Let's play catch-up!!

OK, I know a few of you lovely readers are a little behind on your StevieTunes collection, so now you can catch up on all the solo stuff, by getting all 7 solo albums for £17.50!! – that’s a serious bargain, £2.50 an album for some of the finest music you’ll ever hear anywhere. Honest. :o)

Anyway, please do head over to the shop, if you want to fill in the blanks, and give yourself a lovely soundtrack to your daily blog-read.

Which, BTW, you can do to a lesser degree via the ReverbNation player that’s now embedded on the front page of the blog. (don’t worry it doesn’t auto-play – I’ve actually unsubscribed from some people’s blog feeds in the past because you couldn’t go to their page without being bombarded with unwanted music). But still, plenty of opportunities to listen to me – what more could you want?

Thoughts on File Sharing – an addendum

Via the very wonderful Andrew Collins blog, I’ve just found out that there’s a 45p admin fee for the Radiohead album, so added the following edit in the middle of the previous post –

[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…]

Let me expand on the bit about card details a little, as it pertains to online sales. Online sales patterns are definied entirely by ease of use. The more clicks and details people have to put in, the more people fall away part way through the process. My shop application is terrible for this, because it requires you to take, ooh, about 90 seconds to get through to the checkout. That, in the world of the interwebs, is about 70 seconds too long. I’m talking with various geek friends about creating a paypal only three click download store. My guess is that my download sales would at least quadruple, because for people who use their paypal account regularly (so the email and password filed auto-complete) it really would be three clicks to the download.

Zencart – the application I use for all this stuff – is really cool. It’s feature heavy, means I can have group discounts and free shipping over certain amounts and all kinds of fancy schmancy stuff. But because of all of that, it also requires a fair amount of info to run. If I knew more about PHP and could be bothered, I’d have transfered my entire site into it – it has the option to integrate with phpBB, the software that runs my forum, so I could’ve had a one-stop registration for mailing list, shop, forum, and made it much easier for peoples to interact and shop all in one (if you’re a musician thinking of a major redesign, and the person doing it knows php well, it’s worth considering!) I’ve seen a few sites that feature that level of integration, though they looked more bespoke than that.

But anyway, the point is, that Radiohead are getting people’s financial details is a really smart move, and also means that the difference between paying 45p for it (about 90c US) or paying £7 is one number change in the buying process. Vital in these click-lazy times.

Oh, and apparently, The Charlatans are giving away their new album via the XFM radio website. I wonder how much XFM are paying Alan McGee, who runs the bands label, Creation, for the right to host the tracks? Even if it’s the 45p admin fee that Radiohead are charging the public, you’re looking at a heck of a lot of very cheap publicity for the Charlatans, XFM and Creation Records with the media-hungry McGee at the helm. [EDIT, apparently they aren’t signed to Creation – Creation no longer exists! (nice one Steve, way to go with the up to date information) – they were/are signed to Sanctuary, and McGee is managing them… Same deal, given that he still needs to get paid for being their manager, but worth an edit… /]

McGee’s posit, that recorded music is now just a vehicle for getting people to gigs, is great for a band like the Charlatans, who’ve been around for close to 20 years and have a substantial live following. For smaller bands, or bands who’s style of music costs lots of time and money to make but doesn’t translate well to the live arena, it’s like handing them a P45 and saying ‘sorry, you’re no longer allowed to make money from this industry, go get a day job and muck about with fruityloops in your spare time…’ – less time to make music, less time to think about music, less energy and focus to produce music of substance.

BTW, I’m not suggesting that people with day-jobs can’t make great music! Even with the model as it is, it often liberates them from having to play music their don’t believe in in order to live, allowing them to focus on what really gets their creative juices flowing, however uncommercially viable. Cecil Taylor washed dishes through the 60s til he was finally able to make money playing the music he loved, Nels Cline was working in a record store til he joined Wilco a couple of years ago.

So we need to keep talking about this – where do we go from here? More comments?

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.

