Thoughts on File Sharing…

Two things in the last day have got me thinking more about what is euphemistically referred to as ‘File Sharing’. Firstly, I was surfing the sites of musicians I knew to be really web-savvy in order to find what they are up to in the way of pushing information out to their fan-base. the first site I went to was Gary Willis‘ site, knowing Gary to have done web design work in the past. I didn’t really find much out to do with information dissemination (other than him not having an RSS feed for his blog), HOWEVER: the one post on his blog thus far is a brilliant rant about file sharing.

Then, today, the announcement was made that Radiohead’s new album would be released in 10 days time – initially only as a download, for which you can pay whatever you think it’s worth, to be followed by a mega-boxed set in December, which will apparently contain the CD, the vinyl version of the album, an extra CD of other songs, and a hard backed book, for £40.

Starting with the Willis piece, he basically explains why ‘file sharing’ is a stupid term for what he called ‘unpaid downloading’, looks at many of the excuses people give to justify taking music from file-sharing services (which now, apparently, account for 40% of all webtraffic) and pulls them apart from the indie musician’s point of view.

And it’s great, persuasive stuff, hopefully causing file-sharers that read it, and care at all about Gary Willis’ music to see that it’s not quite the victimless crime that it’s portrayed as.

But I’m torn. Torn on whether we need to keep fighting it in such a blunt way as writing blog posts about how we’re being ripped off (we are), whether we need to find other ways of changing the culture, or whether we need to accept the mindset and look for glimpses of light.

The Radiohead release is going to be possibly the most important release in the history of downloading music, for a number of reasons:

One, they aren’t actually giving it away. If you hear anyone saying that ‘Radiohead are giving away their new record’, please correct them. They are allowing the audience to decide what it’s worth. That’s a huge difference. [EDIT – they’re also, crucially, charging a 45p admin fee. Crucial because it covers their costs of hosting and download, and also perhaps even more so because YOU HAVE TO PUT YOUR CARD DETAILS IN… actually I’m going to go and write a new post about this…]

Two, they aren’t releasing the download and CD at the same time. What this stops is people circulating massively high resolution copies of the files via BitTorrent that music snobs can claim they have to download because they can’t get the CD (I have sympathies with people who want higher res. downloads, and am planning on adding .FLAC availability to the store soon, but it doesn’t excuse stealing music… I just hope Radiohead release their album at sensible quality…) It means that the only versions of those tracks in existence should be the ones they have released.

Three, they leave the boxed set til later, add more music an a book and the rarity factor as a hook for fans, and release something that generates a whole load more income from ‘the fans’ and gives people something that isn’t downloadable.

Four, they don’t put a fixed charge on the download, meaning that people can pay them a pound for it if they like, which is a pound more than they’d get from Bittorrent, and also cunningly makes people start thinking and having conversations about the value of music. Today, everyone’s been talking about it. Radiohead are still zeitgeist-y enough to generate the conversation in a way that someone tiny like me never could outside of the gorgeous people who post on my forum.

So what will the outcome be? Who knows. They could end up making nowt. It’s possible that the whole thing will backfire, and they’ll be left paying the bandwidth on a load of downloads that they are grossing 30p each for. I really don’t think that’ll be the case, but it’s possible.

The opposite could also be true; that they end up making a shed load on it because people will rise to the occasion, given enough room to be grown up and ethical, people may choose the right thing. The band will then make another killing on the boxed set, and the industry will be left reeling from a band without a deal making millions on very little hard cash outlay (clearly they’ve spent about a pound on the website, cos it’s horrible in a quirky psuedo-post-modern-trying-too-hard kind of way – surely all that text didn’t need to be graphic files – haven’t they heard of CSS?).

What does this mean for the little people – those of us who really aren’t in the position to order even a thousand units of a limited edition boxed set to accompany a release like that? I’ve been spending time and energy on making the CD packaging to my stuff attractive ever since my first album. I’ve never liked jewell cases, and have avoided them, going for something tactile, pretty and collectible. If you’ve got all 6 of my proper CD releases sat in a row on your shelf, they look pretty damned fine (I really should’ve decided on a uniform font for the spines at the start, but my design skills have definitely developed over the years… just don’t mention the Comic Sans on NDFC, I’m embarrassed enough about it already…)

But I still don’t sell anywhere near as many CDs as you’d expect for someone with my level of exposure etc. I get a fair few emails from people who are very familiar with what I do, who clearly haven’t bought the CDs (given that they have to get them from me, or at least from a source that reports back to me on who’s got it…) I’m sure some of you reading this have got copies of my albums from friends… I’m not going to berate you for it – I certainly can’t complain any more about people making illegal copies of my music that I can of anyone else’s. I own a handful of illegally owned copies of stuff, and a whole load of BitTorrent-acquired digital copies of things I’ve got on vinyl (on the assumption that it’s perfectly legal to own digitized copies of music you have on vinyl, or they wouldn’t be able to see USB turntables, no?)

