Back To The Foundation
Putting the community back into my music, one beat at a time
I’ve been involved in music as long as I can remember. At age 4 I was intent on being Micheal Jackson, although I didn’t have the signature white glove so an old green ski-mitten stolen from my Dad’s wardrobe had to suffice. At age 6 — more than likely motivated by my obsessive interest in music — my parents sent me to Piano lessons. The first thing I did was ask my tutor for some blank sheet music so I could write something. Fast forward to age 15 and I recorded my first rap demo using a tascam tape recorder and the family turntable (it sounded as terrible as you would think). I’ll turn 32 this September so yeah…it’s been a while.
By late-2014 I’d been actively involved in the scene as a producer for a decade: I had released a number of albums, worked with some of my all-time heros, played gigs across Europe, taught music production in youth workshops…but despite all this I was becoming increasingly frustrated with music. Not with the creative process of actually making music, but with the impersonal nature of being a musician in the Soundcloud age.
I’m part of the generation who came up through the pre-internet period of the Hip Hop scene: where word of mouth led you to basement cyphers in Manchester or house parties in the suburbs where aspiring Djs would practice their skills in a room full of peers. A time when people approached you personally to talk about their music and hand you a CD, rather than spamming your inbox with Bandcamp links. A time where my new music discoveries were catalysed by listening sessions with friends and long conversations with Jon K @ Fat City Records about the week’s new stock. It felt like community.
By December 2014 though, i‘d reached a point where I was struggling. Working a 50 hour-a-week job, having a young son, running the Expansions label, hosting my weekly radio show and making my own music was wearing me down. The constant push to be online, to update your twitter feed, to give away perfectly good material for someone else’s compilation release was starting to grate on me. So I decided enough was enough and announced that I was stepping away from the music game.
I received a lot of messages, tweets and phone calls in that month asking me to reconsider but my mind was set. I couldn’t go on as I was and i’d convinced myself that having to compete with the Soundcloud cliques, crews and blogger relationships wasn’t worth pursuing anymore. It was a wrap for me.
What stood out to me during the weeks following my “retirement” (can you really retire from something that was never a full time job?!) was the feedback from my peers. The amount of people who contacted me to say they felt exactly the same was somewhat of an epiphany: these were artists who I presumed were thriving in the pursuit of digital acceptance. But privately they were tired and frustrated. It got me thinking about how much the music landscape has changed since I started out on this path.
Just keeping up with the pack in 2015 is a huge undertaking. Record labels, crews and artists flood the net every day with free downloads, compilations and bootleg remixes. The barometer of our success is now measured in Soundcloud followers, download numbers, track plays and retweets. We focus so hard on building a following that it sometimes feels like the quality bar has been lowered or removed all together. I’m as guilty as the next man too — it’s a reality I accepted and conformed to a long time ago without really questioning it.
The point is, as a musician should you be focused on creating the best art you are capable of, or should you focus on maintaining your visibility at the expense of quality? I’m sure there are a lot of people who will take offence to that, but if you’re releasing 3 albums a year then surely you’re not giving EVERYTHING to each release. I’m willing to be proved wrong!
The idea of legacy and digital preservation is also a real concern for this generation of artists. Say you want to check out some early 90’s indie rap music. No problem: there are plenty of vinyl, CDs and tapes across the globe available for you to cop, digest and enjoy. But how will the next generation hear our Bandcamp releases and Soundcloud singles in 25 years time? Realistically neither service will exist two decades into the future (remember the original mp3.com? how about imeem?) and unless you keep up with migrating your entire catalog to new providers every 5 to 10 years — even after you’ve hung up your drum machines — the vast majority of our generation’s digital releases will simply cease to be available to listeners.
I don’t expect everyone to agree with my perspective: if you’re happy with your digital life then more power to you. At the root of things, making music is as much about your own enjoyment as it is about the listener. If you’re happy with what the digital landscape holds for you then embrace it: ignore my 32 year old whining and keep moving forwards.
My message to those of you who are frustrated by the realities of the system is this:
f**k the system. Build your own rules.
To be clear i’m not advocating a complete withdrawal from the internet. Social Media is a pretty useful tool for any artist, but it shouldn’t be the main focus of your career. That place is reserved for your music and other human beings (ie your listeners!). You have the power to take whatever you path you choose, there’s no requirements to follow everyone else’s “best practice”.
Here’s the best advice I can give you:
At one point in time I was managing close to 10 social media profiles to keep my name up. Don’t do it. Trust me it will destroy you! Focus on a small set of profiles and optimise how they interact with one another. For me i’ve streamlined my social presence to five networks: Bandcamp, Soundcloud, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. It still seems like a lot, but with a bit of linking i’ve managed to make things much simpler. Everytime I post a new track to Soundcloud it automatically posts the link to Facebook and cascades down to Twitter too. The same with Instagram. Now I don’t need to worry about updating multiple accounts everytime I do something: I let the automation take care of it for me. I save hours a week on Social updates and still ensure the message gets out there.
- Get Human
Your listeners are exactly the same as you. They probably share the same interests and most of them likely make music too. Connect with those people — they’re way more important than any retweet is.
The real world still exists, so get out there. Meet people and share experiences with them. Everytime I visit a city or go for a digging trip I send a message to my mailing list inviting people to come join me. Facebook comments are cool, but i’d rather grab a drink or talk about music whilst digging for some jazz breaks anytime.
Myself and a small group of friends are also hosting a regular Music Social called Full Circle. The aim is to put a bunch of like-minded souls in a room together to enjoy each others’ music and to connect over a drink. It’s early days (we’re only one event in) but its already been an affirmation of my faith in the value of connecting with people offline.
- Know Your Priorities
Don’t just follow what everyone else is doing — understand what is most important to you and adjust your course accordingly. Personally the money doesn’t mean a thing to me, but being a vinyl enthusiast i’m always concerned with the question of legacy. So my solution is simple: digital is free. Take it and share it with you friends. Upload it wherever you want — its yours. Each year i’ll fund a vinyl release with whatever money is in the pot. If I can afford a picture cover 12″ then awesome, if it’s just a 7″ in paper sleeves then that’s cool too. It just matters to me that I put out physical producer, whether or not it makes a profit.
- Be happy
I can’t stress this enough. As someone who used to say “yes” to every opportunity to progress my career, regardless of the time & effort involved, it’s something you should always be aware of. If something isn’t working for you, if it’s taking you away from the things you love then it needs to stop.
And I couldnt’ be happier. Sorry it took me so long to get myself straight.
Let’s make this music thing an experience for everyone. If you want to grab a drink, go crate digging or invite me to spin some records at your next house party then bring it on. Let’s connect as human beings and put the community back into this thing.
The internet has enabled our music to reach the furthest corners of the globe in an instant, connecting us with like-mind souls across continents. But its also divided us, moving our relationships with fans (as well as fellow musicians) to Facebook comments and 140 character tweets. Let’s find a balance that makes it more meaningful for everyone involved.
Do what makes you happy.