Calamateur Vs. Steve Lawson album now available here…

Calamateur vs Steve Lawson album cover image

Finally, the actual release date has come round, and you can now get the Calamateur Vs. Steve Lawson in the stevelawson.net online shop. I know that quite a few of you have bought it already from either iTunes or CdBaby.com, and that’s great. for those of you that haven’t, or want it as slightly higher res, you can get it Last.fm.

It’s a really lovely album. Pretty strange, and rather more bleak than most of what I do. But, conversely, rather less bleak than most of the Calamateur stuff, thanks to the influence of my general fluffiness. I’m very proud of it, and hope it really takes off so at some point we can afford to do a CD release of it. That’s not the plan at the moment, but if it sells loads as downloads, and develops a huge underground following, then who knows…

For now though,

What music gear manufacturers don't get about looping.

My looping rig, featuring the looperlative LP1Looping is no longer a gimmick. It’s official. If it’s your gimmick, find a new one. It’s way too mainstream to be a cover for crap music any more.

It’s all happened fairly recently – back when I started doing solo gigs (late 90s) it was a fantastic gimmick. Fortunately I never relied on it being such, or I’d be screwed now, but it had a certain freak factor that was appealing to certain audiences.

Now everyone and her dog are looping, so it doesn’t work as a gimmick. Which is fantastic news. Really, really great news. It stops crap tuneless musicians from doing mindlessly repetitive gigs just because they’ve bought an esoteric bit of kit and can impress a few gear-geeks with it. One nil to the audience; oh, and learn some tunes, crappy-looping-dude.

However, what hasn’t changed since looping went mainstream is the conversation about it. Both from the vast majority of the musicians using it and from the manufacturers, the basic statements about what it is and what it does – and what it gives you – are the same as they were years ago;

  • that it’s about recording a bit of audio that goes round and round and round until you stop it at the end of the song.
  • That the longer the loop time you have, the better the box you’re playing with.

So the digitech jamman gives you up to 6.5 HOURS of loop time, but still has most of what few functions it has applied in such a way that they only work in ‘step-time’ – ie, you have to stop the loop, or at least interrupt your performance to the point where you look like a bit of a twat on stage in order to be able to do them. (Ironically, the original Lexicon JamMan, with its 32 seconds of loop time, was an infinitely better looper than the Digitech…)

Here’s a list of things that the gear manufacturers seem to think people want –

  • internal metronomes that play through your amp
  • quantise functions
  • massive amounts of loop time
  • amp simulation
  • the ability to get rid of mistakes, but not undo layers
  • only two buttons to work with
  • removeable media

And what’s weird is, if you’re the owner of one of the lower end loop boxes, who bought it after seeing an ad for it, you probably agree with the stuff on that list. Even though what they amount to is a glorified mini-disc recorder with foot controls, and a practice tool that stops you learning how to actually play your instrument.

Lemme explain –

Internal metronomes – What use is an internal metronome? For one, it plays through the outputs, so if you hear it your audience hears it. That’s crap, no-one wants to listen to a click track. Secondly it suggests that looping works best when it’s in time. It doesn’t. Thirdly, it suggests that even if you want it to be in time, you need a click. You don’t, you need to practice.

Quantise functions – Why quantise? No idea. All it does it mean that you don’t learn to loop in time, and most importantly you don’t know what’s going to come out when you loop it. You don’t know because you’re not in control of how it works. Something else is. It’s the death of anything spontaneous about looping, and looping without the option to be spontaneous is like gigging with a backing track. ie, largely, shit. It also requires you to have a metronome on, see point above.

Massive amounts of loop time – Surely that’s a good thing? Well, yes and no. It’s not in an of itself a bad thing. It’s using it that’s a bad thing. REALLY long loops are very, very hard to make interesting, especially if you’re playing solo. I’ve heard a few people do it, I’ve heard very few (one or two) do it well. None of them were using RC-20s or JamMen. The advertising says long loop time is great for saving lots of loops. But saving loops is a curates egg. It’s great if you want to be able export them and remix particular things. It’s crap if you start using pre-recorded stuff because you think you’ve got the perfect take and don’t want to risk getting it wrong. Because of this last point, pre-recorded loops are, by and large, the death of creative aspiration. (the qualifications in my statements about pre-recorded stuff are because there are a handful of artists doing REALLY interesting stuff with prerecorded material. They are however, overwhelmingly the exception rather than the rule).