And then today, I release my first download only album – the self-titled Calamateur Vs. Steve Lawson album. Calamateur AKA Andrew and I have jointly put it out, on both of our labels, and are kind of testing the water to see how sales go. It’s been up on iTunes for a couple of weeks, but it takes a couple of months to get any accurate reflection of sales from them. It’s been up on my site for day, but there were a few problems with the code on the site this morning (just cosmetic stuff, to do with the formatting of the text) so if you tried buying it them and got freaked out by the messed up screens, try again.

It’ll be interesting to see how it goes – it’s an album that both Andrew and I are hugely proud of, is clearly rather different from what I normally do, but there’s enough of me in there for it to be familiar to people who listen to what I normally put out. But will people buy the download version instead of a CD? I still sell way more CDs through the shop than I do downloads, though the downloads obviously picked up in popularity when I put the price of the Lessons Learned Cds down from £6 to £2.50 (feel free to go and buy them, they’re really rather fab).

So all eyes are on Radiohead, to see if we have a new model emerging for music sales. What needs to be said over and over again in the course of the dialogue on this stuff between musicians and audience is that

  • making music costs money
  • being really good at your instrument takes time
  • if you want great music, you have to be willing to financially invest in the ability of the musicians to spend the time needed to make great music and invest in the technology and technical help required to realise the great music that’s going on in their heads

Any notion that big record labels are putting up money from a limitless supply of cash for everyone to make records with needs to be nixed at the earliest possible moment. It just doesn’t happen like that, even for the bands on labels. I’ve known friends in bands with proper deals, playing arena shows (as the support act) and who were on prime-time TV shows, but were on a retainer of £700 a month.

Part of the mistake that indie musicians have made is to try and be taken seriously by looking like we’re on majors, like our labels have staff (I know quite a few indie musicians with fictitious staff – you know who you are! :o) ) and like we’re doing better financially than we are. Success breeds success, right? Wrong – these days, it breeds contempt, because success=majors=way too much money already=fine for studenty me to download cos I’ve got far less money than you. And that’s probably not how it is at all.

Your comments please, oh mighty peanut gallery of loveliness.

New unreleased tunes!

Thanks to the wonders of ReverbNation, I’ve uploaded a bunch of new tunes that you can have a listen to… The tracks in the player, embedded below, are a previously unheard live version of Scott Peck, a live version of Uncle Bernie from a forthcoming live album with Theo Travis and ‘Endo’ from the brand new ‘Calamateur vs Steve Lawson’ album that will be appearing in my online shop at some point in this week.

Enjoy – just click on the picture!

Steve Lawson

Anita and Joe gone…

Two hugely influential people have passed away in the last 24 hours – yesterday came the announcement that Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, has succumbed to the Hepatitis that had been unknowingly plaguing her body for 35 years after a blood transfusion when giving birth in the early 70s. And today, the news broke about Joe Zawinul – keyboard player with Miles Davis, Weather Report and then the Zawinul Syndicate – who died in hospital of an undisclosed illness.

Both were incredible pioneers in their respected fields, Anita raising issues of animal cruelty, fairtrade and sustainability long before they were fashionable, and campaigning vigorously on a whole host of human rights issues over the years. She proved it was financially viable to care about the planet, and managed to bring all those issues to the lips and eyelids of the brand-conscious masses in a way no-one before or since has managed.

Zawinul will definitely go down as one of the great pioneers of jazz in the last 50 years – from his work with Miles onwards, he was constantly setting standards and pushing back boundaries, developing ‘fusion’ before it had a name, and crucially before it became synonymous with overplayed wanky nonsense in the 80s. Weather Report, along with Return to Forever, took the innovations of the Miles band, and ran with them, forging a unique style, and began what became Zawinul’s main path over the next 30 years – fusing jazz with African rhythm and harmony, which lead to him bringing to public a near-endless stream of incredible hitherto unknown african musicians.

For bass players, he’s the man who brought us Jaco Pastorius, Richard Bona, Etienne Mbappe. He recorded with Gary Willis, Matthew Garrison… the man knew how to pick a great bassist.

