Making Sense of the Human Condition

Category: Music

Why many new artists struggle to get anywhere with their music…

I’ve been recently reading about this concept of ‘Priming’ in relation to psychology, and how we all unconsciously respond to marketing around us. Priming is the idea that exposure to one stimulus may influence a response to a subsequent stimulus, without conscious guidance or intention. It has a particular relevance for any artist trying to get interest in their music because we are all ‘primed’ to take the most interest when our favourite artist releases anything new.

Imagine two artists presenting the exact same album, literally the same songs, same singer, same band, same audio. One is released by a high profile artist that we know, the second is released by a completely unknown artist. Each is given the exact same marketing budget, is promoted on the same platforms, with the same advertising copy. It will be no surprise that the high profile artist will enjoy much greater interest, and will generally receive more engagement. Less surprising is that they will also receive much more negative criticism… The reason for this is that the audience has been primed with an expectation of how that music should sound. The reality may not meet their expectations. There are other priming influences; People will respond generally when they know other people will respond, a rolling snowball of engagement fuelled by feedback from others… The signal to purchase will be much stronger because people are primed to respond to similar buying signals when others do the same. There is a reason that people buy more band merchandise at gigs, this is priming in action.

The unknown artist will present their same album to an empty room. Much like an exhibition stand at a sales conference, the lack of interest, will fail to create any more interest. With no existing priming information, there is no reason even to walk over and investigate, no reason to click the link and hear the music. When you understand that people need to be primed to act, the way the marketing world works starts make sense, why large organisations spend millions putting logos in weird places with seemingly no context about the product they are selling. They are seeding primes… At the mere mention of the artist name, will have a view of what we think about them. This dictates all our future responses to anything they have to sell or promote.

When the product comes, we will all respond..or not..

A Musician’s guide to self worth.

I was asked recently about self worth as a musician and how to maintain it. I’m probably the worst person to ask as in many cases I’ve utterly failed to find it on many occasions. But like losing your car keys for hours and then suddenly finding them, I can at least offer some insight into what I’ve done to restore the equilibrium. I think the present landscape presents a fairly bleak outlook for any musician, but that’s not to say it’s hopeless. The problem is we are approaching the end of a unique and golden time in the history of the music industry, the era of the recording artist. It’s nearly done, over, and many of us are struggling to see the transition into something else.

A key tenet of maintaining any sort of self worth is to feel valued in what you do. So how do you remain valued when the world largely is increasingly indifferent to your art…. Music is now free right? I’ll aways remember an old work colleague saying to me once, when I told him that I was leaving the corporate world and was going to spent more time on my music career, he asked me to ‘send a copy of the album because I never pay for music…’ There was no joke or laugh at the end of his sentence, he was deadly serious and had no reason to suspect I would refuse such a generous offer of his interest in my labours. This was a nice guy who I’d worked with for many years who had just told me straight that he thought what I would be doing was utterly worthless to him in financial terms even though he was a music fan. If I’d offered to clear his gutters or change a tap washer for him he’d have got his wallet out and paid much more than the cost of a CD with no issue.

And there you have it. Self worth for musicians in one nugget. If the world doesn’t value you, you have no option but to do that for yourself.

Self-worth is one of the most elusive currencies in the music industry though. We are judged by how many streams we make, how many records we sell, how many people we played to… how many awards we have won.. In commercial terms, it’s a numbers game. When we do find a tiny fleck of success, it’s often fragile and fleeting. Even if you are successful, the world will judge the success of your next output by the metric of the previous one.

We are judged, scrutinised..We’re often bombarded with messages online that tell us we’re not good enough. We’re told that we need to sound like this artist, or that we need to play this genre, or that we need to do this to be successful. Then we are wrapped up in the game. We’re constantly comparing ourselves to other musicians and measuring our worth against external standards that have nothing to do with our own unique musical voice. He plays better than me, she’s got a better voice than me. He’s more confident on stage than me…We can also be defeated by our own expectations.