Amp simulation – Again, not a bad thing, just not the kind of thing you can do with any level of sophistication at the push of a button on a £200 loop box. Amp Sim = roll off the high end, boost the midrange. get an amp or a proper amp sim, or learn to live without it.

The ability to get rid of mistakes, but not undo layers – OK, this really is a biggie. The way the undo works on the RC-20 is that you hold down the footswitch for 2 seconds and then it deletes the last layer. Possibly the most unmusical interface ever in an effects pedal. Totally useless bollocks, based on the assumption that removing layers is about getting rid of mistakes when step-time building a loop, not about arranging a piece by putting layers in and taken them out. We’re back to the mini-disc concept of looping. It’s rubbish, it’s annoying, and it needs to change.

Only two buttons to work with – I kinda understand the need to make the RC-20 meet the floot-print of the other Boss pedals like it. It’s just that they crippled the user by doing it, and end up with shit functions like the one mentioned above. You can’t do proper interactive loopage with two buttons. It doesn’t work. The JamMan allows you to plug in another pedal, but infuriatingly it controls a load of step time functions for recalling prerecorded loops!!! ARRRGHHH! Why not have reverse? Why not have ‘next loop record’? You utter morons!

Removeable media – Again, a curates egg, like loop time. Nothing wrong with it, just not something that is ever going to be particularly good if you can’t also record an entire performance into it, and export each layer separately. That would be a great use of removeable media. But nobody does it.

So what’s missing? Conceptually, the notion that loops are static is really, really restrictive. Unless you just write very simple, beautiful repetitive songs, looping needs to be interactive, because it’s the interactivity stops the audience from ‘learning’ the loop. As soon as the audience knows exactly what’s going on with the loop, it becomes a backing track. That’s why on tracks like Grace and Gratitude and Behind Every Word the timing is so stretchy. It’s really difficult to get a handle on predicting exactly where the loop is going to come back round, and means I can build rhythmic tension and ambiguity into the melody. It also, crucially, keeps me listening on a much more intense level, because I haven’t learned the loop shape exactly first time round, I’m interacting with it the way I would another musician.

So how does one interact with a loop? Well, the simplest way to do it is to stop and start the loop. Record something, play over it, then stop it and play something else, then start it again. Hurrah! interaction, human decision making, audience interest. Any of these boxes can do that.

The second level is overdubs. You don’t have to do all your layering at the start! A simple ‘AAAAA’ form tune can be made way more interesting by starting simple and adding bits as you go along – again, have a listen to Grace and Gratitude – on the album version there are three layers, which come in progressively through the piece, and then a load of post-processing of the loop (all live) which I’ll get to later…

However, with overdubs, it’s also nice to be able to take them away again. The Akai Headrush does this in a really cool musical way – the undo removes everything except the initial loop, and it does it the moment you hit the pedal. It’s great, it’s musical, and I could get more mileage of of the 11 seconds I get with the Headrush than the 4 years of loop time in any of the others… would be nice to have a little more than 11 seconds though. :o)

Third level is fade-outs, which can happen in three ways – manual volume control, pre-programmed fadeout or feedback control. The Line 6 DL4 allowed for a manual fade out, thanks to the expression pedal socket – you could set it so that as you fade the loop out, the delays over the top got louder and the feedback on them increased, which is a fantastically musical option (have a listen to any of the looping Theo Travis has been doing of late to hear that effect…) – Pre-programmed fades are a pain in the arse, because again, you’re relinquishing control, and losing your own touch on the detail. and IT’S ALL ABOUT THE DETAIL.