Both Anita and Joe weren’t without the chinks in their armour – hagiography does no-one any favours. Anita was, in spite of her campaigning, insanely wealthy (she may have been giving loads of money away, but it does frustrate me when socially conscious millionaires don’t take the chance to use their wealth as a comment on the futility of it by conspicuously dispensing with large chunks of it… but that’s just me), and she sold the Body Shop to L’Oreal – now, I’ve no idea whether she had any choice in that, whether it was her decision, but she didn’t say what the rest of the animal rights world said – ‘L’Oreal?? and The Body Shop??? WTF??’ – given that L’Oreal have an APPALLING animal cruelty record. The Body Shop is still run as an independent entity within the cruel monolith of corporate filth that is the french cosmetics giant, but it’s a shame that the campaigning voice of the bodyshop is now at least partially muted thanks to it’s corporate ties. Individuals can criticise the corporate hand that feeds them, and just deal with the fall out, even if it means getting sacked, but for one company owned by another, it just gets silenced.

And Joe was, by most accounts, a misanthropic old bastard. Curmudgeonly to the core, and part of the extensive group of musicians whose cocaine usage led to the downfall of Jaco Pastorius (Jaco was completely straight-edge til he started working with Weather Report and Joni Mitchell – both seemingly blaming the other for getting him onto the ‘instant-wanker-just-add-white-powder’ substance).

However, with all these things, it’s a case of ‘there by for the grace of God’ – I’ve never been a multi-millionare, so I can’t say with any accuracy how I’d deal with it. I’ve never grown up as a jazz musician working with the king of horrible-geniuses Miles Davis, and I wasn’t a pro musician in the 70s and 80s when such an insane number of musicians were doing massive amounts of coke… I wasn’t there, I haven’t walking a yard in those shoes, let alone a mile, and the achievements of both these giants in their field of the late 20th century will be remembered not for their controversies but for their pioneering work, their progressive approach to the world, their iconoclastic status and by their fingerprints all over the landscape that the helped to shape.

Rest in peace, Anita and Joe.

video of last night's gig…

here’s the video from last night – I can’t remember what I said in the gig, so some of it may be a little off for the childrens… :o)

anyway, here’s how to loop with no pedals… :o)

creativity and advertising – uneasy bedfellows? (CHEAP DOWNLOAD OFFER INCLUDED!!!!)

Just found this article on the BBC news site about a company who are offering free music downloads in exchange for the listeners sitting through adverts. There’s a whole load of interesting stuff in there, including the – frankly encouraging – figure that the ratio of illegal to legal downloads is 40:1 – I’d have guessed closer to 400:1 myself, so that’s not so bad…

What the article completely fails to touch on (I guess because it’s in the business news section and so this would fall outside of its remit) is the ickyness of having no control over what products your music is associated with, and even the notion that digital encouragements to consume stuff you don’t really need or want but are being convinced you should have is in anyway compatible with the goal of ‘unfettered creativity’ (I’m assuming now that that particular goal is a Good Thing, though I’m well aware that there are many musicians for whom such things are lofty nonsense in the face of trying to make some dough without getting a day job…)

The main problem is that you’re trying to get people who categorically never pay for music to put up with this, and that, I’m afraid seems astonishingly unlikely. Surely the bit of the market that the download marketeers should be targeting are those people who would buy it if it were a) a bit more sensibly priced and b) there was some sense of the music going to the artists (bizarrely, when it comes to finding excuses for downloading music, everyone suddenly turns faux-communist and starts railing against big businesses, those same big businesses they’re only too happy to frequent when they want to buy a cheap TV or pair of jeans… dot.communists, perhaps?)

But anyway, methinks making people watch ads for tunes still misses the goal of getting those people who haven’t already reached the point of seeing recorded music as essentially valueless to buy it.

I might try an experiment.. in fact, let’s do it now – I’m going to go and make three three Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline albums £2.50 each to download – $5. They’re great albums that were available as limited editions of 100 (and as such are highly prized – one recently sold for almost a million rand on the South African Ebay.. honest…) and contain some of my favourite of my own tunes… So they’ll be £2.50 each. Go and buy them… let’s see how many of you do. It’s a great way to get some fabulous new music (If you’re on you can listen to bits of all of them to hear what you’re getting)

Go, buy like the wind!

Entire gig of mine online!

You may remember that my gig the other night in Gipsy Hill (and yes, apparently that is how they spell Gipsy down there), was web-cast… well now it’s all available to stream online! hurrah! And here it is (click through to the site to be able to watch it in a bigger video window – oh, and headphones are recommended rather than laptop speakers, as the audio is OK, but not great… and you can’t understand a word I say, even worse than usual.. :o)

Gig tonight to be live webcast (Thursday)

Should’ve mentioned this before, but I’m being a bit slack of late with this stuff…

Anyway, my gig tonight in South London is being webcast – come back here about 10 to 10.30pm, and hopefully this embedded link will be featuring me playing lovely music…

Live Earth – not crossing my radar..

