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.

Stop Speculating, Start Sustaining – Talking About Awesome Things.

In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Radiohead’s manager talked about a change in the way ‘the music industry’ managed its business model. As quoted in the piece:

“We’re trying to get away from a copyright trading model more towards a venture capitalist approach with artists,” says Message. Think of it as Dragons’ Den with guitars – with Message as the thoughtful-looking entrepreneur sitting with fingers interlocked while some young beat combo pitch their wares (“So, we’re kind of like The Smiths meet Funkadelic…”).

(thanks to @lykle for the link) Continue reading “Stop Speculating, Start Sustaining – Talking About Awesome Things.”

Quick Thoughts On “Obscurity”

A few days ago, MusicThinkTank published this post in response to this post, pulling out the ‘headline’ that “in 2008, 1,500 releases broke the “obscurity line” (sold over 10,000 albums).”

The context for the quote is this (it’s from some bloke who works for TommyBoy Entertainment):

“So in the whole year only 227 of the artists were artists that had broken what we call the “obscurity line.” When you sell 10,000 albums, you’re no longer an obscure artist; people know about you.”

So this is a made-up measurement – it’s what ‘we’ (no mention of who ‘we’ are), arbitrarily decided, that selling 10,000 records makes you not obscure. Why? How? Nope, nothing. Just that ‘people know about you’. Very scientific and verifiable. ‘People’.

It’s also based on ‘Soundscan’ statistics. By Soundscan’s reckoning, I’ve sold about 3% of my actual sales across my career – that’s how many have gone through the Soundscan system. Not a single one of my gig sales, my own website sales, bandcamp sales, CDbaby sales have gone through Soundscan. So this tells us that 1500 artists have reported 10K sales to Soundscan. And that’s apparently a story about obscurity?

No it’s not. Not even close:

  • Are there only 1500 acts in the world playing music professionally? No. There are hundreds of thousands. Possibly millions.
  • Are there only 1500 acts in the world making awesome music, and continuing to be able to make awesome music? No. There are tens of thousands for each of us. And tastes differs so much around the world. There are millions of artists that are awesome to someone and keep being awesome to someone.
  • How many outlets are there for music that don’t report to Soundscan? Thousands.
  • Where do most indie artists make the vast majority of their sales? Their gigs, then their own website.
  • So just how specious is it to whack a label as pejorative as ‘the obscurity line‘ onto a statistic that just proves itself to be utterly meaningless if you, y’know, listen to music because you love it rather than make money from ‘breaking artists’.

So, the whole notion of an ‘obscurity line‘ is so bogus as to hardly be worth responding to.

If the figure here is that only 1500 reported more than 10,000 album sales to Soundscan, the REAL story is the hundreds of thousands of bands who make awesome music and are able to keep making awesome music without selling that many records through the mainstream. The old industry. The ‘established path’. That it’s quite possible to have a sustainable, successful, fulfilling, enjoyable, liberated, creative career in music without selling 10K ‘albums’ a year through those outlets. That, my friends, is proper awesome!

So why ‘Obscurity’?

Obscurity is an utterly meaningless word in this context – obscure to who? Where? Obscure meaning unheard of?

There are a lot of artists in the world who are known to millions but couldn’t sell 10K copies of a new album if they released one. Not obscure, but certainly not ‘current’.

And there are others who are selling hundreds of thousands of records, and feel like abject failures because their label promised them more and spent as though they were going to sell millions. (in the same article, the TommyBoy bloke says that of the 112 albums that sold more than 250K, HALF DIDN’T BREAK EVEN! What industry, after 50 years of experimenting, of statistics or measuring trends, or gauging audience reaction, still can’t make money on a product that sells 250,000 units?? A broken, insane industry, that’s what.)

All these two statistics prove is that some people still equate industry success with ‘gross’ figures rather than ‘net’ figures. Gimme a 300 grand marketing budget and I could fairly easily sell 20K+ albums in a year. The problem would be that that would only gross, at best, 200 grand. Net would be a lot lower. So I’d be selling WAY more records than I am now, would no longer be ‘obscure‘ (ha!) but I’d be a failure in every other sense because I’d be a hundred grand in debt, and my self esteem would be shot. Or if someone else paid for it, I’d be beholden to them for what happens next to try and get that 100K back.

Forget obscurity metrics and think about what matters – making the music you love, finding the people who share that passion, and not killing yourself with unrealistic expectations of how much money it’s going to make you.

Here’s a suggestion – 10,000 listeners is a much more creatively inspiring target than 10,000 sales. How would you get 10K listeners without spending a penny, OR worrying about earning anything. Cos 10,000 listeners and no money is a really great problem to have to try and solve… Answers in the comments 🙂

The Futility of Fighting Fire with Fire

Sometimes it’s easy to get caught up in the madness of the music industry. To want to fix it. To put it right. To ‘reclaim‘ the territory for ‘real‘ music.

Remember back in the 80s, when the charts were full of music we liked? Top Of The Pops had a point, the chart show was a way to discover music. It was good.

