyone else to either.

If this feels like a deal-breaker to you, and you already have a premium account, you might want to consider cancelling it, and emailing Spotify to tell them why. Or better yet, blogging about why. Let’s have this discussion in public where possible.

[and before the inevitable ‘hey, I thought you loved Spotify!’ comments happen – I still think Spotify-lite is an awesome discovery tool. Spotify premium is, as yet, way too small a slice of anything to make me rethink my position on that. I don’t need to make money from Spotify-lite for its value to be realised. But the payment model that’s there doesn’t work, so the growth curve that Spotify needs to remain viable will be a seriously uphill struggle.]

Subscribe to this blog via email…

I know, it’s terribly old fashioned, and I’m always complaining about it, but the simple truth is, some people prefer to manage their info all in one place – their email inbox – and that’s fine by me. So here’s the place where you can subscribe to this blog via email, and have each post sent to you automatically. How cool is that?? Just fill in the form below, and each post I upload will be sent to you! Simple as…

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