If you ever get a chance to go to a classical masterclass with a world-reknowned master musician, do it. Doesn’t matter what instrument. What matters is what it is the sets them apart. In my mid-20s, I thought I was the bollocks, thought I was a really shit-hot bassist. Then one night on tour, I watched a televised cello masterclass. The dude giving it had the student play through the piece – I can’t remember what the piece was – anyway, she was fantastic, and my first thought was ‘what the hell is he going to say to critique that??’ Then he started to pull it apart. He was pretty gentle in his words, but he deconstructed almost every element of what she did. And when he demonstrated passages, it was like taking off sunglasses when you’ve forgotten that you had them on, and realising it’s not as dark in-doors as you thought… It was a whole other level up, BUT, that level was probably less than 2% of what was going on. The woman playing the piece was great, at least 98% proper great. But that 2% counts. The control, the detail, the focus, the hours and hours of practice. And pre-set fade-outs aren’t in that 2%.

So to feedback. Feedback is the single most undervalued parameter in a looper. I know because I was utterly clueless about it for years, to the point of suggesting that my set up with the jamman was fine and I didn’t need an Echoplex because feedback could be simulated by doing fadeouts with a volume pedal.

Bollocks it can. (never let it be said I’m unwilling to admit when I’m very slow indeed at getting my head round things…)

Feedback, put as simply as I can, is control over the progressive decrease in volume of the audio in a loop, by a certain percentage each time it comes around. So if you’re feedback is set at 70%, the second time round will be 30% quieter than the first, and so on, until it fades out.

What’s really important about feedback is that stuff you overdub while it’s fading is still coming in at 100% – if you fade it by volume, everything reduces at the same rate. If you use feedback, you can get the effect of layers receding into the distance. Have a listen to Ubuntu, Need You Now or No Such Thing As An Evil Face from Not Dancing For Chicken – that was me discovering the joys of feedback, and the subtle evolving textures work really well.

None of the cheap loopers have feedback, not even the RC-50 (the Roland website hilariously states “The Ultimate Looper Has Arrived” – but then forgets to link to the Looperlative…) A feedback control would change everything for one of those crappy loopers. Just a jack socket for an expression pedal. Please?

Next up on the interactivity list we have changing the form – with the current crop of low and mid-priced loopers, they’re set up to do A/A/A/A/A/etc. or to switch between prerecorded backing tracks. Would it have been so hard to set up the architecture so that if you used the track up button on the JamMan external footswitch and went to an empty slot, it started recording to that slot at the end of the current repeat of the one that you’re on? Apparently, it would be too hard, cos it doesn’t do it.

I’ve done a few tunes with multiple sections – Behind Every Word, FRHU, Despite My Worst Intentions – as you can see I tend to lean towards tracks that evolve rather than ABABABAB, which is why I’d vote for feedback control over switching between loops for recording, but both would be ideal.

Back to how this fits with interactivity, and your connection with the audience – multiple sections give us another way to be unpredictable. The audience doesn’t know when you’ll switch to the next loop, so they stay attentive (assuming the actual noises you’re looping are engaging in and of themselves – x-ref the stuff about gimmicks at the start).

It’s UTTERLY vital that your audience feels like anything could happen right up to the end of the song. Even if they know that you’re likely to play the song in it’s usual form, they need to feel like they’re part of something unique. The gig I did at The Spitz a few weeks back opening for Max Richter and Hauschka was a really interesting one for me, and hopefully for the audience, because I used each of the tunes as a springboard for a big improv. Grace and Gratitude was about 40% written content, same for Behind Every Word – both spiralled off, and everyone was rapt. I got a far better response that I thought I would have done on the gig, and life was marvellous, if only for a moment.

This is all before we’ve got into varispeeding, reversing, scrambling, replacing, selective overdubbing and generally fucking about with the loops in a way that the Looperlative, Repeater, Echoplex and the various software loopers can. We (we being the loopers who aren’t happy with glorified minidisc) owe a huge debt of gratitude to Kim Flint and Matthias Grob for the work they did on the Echoplex – everyone else working in this field right now is standing on the shoulders of giants… or at least standing on the shoulders of a Swiss hippie and a geek from the Bay Area.