The problem with that idea is that it ignores the fact that the situation then was us making the best of the limitations. We learned from the charts because we didn’t know any better. Most of us moved on to specialist radio as soon as we discovered it and developed the patience or the dadaist affectation required to sit through the more extreme outlying regions of John Peel and Andy Kershaw’s record collections.

Continue reading “The Futility of Fighting Fire with Fire”

U2 And The Feast Of Enoughness

In response to This article about the scale of U2’s current tour, I posted this on twitter and facebook:

U2, knocking years of the length of time earth can sustain human life, one gig at a time

The discussion on Facebook then got as far as one friend suggesting that people who objected to the planet-trashing excesses of U2’s tour wanted us to “email [all the gig-goers] to stay home and make organic muffins…..” – the kind of Richard Littlejohn-esque reductionist, lazy thinking that leads someone to say such things, often stems from the feeling that something they value highly has been questioned – in this case, it was a friend who was deeply moved by the U2 gig he went to, so any attempt to frame them as irresponsible needs refuting and debunking. Continue reading “U2 And The Feast Of Enoughness”

Real Life Touring. A Social Media-Fuelled Tale.

House Concert peopleSo, we’ve been back in England a few weeks. I’ve even had time to do my busiest week of masterclasses ever! (more on that later, I promise)

For now, it’s time to round up some of the lessons and tips from our house-concert-based, social-media-driven jaunt to the US over christmas/january.

A few salient points to start with:

  • most of the gigs were booked by people we know via Twitter.
  • all but one of the gigs were house concerts.
  • we did 5 masterclasses – 3 in houses, one in a pub, one in a Uni.
  • in 7 weeks, we spent 2 nights in hotels, which we didn’t pay for anyway.
  • we made more money per gig than we ever have playing clubs/coffee houses (read: we actually MADE money, net, after paying for everything.)
  • we met more amazing people on this trip than ever before.
  • very few of the people at the gigs could have named a single other solo bassist.
  • moreso, very few of the people who came to the shows had heard OF us before, let alone HEARD us. Media exposure was not a prerequisite for attendance.
  • we have about 5 hours of video to pick through of the shows.
  • we have invites back for twice as many gigs as we played.
  • nobody got rich.
  • nobody planned to get rich.

Let’s break these down:

Most Of The Gigs Were Booked By People We Know Via Twitter:

the usual method for getting gigs is something like; “google venues and promoters in an area >> email promoter or venue >> send package >> agree to do gig for door money >> minus commission >> with food included if you’re lucky >> book hotel nearby for somewhere to stay”. Add other steps if a) promoter has no idea who you are and wants to put you on a double bill with someone who’s a ‘name’. The upshot is, it can often take 3 or 4 gigs in an area before you make any money. After the show’s booked, you contact local press and radio, send CDs, bios etc, and hope they cover it, so people will hear you and then come to the gig. Sometimes this works. often, it doesn’t.

Method for our tour: “talk to lots of people on twitter >> make friends >> allow them to discover music as they get interested in who we are >> tell them we’re touring >> invite them to host gig >> Book in the dates” – the audience is a shoe-in, cos most people can fairly easily find 15-30 friends who are up for a crazy night of music making in a house. It’s a nuts idea, it’s fun, and it has the added benefit of being validated by a friend of their’s… if Tracy/Linda/Angela/Steve/Gus etc are willing to book this, it MUST  be good. The person who books the show then emails the links to what we do around (no need to send out CDs) so people have an idea what to expect. Everyone comes to the gig, eats, listens, buys CDs, and we go home with money and loads of new friends. Win-Win.

All But One Of The Gigs Were House Concerts:

if we get offered non-house-concert gigs, we take them if they’re fantastic. They have to be AT least as good as house concerts to be worth doing. We’re no longer desperate for somewhere to play. The show we did at Grace Presbyterian church in Long Beach was an amazing night. And we got to see Vicki Genfan and Jim Bybee play too. Win-Win.

We Did 5 Masterclasses – 3 In Houses, One In A Pub, One In A Uni:

masterclasses in houses are great fun, and a fab way of a) sharing knowledge on tour and b) making a lil’ more cash. We did classes on looping, bass stuff and ‘social media for musicians’ – again, arranged by the people hosting the house concerts. I usually do a pretty big bass class in Northern California, and it has in the past paid for my entire trip. I didn’t need to this time, so was able to do a much smaller, more focussed class, for people experimenting with solo bass. Win-win.

In 7 Weeks, We Spent 2 Nights In Hotels, Which We Didn’t Pay For Anyway:

at each of the house concerts, we stayed in the house where the gig was. That’s not always the case with house concerts, but on this trip, it worked really well like that. In most places, we also had another day or so to hang out and see the area. The hotel nights were a thank you from Modulus for all the masterclasses and clinics I do using their instruments all over the place.

We Made More Money Per Gig Than We Ever Have Playing Clubs/Coffee Houses:

so much of what happens on tour is built on the promise of imagined success; ‘if you do *** then *** will surely happen’ but rarely is anyone willing to underwrite it to that degree, and so the artist takes a lot of the burden of risk… With house concerts, there’s no chance at all that you’re suddenly going to find yourself making millions of dollars. But there’s also less chance that you’re going to find yourself in debt and unable to pay the bills. The financial arrangements are generally straightforward, friendly, and sensible. Guarantees are kept at a level where they work for everyone.