Seeking self-worth can be the foundation of a fulfilling musical journey. It’s the belief that we are valuable and deserving of respect, appreciation, and recognition simply because we have the courage to share our music with the world. It’s the understanding that our worth as musicians is not determined by external measures of success, such as the number of likes on our social media pages, the amount of money we make, or the size of our fanbase. Our worth is determined by our passion for music, our dedication to our craft, and our ability to connect with others through our art.

I’ve been doing this a while now, 9 Cosmograf albums and 10,000 hours of work. I still have the same enthusiasm to make and share music but the urgency of seeing my work in print and press has diminished somewhat…

In the early days I’d be seeking that external validation from reviews and comments, but now it’s more about what the music means to me. I’m also now slowing down on the output. An album release nearly every year was too demanding and to be honest I’ve no desire at all to repeat myself just to keep people happy.

Self worth means for me deciding that I want to do other things too, fulfilling personal projects and maybe things that will actually pay the bills. I’m also enjoying producing other bands, and musicians. Helping them out on their own musical journey is incredibly rewarding.

Some of us may decide that being a full time musician just isn’t realistic anymore and there’s no shame in that, none at all. Things have changed out of our control and you have to adapt. Being realistic and realising that you need to do other things to make money is definitely one of the best things you can do to protect your self worth.

Music will always be there for me, but I’ve consciously chosen to separate the art of making music from the expectation of being paid a living wage from it. There are easier ways to do that…and I’m working hard on those too. Touring isn’t featuring in this plan I’m afraid. There will be a few shows for sure, but I have no appetite for walking that perilous financial tightrope.

In some ways I’ve achieved the best solution. I am free to express myself as an artist without the pressure of making that output pay. This might mean I may move in unexpected creative directions as a result. I hope you’ll carry on listening…

Trigger’s Broom

And the paradox of prog fans that won’t accept change…

Those of you based in the UK may have a fond memory for a certain UK sitcom called ‘Only Fools and Horses’. One of the main characters was a hapless and rather gormless road sweeper affectionately known as ‘Trigger’, on account of his searingly trigger fast wit and *intelligence (*British sarcasm). Trigger once proclaimed to Del and Rodney in a famous sketch in the show, that he had used the same broom for 20 years….even though it has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.. Apparently this is also called The Ship of Theseus Paradox. Plutarch asked whether a wooden ship which has had every single piece of wood replaced was still the same ship.

The paradox is alive and well in the world of prog too. I’m sure we all know a band or two of a certain name where the substantial part, or just all of the original members are no longer present. I’m not mentioning names here, online wars have been started in the name of such conjecture and my flameproof suit is at the cleaners.

As many of you know, I love the expressive world of irony, metaphor and allegory, and I do find it hilarious that a group of people of advanced years, not untainted by the ageing process, seem to be the least tolerant when it comes to new music from ‘Trigger’s Broom’ bands.

Like perennial teenagers stuck in Boomer bodies, their minds are stuck somewhere in 1973 when the giants of prog were in their caped and Mellotron adorned prime. Their bodies tell quite the different story of course and some are much larger, greyer, follically challenged and generally world weary (I include myself in this). So then wonder why they have such unreasonable expectations that a band can form in their teenage years and remain in a state of perpetual youth and brio for some 50 years, without disagreement in creative direction, or suing each other… without illness, death or a myriad of other life circumstances that dictate a change in the band lineup. As anybody who has actually been in a rock band will tell you, keeping any band together for more than 6 months is more than a minor miracle.

Prog fans are difficult to please it seems.

A post script to this is that according to research, our bodies replace many of their nearly 30 trillion cells regularly. About 330 billion of those cells are replaced every day. So by next week we could be almost entirely different beings than today. The bit that stops us morphing into multi-headed dopplegangers is that our DNA stays the same from the day of a cell’s birth until it dies. It also changes over time too, but much more slowly.

So we are all Trigger’s Broom… and as long as the music still sounds like your favourite band, I think it’s OK if they now don’t quite look like you remember.

Why You Should Support New Bands and not Pay £200 for a Concert Ticket.

There was an interesting disturbance in the music world recently when Peter Gabriel announced his long awaited concert tour. Amongst the excitement and furious activity to obtain tickets, was inevitably the consternation about the prices..

