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“What’s the difference between a guitarist and a deep pan pizza? A deep pan pizza can feed a family of four.”

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September 2020

On Musicians,
And Which Jobs Have Value

This month I get philosophical about what it is to be a musician in the 21st century, particularly in the middle of a global pandemic. And, spoilers, it’s not all super-super-cheery. But it’s not all super-super bleak either. I’ve had a bunch of jobs, and being a musician has taught me more than any of them about how Work works. We’re actually a pretty resilient bunch. Which is just as well, because things are as tough as I’ve ever seen them.

But I also feel, and I’ve felt for a while, that we’re moving out of one generation of popular music – my generation (which I despise) – and into an altogether more interesting, thoughtful, empathetic and… fuck it, talented generation.

And I’m really interested to see if I’ve called this correctly, and things will go in the direction which I really hope they go in. I feel it's been at a crossroads for a while, and the pandemic is surely going to push it in one direction – maybe it’ll be this one.

Where do I think this new musical revolution is going to happen? I have alluded to this before, but my money is on YouTube. Yes, Spotify is the biggest streaming platform, but YouTube is where you really get to know the musicians.

Although I feel maybe it’s not quite at that point yet. At the moment it feels to me like a sort of infinite Edinburgh Fringe, where lots of people are doing music-adjacent things, but the touch-paper hasn’t quite been lit. But they’re building comfortable careers, and paying the bills, and exchanging ideas. They’re living the creative life that those under the indentured servitude of a record label can only dream of.

So actually, all of the recommendations this month come from Music YouTube. And then I get into the weeds about where I think the music business is, and where it might be going.

But first… I am actually producing some regular new music, even if it’s essentially improvised and a bit daft.

So let’s kick off with that, shall we?

This Meeting

MICROSONG #6
I'm just saying what everyone else here is thinking.

Lady Grey's Emoji

MICROSONG #5
Like the Flying Dutchman, only an emoji.

Carol

MICROSONG #4
If the character from the Cate Blanchett film kept leaving random stuff at your house.

The Shepherd & Shepherdess

RANDOM DEMO FROM 2011 THAT I DUG UP THE OTHER DAY
It's... a little bit 80s...

Upcoming Events

Friday 9th October

Every second Friday of the month. Why doom-scroll, when you can Zoom-scroll?

This is an online version of the Bastard English Session which has haunted the Isis Farmhouse Pub in Oxford for over a decade now.

And please note... WE HAVE A NEW ZOOM LINK!

You simply click this:

And then enter the password, which is:

  • bitshowy

And a reminder of the New (well, now Old) Bastard Protocol:

  1. If you’re performing, you’ll need to change your Zoom settings to ‘Use Original Sound’.
  2. It’s a one-at-a-time performing thing, and I have to mute everyone during each performance (because of audio lag) (and also, because I get an enormous kick out of it).
  3. Feel free to use the Chat function throughout!
  4. Also, I find all Zoom calls weirdly tiring, so feel free to hide your video, and wander in and out.

All my recorded music thus far...

I mention this each time now, but it occurs to me that, since I've stripped the newsletter format down for lockdown, I don't actually have any links to the website. So I thought I might as well just chuck this in here.

Click on the image above for a link to my (now... kinda old) music. (I mean, even the stuff that wasn't old when I recorded it is now kinda old.)

Hope you enjoy! And now, here are this month's recommendations:

Recommendation

JULIAPLAYSGROOVE

Dua Lipa - Levitating (Bass Cover)

Of all the videos recommended this month, this is the one I have watched the most. I've watched it again and again. Often on repeat.

There are several ways you can carve out a niche on YouTube, and one is to be a great musician.

This is the first of two bass guitar players, and the next guy is just a mind-blowing technical wizard.

But this video is young woman who looks a bit like Sam Twigg Johnson, who is just basically playing along with a recent Dua Lipa hit, gradually improvising more and more as the video goes on. I know I'm not particularly selling it. But when I say she slaps...

Slap bass is one of those things that I can do badly enough to appreciate when it's done really well.

And it is just the funkiest shit you ever heard.

Recommendation

CHARLES BERTHOUD
How To TRIGGER A Show-Off Musician

Charles Berthoud's niche is to be an amazing musician, but to use that within a comedy sketch format.

This guy clearly understands the YouTube algorithm like Yoda understands the Force.

He also has a lot of other great videos. Talking of the Force, check out his 'Darth Vader plays a lounge jazz version of the Cantina Theme'.

Recommendation

SAMURAI GUITARIST
A Digital Freakshow of a Guitar

Or you can review instruments, which isn't Samurai Guitarist's only niche but it's one he's good at.