We Met More Amazing People On This Trip Than Ever Before:

guess that speaks for itself. My music life is full of encounters with incredible, inspiring people. At house concerts we just get way more time to get to know them, to make friendships that will last. Ultimately, I’m WAY more interested in people than ‘success’. If I can combine encounters with magical people with a sustainable touring model, I’m happy. House concerts do just that. Win-win.

Very Few Of The People At The Gigs Could Have Named A Single Other Solo Bassist:

SO often gigs by bassists are largely populated by other bassists ogling their wikkid skillz and monster tech. As much as I love spending time with bassists, it changes the gig if they’re over-represented in an audience. Singers never have to play to entire audiences of singers. It’d be weird. So to play to rooms full of people who have little idea what looping is, don’t know any other solo bassists, and so are listening to what I do as music first and last is REALLY inspiring. I love it. It makes me a better musician.

Very Few Of The People Who Came To The Shows Had Heard OF Us Before, Let Alone HEARD Us. Media Exposure Was Not A Prerequisite For Attendance:

we had precisely ZERO mainstream media coverage for these gigs. No radio, no TV, no mags no nothing. At least partly because these are private events at people’s houses, and so we weren’t about to be giving the addresses out to total strangers. There are ways for people to get to the gigs if they contact us, but it’s not about broadcast at all. No, most of the audience were friends of the host, people brought in because the host said it was good, put their house and money behind it, and believed in what we did. It paid off. We had no shows that were less than wonderful. Made loads of new friends, and sold lots of CDs. Win-win.

We Have About 5 Hours Of Video To Pick Through Of The Shows:

the digital footprint of house concerts is probably about 10 times that of a normal gig. People are excited and talk about the show. Often the attendees are geeked-out, tweeting and facebooking the show from their iPhones and N95s, filming it, taking pics and posting them online, and in many cases, streaming it. The Milwaukee show has now had nearly 300 views on Ustream.tv. Everything is amplified.

Not only that, but after watching the Milwaukee show, we were invited to play in Philly. The show was booked because of the stream. Lovely Linda Mills saw the gig, sent me a twitter message, booked it, promoted it, and the show happened. All in about 3 weeks. Win-win.

We Have Invites Back For Twice As Many Gigs As We Played:

at house concerts, everyone there is a potential booker. they all have homes they live in, and may want to book a show. Loads of people went away inspired to book us next time we came, and also to start doing shows for their friends. That’s GREAT news.

Nobody Got Rich / Nobody Planned To Get Rich:

this is so far from being driven by the rock ‘n’ roll myths it’s untrue. No-one’s getting rich doing house concerts. But no-one’s doing it to try and get rich. It’s sustainable, people-centred, low-impact, high-value touring. It’s cheap to put on, flexible, engaging, original, exciting and artistically elastic. You can do the kind of show in a house you could never get away with in a club full of drinking punters expecting to dance. And you can go home making a profit, paying your bills, with time and resources to make more music for the next time you come round.

This tour was probably my favourite tour I’ve ever done. Every gig was more fun than playing the Royal Albert Hall. The people were amazing, the hosts were incredible in their generosity and still grateful to us for coming and playing. The audiences were attentive, engaged and loved it. There really was nothing bad about it at all.
Yesterday on Twitter, someone suggested that while my soundbites were enjoyable, the reality was different. (see the whole conversation here ) Our experience on tour says this works. Says it’s real. Says it will continue to work.

So, were you there? What did you think? Have you done house concerts? how did they go? please post your thoughts on house concerts/social media/the future of touring in the comments below…

(the picture at the top is of about half the audience/musicians who played at the inauguration house concert/party we co-hosted with Kerry Getz in Newport Beach – an amazing bunch of musicians, from all over the place, playing amazing music)

Sustainable Touring Pt 1 – planning a house-concert tour.

I’ve just written a piece for MusicThinkTank.com about Sustainable touring, inspired by an interview on BBC 5Live with Geoff Hickman, the manager of Paris-based band, Televox – here’s the interview, and the video discussion that’s happening off the back of it on Phreadz…

The Music Think Tank post will go live in a few days (they have a new queuing system for new posts, where things get posted at more regular intervals – good idea, perhaps I should learn from that. 🙂 )

I don’t want to pre-empt what I wrote there, but one of the things that I do want to highlight at this point is that Lobelia and I are planning a house concert tour for early December – if you’re interested in hosting one, and are somewhere in or near the Southeast of England, please drop me a line. They are easy to organise, the logistics just being

  • travel,
  • an audience (can be any size),
  • some way of us getting paid (either ticket/donation, guarantee or a sponsor – we can sort that out by email)
  • a date!

For now, if you have any thoughts on the idea of sustainable/eco-touring, please throw them into the comments – would be nice to get your thoughts before mine go live on the MusicThinkTank blog for a change…