I have to admit I was in that camp. With the average ticket price somewhere around the £200 mark, I just wonder what has happened in the music industry where this is an acceptable price for a gig, even one as illustrious as the return of Mr Gabriel to the stage for the first time in nearly a decade.

A friend on Facebook recalled that they saw Peter at Birmingham Arena in 1983, for the princely sum of £7. Accounting for inflation over 40 years, the equivalent price in today’s money would be £21… So how did we get from there to £200?. Is it just the built up demand to see this legendary artist? or are there other forces at work?

To examine that, I think we need to look at where the record industry is now. Technology, in particular the concept of streaming, has bent the traditional model of physical record sales so badly that an artist at Peter Gabriel’s level now is almost giving music away as a loss leader to promote ticket and merch sales. Peter is long past having a number one hit album and even further from becoming a streaming sensation with a single track, but he is at least blessed with an older demographic that have followed him since the early days of Genesis, and many have bought all the records along the way. But that model died when Spotify levelled the music industry as we know it and made the largest all you can hear buffet of music for the princely sum of FREE….

Imagine travelling back to 1980 and saying to your mate in the record store. “You know, one day someone will invent this thing called the internet, and then someone will put all the worlds music on it, and you’ll be able to listen to any song you want for nothing…” I think the response would be something like “Get out of here and stay off the drugs!”. But this is exactly what has happened.

Back in the day, artists sold millions of records and then toured the hell out of the album. These days you get to consume the record for nothing, with the hope that you’ll pay through the nose to see the artist on tour and buy a barrowload of merch whilst you are there.

For artists at the other end of the spectrum like me, we are to some extent trying to navigate our way through a sea of fog without a clear idea of where land is. In the modern progressive rock genre, we are at least blessed with a very high percentage of fans that still value the physical record. Somehow, we also still have record shops in 2022, and a new appetite for vinyl that the pressing plants are really struggling to satisfy. I’ve been waiting over 8 months now for my own latest album to be pressed.

But a world tour at anything like £200 a ticket is the pension benefit for the rock dinosaurs of another era. There’s nothing here for even moderately successful musicians in a marginalised and uncool genre of music. But I guess this is common whatever music is being played on the stage.

The most successful contemporary exponent of prog currently is the reformed Steven Wilson led, Porcupine Tree, selling out sizeable venues across UK, Europe and the US. The ticket prices are also much more reasonable £65. Still not cheap though.

As I said on Facebook it also boggles my mind that a lot of people in that Peter Gabriel audience have thought nothing about paying £200 for a ticket, but would baulk at the prospect of spending £10 on a record from a new band. This for me is where the danger lies…

The sad thing here is that there will never be another Peter Gabriel, Genesis, Yes, Floyd or King Crimson. And the reason for that is the fans of those bands won’t give them up… and they will always be willing to throw huge piles of cash at everything their record labels offer for sale. Yet another Floyd remaster packaged in in a fir lined case with a vellum parchment booklet? “Sir, take my money!” No one should have to give up their heroes of course, but equally people need to be aware that unless you support the small guys, there will never be anyone to fill their shoes. Maybe they don’t want anyone filling their shoes?…I still hear people saying good music died in the late 70s…The more informed of us know that there are incredible bands in modern prog that are making music the equal of anything produced then, and in all the same traditions.

But now the industry has unrecognisably changed, we are all struggling to come to terms with what success now looks like. One of my artist friends joked that he never foresaw that his band would actually effectively become a clothing brand, as the only money he made was from selling merch, mostly T shirts at gigs.

A successful artist now in the prog world sells a few thousand CDs per release and can probably get around 100 people in a room for a gig at £20 per ticket. It can take at least 10 years of endless work to get to that level too. I’ve always struggled with this protracted slog of effort with the reward of virtually no financial return and you might have noticed I regularly bleat on about it. In my previous life in the water industry it was possible to navigate an entire career and triple your salary over the same period, and I didn’t even work as hard as I do now. But then again, if I was back in 1973 too, I wouldn’t have been signed and none of my music would ever have been heard.

When you work through these modest numbers, it’s not difficult to understand why ‘successful’, critically acclaimed, and in some cases award winning artists are taking second jobs and struggling to pay their energy bills.