He does a good line in quirky guitars particularly, and this is one of those 1980s synth/guitar hybrid monstrosities which are a ton of fun to play.

Stick around for the funk clavinet...

Recommendation

ANDREW HUANG
Why pop music is obsessed with this one note
Why pop music is obsessed with this one note

Possibly the biggest player in YouTube music is Andrew Huang. He tends to be the one people go to when they want to interview ‘musicians on YouTube’.

He records and releases his own music. He does tutorials on production techniques. He reviews weird instruments.

He also talks about trends in pop music, and this one’s a really interesting one.

He claims that modern pop music is obsessed with one note in the scale: the ‘super-dominant’ (i.e. the second note, like a D in a C major scale). And I saw that and thought “That’s ridiculous. If that was true I would have noticed by now.” Then he played all the examples, and I could hear exactly what he meant.

And then literally the next song that I wrote, Carol (above), did exactly the super-dominant thing he was talking about right the way through the chrous.

Recommendation

DEVICE ORCHESTRA
bad guy (Billie Eilish) on 7 Electric Devices

This Finnish YouTuber gets everyday household objects, and modifies them so that they can play a musical note. Then he hooks them up to a computer and gets them all to play cover versions of famous tracks.

My first discovery was the Imperial March from Star Wars, played on an epilator. But this is probably the best. Whether you know the Billie Eilish track or not, I think anyone can appreciate the hilarity of lead vocal lines being played on electric toothbrushes with little googly eyes stuck on.

Recommendation

NANDI BUSHELL
Dave Grohl VS Nandi Bushell EPIC Battle - Round Two! The stakes have been raised!

This is the first video I stumbled across of Nandi Bushell, a British and Zulu drummer and schoolgirl.

And in this video, Dave Grohl of ‘Dave Grohl’ fame sends her a personal message, conceding defeat at their first online drum battle – but he ups the stakes by challenging her to write and record an entire song. His effort is entitled “Nandi” and has lyrics like “Nandi! Number 1 super girl… Nandi! Best drummer in the world…”

It’s all kinds of adorable, and just the tonic for the persistent apocalypse that surrounds us.

Recommendation (late addition!)

ADAM NEELY
Music Theory and White Supremacy

I’d basically already finished this list of recommendations, and I usually like to do 6 at the most. But I’m going to add this video by Adam Neely.

I’ve never been much of a fan of his in the past (I think I’ve even mentioned as much in a previous newsletter), because I felt that the opinionated way he looked at music through music theory missed the point of music.

But this video is a wonderful demolishing of all of the snobberies that I assumed he subconsciously believed in.

It’s 45 minutes long, and if you want to skip to the end then spoiler: music theory in the West was developed by a literal Nazi for literal Nazi reasons.

Dear Diary...

These last few days I’ve found myself mulling on the future of the music business.

I started reading Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber, which theorises that capitalism, far from producing the lean-and-mean market efficiency it promised, has actually created vast swathes of jobs that offer so little value to society that even the people paid to do them believe they’re pointless. It’s an engaging and witty book, although feels like (and technically is) a padded-out opinion piece that’s light on actual evidence. But interestingly, he singles out being a musician as the opposite of a bullshit job, and one that everyone would agree has value.

And yet the value of being a working musician is something that’s been in the news lately. The need for social distancing has seen the infrastructure of the music business (particularly live music) crumble before our eyes, and a recent poll suggests that one third of musicians may leave the music industry completely.

And it’s complicated, because it’s not as if musicians have been especially penalised by governments – they just so happen to have been especially penalised by the COVID-19 pandemic. But governments around the world generally haven’t stepped in to help out musicians, or the live events sector as a whole. And there’s a lot of anger about that, as eloquently expressed by YouTube music business guru Damian Keyes (here talking about the Spotify CEO’s decision to turn his back on the music business at a key time):

SPOTIFY BOSS DANIEL EK'S NEW PLAN TO DESTROY THE MUSIC INDUSTRY

So, I find myself contemplating what the music industry will look like when the pandemic is over. Although this calamity has been triggered by the pandemic, it’s really just an extremely large straw that’s breaking the camel’s back, because the musicians have been struggling for years. In terms of typifying modern capitalism, it is literally ‘the gig economy’.

My theory is that what’s going to happen to the music industry is going to happen to many other sectors – particularly those that require a good deal of entrepreneurship. I think the industry will have some very positive outcomes, and some very negative outcomes, overall.

But those positive and negative outcomes will not be spread evenly. It will not be fair. Musicians who were struggling before will very likely need to leave the business now, and will struggle to find other jobs. And those who are already wealthy have plenty more opportunities to profit from the tragedy.

But first, let’s back up a bit.