Thanks to the bureaucratic nightmare that is the Gibson corp, the EDP seems to be on hold at the moment – perhaps because of the fact that it miraculously manages to be that advanced on a late 80s Mac processor, which is both remarkable and very limiting in terms of development without a total hardware redesign. It’s also still mono and relatively low-fi.

The best of the hardware loopers (and I’m not a fan of trying this stuff on a computer – way too much to go wrong, i just don’t trust mac or windows enough to rely on them in a gig…) is definitely the Looperlative – the ethernet port for software upgrades means it’s properly upgradeable, the full stereo signal path and much higher sampling rate mean it’s useful for proper recording, and the fact that it’s basically one bloke doing it all means that while it all slows down if he’s out of action (Bob was ill for a while earlier this year), there’s no focus groups or board members or rubber stampers to get past to make it happen. Bob Amstadt is a truly remarkable bloke for bringing the Looperlative to fruition and I now can’t imagine gigging without it. There isn’t anything that I could even begin to replace it with.

Which brings us to what is probably the single most annoying thing about what Roland and Digitech and to some degree Line6 have done to looping – they’ve turned it into a pedal/effect market when in fact it has the potential to be an instrument. The Echoplex is an instrument, the Looperlative is an instrument, the Repeater is an instrument. They take time to learn, they are subtle, complex, adaptable, interactive, require finesse and taste and get tired very quickly if seen as a gimmick. They reward hard work, practice, focus and conceptual consideration, and can be used to make unique, beautiful, complex engaging music in the same way that a piano can. I’m sure that someone will argue the semantics that because they don’t generate sound they are processors of sound, but my counter to that would be that unlike a processor, for most of the functions on a looper you have to actually do something to get a result – you can’t just plug it in and have it do things to your sound like, say, a chorus or delay pedal.

Because people see Looping as either an effect, or even worse, a toy, they see the Echoplex and Looperlative as expensive. I think £700 or there abouts for a Looperlative is the greatest bargain in the music world since the last time someone found a Strad in a junk shop. It all depends on whether you want to learn it as an instrument or keep ploughing the defunct and potentially embarrassing furrow that a bit of rudimentary looping is a clever gimmick that will get you gigs when your music won’t do it on its own.

BTW, none of this says that you can’t make great music with an RC-20, JamMan or Dl4 – all of them have parameters that can frame your fantastic looping ideas. What they don’t do is point you in the right direction, so you have to do the hard work yourself. Remember that great music is technology independent – the technology will inform it, and facilitate it coming through in a certain way, and even feed into your creative process, but it won’t make your music great, any more than buying a Moleskine will make you a great writer. That comes from practice, thought, process and having a story to tell. Which is a whole other post.

Geek marathon and online sales thoughts

So I’ve set myself the task of trying to understand php – for the geekily-challenged amongst you, php is a web programming language, like html or whatever, only apparently designed by an autistic squirrel with ADD, who hides information away, just because he can.

The reason I’m trying to get my head round it is because it’s what the shop part of my website is written in. As you can see (by clicking that link or any of the ones at the top of the page) I’ve managed to at least get it looking like the rest of the site, and still functioning properly. Fortunately all the money stuff is handled off of my site, by paypal or nochex, so my tweaking can’t make it any less secure.

Online sales is such a weird area, when you measure potential audience against actual return. Trying to find what will inspire the people who like what I do but haven’t yet got round to buying anything to put a virtual hand in a paypal-pocket and pick up a CD or a download.