It’s a shit business….



Sharks

Swimming with Sharks – Why Bad Things Should Happen To You

Lies, Damn lies and Statistics
I’m sure you remember that old statistic about the likelihood of getting bitten by a shark. I just googled it again and apparently it’s 1 in 3.75million. Being the overthinking being that I am, I wonder how on earth they calculated that, and how absurd the notion is that the risk of being eaten by Jaws is the same if you lived in a suburban house in Reading, or if you were an Australian surfer on Bondi beach.

Of course the risk isn’t the same at all. Our own brains are as equally useless as averaged statistics in assessing the objective level of danger that you are in. The mind is unable to calculate the true risk of what lies before us and it actually takes an experience based approach to whether something is harmful to us or whether we are more unfortunate than other people in whatever event occurs.

Do you Feel Lucky?
One person’s assessment of whether a situation is risky or dangerous can be entirely different to someone else’s. Similarly it’s also impossible to objectively determine if someone has been lucky or unlucky. It’s just something we say… If our Australian surfer spends every day in the water in the known habitat and feeding grounds of a Great White, there is a good chance he’s eventually going to have a rather unwanted encounter. If he does, we might opine that he was ‘unlucky’ to get bitten, but given all the circumstances, it was bound to happen. We might also say he was ‘lucky’ to survive, which is surely the daftest statement ever if we are saying there was a 1 in 3.75million chance of being bitten in the first place. Our tiny brains aren’t very clever at objective assessment. We just say what we see, or say what we think we know from our own experience, or the experience of others that we are aware of.

Rock Stars Die Young
When I was a teenager I spent more than a few hours wondering why so many big rock stars that I dreamed of becoming, seemed to die before their time, often in some sort of hideous misadventure. Drugs, alcohol, helicopter, plane and car crashes, and various other unusual deaths seemed to be very common and certainly well above the statistical averages.

What was the reason for this? Are the music and creative industries really so inherently dangerous? We all know the 27 Club thing, right? It’s fuel for conspiracy theorists but also fun to try and take a more scientific approach, using things like reasoning and probability to analyse what’s going on.

I guess if we look at the activities that surround the art of making music in a bit more detail we start to get a more realistic picture. Logistics pay a big part, and back in the 70s and 80s, getting a rock star from A to B involved a great deal of fast moving and dangerous transportation in an era where we hadn’t even legislated on the safety benefits of the seatbelt, let alone the airbag.

Drugs and alcohol have always gone hand in hand with the music industry and in many cases were salves to the crushing boredom of life on the road or a way of coping with the pressures of fame, or an intangible artistic struggle.

I don’t think luck has much to do with any of this at all but yet the brain persists to draw its own erroneous conclusions. In my own life I regularly curse my own ‘luck’ and question ‘why me?’ on a whole variety of daily issues. The one parcel of CDs that our label sends without insurance will always get lost in the post and I then wonder why I’m almost on first name terms with the Royal Mail help team on Twitter. It’s because, just like those 70s rock stars, I’m ‘Swimming With Sharks’. I send a lot of post, therefore probability dictates that I will lose some stuff at some point.

Virtual Sharks
This all sounds very trivial until you realise that our mental health is really inextricably linked to the view we take of ourselves and that of the world around us. If we go through life thinking that we are cursed, or unlucky or that good things will never happen to us then the probability that life will get worse will increase for sure.

I wrote a song on my album Mind Over Depth, literally called ‘Sharks’. As with so many of my concepts, I’d taken a story and made it into an analogy or allegory for some other deeper meaning. The story in this was case was the fate of the crew USS Indianapolis that delivered components for the atomic bomb that levelled Hiroshima in August 1945. The ship was holed by a Japanese submarine and all the surviving crew went into the shark infested waters of the Pacific, leading to the largest shark attack in history. In my song, the sharks represented the negative thoughts that attack us every day, and the thrashing movements of the stricken sailors, our futile attempts to defeat them. And furthermore, the very thrashing about and shouting in resistance, made things worse attracting even more ‘sharks’.