Since Napster and the digitisation of music, the major record companies have seen income from album sales steadily decline, as the album has gone from something that costed nearly £20 to something that consumers expect to stream for free. To compensate for this, the majors have created so–called 360° contracts, that give them a cut of whatever income their recording artists make: live shows, merchandise, sync licensing etc.

Independent artists and companies, on the other hand, have seen their production costs steadily decline. It's never been cheaper to make music. And whilst the indies seldom reach as big an audience as the majors do (bar exceptions like Chance The Rapper), it has still been possible to make quite a good living from making music for a dedicated niche fanbase. And by doing something similar to the majors: looking for income streams outside of album sales.

But in the short-term at least, I think we might well see an end to the rise of the indies, and a big resurgence of the majors.

This is because a great deal of the indie infrastructure (jobs, venues, shops etc.) is likely to go under, and will probably get bought by the majors. I can imagine the majors doing what investment firms like BlackRock did after the 2008 financial crisis: go on a shopping spree buying up all the property that desperate people need had to sell.

And with fewer indie alternatives, I can see those 360° contracts starting to squeeze artists tighter.

So that’s the short-term, but in the mid-term I wouldn't be surprised if the tables turn again. This is because even though, thanks to the 360 deals and their huge back catalogues, major labels have been making more money than ever in the last decade, and that means they can buy dominance in the short-term… there's really no incentive for them to innovate.

Indie musicians and companies, on the other hand are frantically innovating like never before, just to stay afloat. And I don't think all that innovation is likely to pay off in the short-term. But I think it's like a snowball that's just going to keep picking up speed as it gets bigger.

I can imagine all of these various string-and-chewing-gum solutions of the indies will start to develop into an infrastructure that provides opportunities for fans and musicians alike that the majors can't compete with. A little like when the independent movie-makers in the late 60s started to make films like Easy Rider that eclipsed the dull, clichéd and overblown efforts of the big studios.

I still think that the major labels will survive and thrive, because only they can turn musicians into international superstars, and I think there will always be artists who will do anything for htat. But when I was growing up, signing with a record label was the only show in town. And even though, in the short-term, it might seem like we're going to back to that model, I don't think it will last.

Although... hey, I'm predicting the weather here. Who knows how things are going to play out, because everything is so interconnected.

But in terms of the conversation at the moment about 'the end of the music industry', I think it's an extremely resilient and adaptive beast. People need music, and it will be back.

For the individual musicians themselves, though, it may be a different story.

So What Have We Learnt?

I think, or at least I hope, that what we learnt at the beginning of the pandemic still holds true today: no matter what the hustle-porn stars say, your obligation in this crisis is not to learn a new language or start a new side project or get ripped or any of that.

Your obligation, in the words of the Queen song, is to keep yourself alive. Yourself, the ones you love, and the ones you can help. Financially, spiritually, and medically.

But I’ve just been scrolling through social media, and I’ve seen a number of friends who are professional musicians who are talking about maybe having to leave the business. And to them I would give this piece of advice:

If you’re struggling for money, take whatever non-music job is the least intolerable and pays the most right now.

In other words, yes, leave the music business. For the next 6 months at least.

I have.

I have emailed my professional contacts and told them that I have got a 9 to 5 WFH office job (which I was extremely fortunate to get), and I’m going to be sticking with that throughout the pandemic, because I have no idea how the world is going to fall apart next.

But I have told them I will be back making music professionally again as soon as it’s practical to do so. (And if I can manage my time well enough, I may still do some composition/production work for them from time to time before then.)

For me, this is what being a musician is in the 21st century. There is no well-worn path or job guarantee. It IS a hustle. There are niches and opportunities, and there are ups and downs.

And when there are deep downs, I will just take a regular 9 to 5 job, like I’ve done a million times before. But once the pandemic is over, it’s back to the hustle.

So I would say that if, once upon a time, you decided that being a musician is the thing you want to do professionally, because you believe it’s the thing you’re best at, then it’s probably not a good idea to tell yourself you might leave the music business.

Sure, it might be an idea to try to find a new placeholder income. And if the pandemic has highlighted how precarious your income was beforehand then it might be an idea to look for other non-musical things to do in the future to supplement it.

But people need music. And your skills aren’t going to go away. Don’t see this as the end – see this as the worst of many challenges that form the professional career of a musician.

And all you people, keep yourselves alive…

Ask me things

If you have any questions then seriously, do please drop me a message using one of the pretty social media buttons below. About the recordings. About the folk session. About life. About the universe. About the weather in two years time. I seem to know it all today.

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PHOTO CREDITS:
  • Click on the images to see the originals. (It just means less admin for me this way.)
Copyright © 2020 House of Lyra, All rights reserved.


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