I know so many musicians who now measure their popularity in terms of myspace friends and plays and youtube visits, but neither of those pay the bills – they’re great for exposure, but have to turn into attendance at gigs and cd/download/merch sales or you’re pretty much destined to a life of day jobs. Which isn’t really such a bad thing – lots of people intentionally choose to keep their day job in order to allow them to do the music they really want to do without the stress of making it pay. I, however, am an idealist, and have never had a plan B, workwise – I play, I compose, I teach and I occasionally write for magazines. That’s pretty much it. So finding ways to sell music rather than just having people watch half a video clip on youtube, give it 5/5 call me a ‘loop genius’ and then never listen again, is pretty important.

When I put the Lessons Learned albums up on the shop for £2.50 each, I sold quite a few more of those than I regularly sell of downloads. Not thousands, but enough for it to have been a worthwhile experiment. And lots of new people got to hear the Lessons Learned albums, which are, in any wise person’s estimation, rather wonderful! (if you haven’t got them, do go and get them)

The received wisdom on websales is that the more clicks they require, the more people will give up half way along. That’s certainly born out by my webstats, which show a huge number of people visiting the shop, but relatively few actually clicking the requisite number of buttons to buy anything.

So what to do? Add paypal buttons to the front page? just put a note on the site saying ‘hey, send me £7 for any one CD, or £20 for three, and I’ll ship ’em out to you’…? Which, BTW, you can do – paypal the money to steve@steve-lawson.co.uk :o) – the beauty of the shop is that it handles downloads – someone needs to write a downloads for musicians software thingie, that just manages collecting the money from paypal and sending a password protected link to the customer. There are a few bits of software that do it, but by and large, they’s ugly!

So, the question is, are you selling on-line? What works? What clearly doesn’t? thoughts and ideas please…

new album! new album!

OK, this album has been a VERY long time coming – the Calamateur Vs Steve Lawson album was actually recorded two years ago, and it’s taken this long for us to get round to releasin’ it!

For those of you who haven’t heard about it before, it’s a collaboration between myself and Scottish singer/songwriter/sound experimentalist Calamateur AKA Andrew Howie. Andrew’s music blends gorgeous acoustic singer/songwriter-ness with odd noises and late-era Radiohead squeakiness, and on this project it’s mixed in with my loopy ambient stuffs, some proper bass-playing (including the gorgeous sound of my Rick Turner fretless acoustic) and a load of my programming and tweaking. It’s tough to remember now who did what, cos we’ve nicked enough ideas off each other over the years…

The official release date is October 1st, but it’s actually available to download now via cdbaby (where you can listen to a minute or two of every track and buy it for) and via itunes (where you can listen to 30 second clips.

And of course, it’ll be up in the StevieStore before too long as well.

Please go and have a listen at cdbaby – it’s a project I’m really proud of, and I’ve been a huge fan of Andrew’s stuff for years – we’ve known each other for over 15 years, and he even bought my Fender jazz off me 10 or 11 years ago, and went to college to study bass before finding his own path through lo-fi loveliness.

More ways to download… hurrah!

Those magical wonderful peoples at cdbaby.com have started doing download sales direct from their site – hurrah! If you want to get mine, you can go to my main page at cdbaby.com and if you click on any of the solo albums, you can get them there for just $10 downloaded (and the files are 200k MP3s, so considerably higher quality than iTunes.

The duo albums aren’t up there yet, but I’m going to look into sorting that out fairly soon…

And don’t forget that you can get the 3 Lessons Learned From An Aged Feline albums from my online shop for just £2.50 (that’s $5!) each… Go on, you know you want to!

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 last.fm you can listen to bits of all of them to hear what you’re getting)

Go, buy like the wind!

New review of Behind Every Word at puremusic.com

This just in – a really really lovely review of Behind Every Word from puremusic.comclick here to go straight to the review.

Here’re the choice quotes from it –

“This is some of the most beautiful, deeply felt music that I have heard performed on any instrument, let alone bass guitar.”


“It is hard enough to make an instrumental record that holds the audience’s attention with a raft of different instruments and players, but Lawson manages to do it with one instrument (albeit modified to create many sounds) and one player.”

so there you go – more reasons, if ever you needed them, to go and buy the CD, if you don’t have it already. :o)

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