So the Live Earth Gig is going on, on TV, on radio, everywhere. And the only time it’s registered on my radar was talking to Oroh last night who’s playing at it with Corinne Bailey Rae, arranging to meet up afterwards…

Why hasn’t it? I’m HUGELY concerned about climate change, a qualified but largely enthusiastic supporter of what Al Gore’s taken up as his cause (An Inconvenient Truthx is definitely required viewing), but the notion of a bunch of largely ill-informed rock stars flying in in private jets to ‘lend their support’ (and prop up their often-ailing careers) is just plain hideous. Claiming to ‘carbon offset’ your private jet useage, and putting low energy lightbulbs in on your yacht does not make you a shining example of planet-saving eco-warrior-ness. It means you’re trying to party as the ship goes down, pretending that planting a few trees excuses your King Kong-sized carbon footprint. And that, my dear bloglings it’s what’s known in scientific terms as complete bollocks.

The organisers are claiming that they are trying to make the whole event carbon neutral and have booked bands in the cities they live in. But they don’t seem to have asked the bands to sign up to any kind of rock star eco-charter that curtails their use of private jets, and commits them to running their tour buses on bio-fuels and selling fair-trade bleach-free merchandise etc. Surely the concert would have smacked less of being a giant photo op for some of the worst abusers of aviation in the world if there’d been some kind of commitment to change, to reducing their own load on the planet – if you will, ‘putting their own house in order’, rather than looking like the bunch of fucking hypocrites they are. And I say this as someone who so far this year has made two return flights over the atlantic, and one return flight to Edinburgh, but who has also done two month-long tours round Europe in the last year on trains, and is committed to continuing that trend, and to not flying domestically (someone else booked and paid for the Edinburgh trip, and I was too slow to change it to a train ticket..)

So there you go, Live Earth – great cause, dreadful way of making the point. Please don’t be fooled by the myth of carbon offsetting – we all need to radically REDUCE our carbon footprint, rather than thinking we can carry on as normal but just plant some trees to make it all go away. It’s not going to work.

Telling half the story…

Just saw this article about the demise of the Record Industry on – it’s a good read, but here’s the salient bit for this blog –

“In 2000, U.S. consumers bought 785.1 million albums; last year, they bought 588.2 million (a figure that includes both CDs and downloaded albums), according to Nielsen SoundScan

Now, I’m sure I’m not typical of ‘the average consumer’ – I know I’m not (I’ve only ever bought one CD from a supermarket…) but I do know that all of my sales, or most of the CDs I buy will never show up on a ‘Nielsen SoundScan’ report… I’d love to know how indie sales impact that figure, and the parallel figure about the number of people now making a living, or part of their living, from their own music. I’d like to see figures on the number of indie labels and artists that are self publishing and selling more than 500 CDs a year (given that if you’re pressing it yourself, you can make between £5-£7 clear profit on each disc – $10 to $14 – so that’s over £2,500 a year in CD sales income, which carries with it the assumption that you’re making probably at least as much again on gig money…

I think the future looks VERY bleak for the majors. They’ve long relinquished their part in the process of pushing the art of popular music forward, settling into a pattern of releasing tried and tested formulae, usually being at least 3-4 years behind the cutting edge of any musical movement (how long had the ‘grunge’ thing been happening before Geffen released Nevermind?). So now they are trying to do marketing tie-ins, computer game promotion, TV show placement – anything to keep their grubby fingers in the many musical pies.

But the major label end of the industry is imploding, the indies are thinking faster, changing, adapting, and in many cases thriving.

It’s a tough time to be a musician and make a living at it, for sure, but the opportunities and potential are there, especially if you lot keep supporting the indie peoples (check out the links page here to get some new musical ideas)

The last two gigs on the tour

So tonight was the last night of our 7 week tour for L and I, and we’re in Wisner Nebraska, about 100 miles north west of Omaha…

The gig was in a beautiful recording studio, with a gorgeous piano, and the most fabulous sound, not to mention a delightful audience. I made a handful of mistakes, just through being hugely tired, but in general, ’twas a fitting end to the tour.

And it was recorded, which made last night’s gig all the more important as a warm-up. That one was in St Louis, at the Delmar Restaurant and Lounge, which was set up at the last minute, but was a nice venue, provided a reasonable break in the journey, and gave us a chance to see Amy and Joe from Clatter – you’d be hard pushed to find two nicer people, they drove 3 hours to see us play, and we then followed them back and stayed in their lovely house, got less than 3 hour’s sleep, and then talked for two hours before we set off for Nebraska.

And tomorrow we drive 900 miles (according to Google Maps, it’s exactly 900 miles from here to Hartville), drop the car off on Sunday, and Monday I fly to NYC, then Tuesday back to London… I think… I’ll check.

© 2008 Steve Lawson and developed by Pretentia. | login