We are all ‘Swimming with Sharks’ to some extent but more positively I think we can possibly reverse this mindset. If we consider we are ‘Dancing with Angels’, we might consider that ‘being lucky’ is surrounding ourselves in an environment where our productivity yields the most fertile results. Some would dismiss this as ‘being in the right place at the right time’, yet another fortune based idiom.

But how can we use this insight? Well, when something bad happens to me now, I try this trick:
Instead of saying “Why is this happening to me?”, I say to myself. “Why SHOULDN’T this happen to me?” This simple act of reversing the perspective defeats my brain into taking a more realistic view of the situation. I think a lot of really resilient people that I know do this automatically without even thinking about it. They accept that there is no immunity against life dealing them a bad hand, but they equally know the storm will pass, and they laugh in the face of the wind…

The Airfix Model – Rejecting Goal Based Thinking.

Many of us carry an inner philosophy of ‘goal based thinking’.  I know I do and like many learned behaviours it probably stems from childhood.  Much of our indoctrination in early life and at school is to strive and achieve.  Goal based thinking is being overly obsessed with the result of your endeavours and the expectation of achieving it.  Needless to say if all you can see is the end goal, you’ll never learn to appreciate the journey and your world will become pointless if the end goal is never reached.

As a child I used to make the odd Airfix model or two.  From the moment I took the plastic parts out of the box, I was in a race to produce a model that looked exactly like the picture on the box.  All I could see was the image of my gleaming creation, complete in its Humbrol’d livery and  carefully applied waterslide transfers…But it never quite ended up like I envisioned.  I’d get glue on the windows of the cockpit or I’d snap the undercarriage of the aircraft before I’d fixed it in place.  Then I might lose a few of the smallest pieces, spend a fruitless few minutes trying to find them and give up soon after in a heap of frustration..  The few models that I did finally get to fruition basically gathered dust on a shelf until wheels or wings got broken and they were discarded…

The journey to my goal was not at all enjoyable and if the goal was ever reached, it wasn’t valued.

An alternative approach to goal based thinking is ‘value based thinking’ where you consider the journey as part of the experience of reaching your goal.

In my Airfix model example I should have spent more time preparing my tools, mating the parts correctly, enjoying the progression of the build over a much longer time period.  Once it was completed I’d have looked upon the finished model with pride, and felt good about the journey it took to create it.  I’d have also valued the finished product more and taken more steps to protect it for the long term like putting it in a presentation case.

Although a complete failure at Airfix models, I’ve had more success applying this mindset to my music.  Just as with the Airfix model, I rushed my first attempts and made terrible mistakes that couldn’t be fixed without starting again.  I eventually learned to take more care, and thoroughly study the tools and the engineering and craft of producing music.  This provided a much deeper sense of achievement and enjoyment from making a new record.

But I have to be really honest,  once an album is released,  it’s creatively, a dead end for me. There is no joy creatively for me from that point on unless I’m going to make a video or some other artistic offshoot.  Once the album is finished I then have to switch from an artistic perspective to a marketing and business one in order to give it the best chance of being a success…and this can be a painful process.   For many artists it’s so painful that they neglect to give it any attention at all and their newly created masterpiece fails to find an audience.

Whilst it’s always gratifying to see people’s responses to the music, mentally I’ve moved on to the next creation, the next journey.

In an ideal world I’d like to completely bail out of the process at this stage and hand everything over to someone in the PR arena.  I’d argue that musicians are the worst people to promote and sell the record.  You need to be dreadfully thick skinned to take the rejection of a cynical and disinterested press and utterly persistent to the point of annoyance in doggedly getting the attention it needs.  

But hiring good PR professionals takes a great deal of money and there is no guarantee any of that investment will pay dividends.   I’ve learned a lot about myself over the last few releases and even more from running my tiny label Gravity Dream Music.  I have an endless capacity for details in pursuit of what I personally consider to be the goal, even if that goal is actually far removed from anything that the audience will ever recognise.   This is a dangerous path for any commercial venture because it means all your time and money will be eaten up in tiny details that your audience might not ever see.  But equally it’s your unique superpower.  When you spend a huge amount of time perfecting these tiny details, the overall impression of the finished product to someone else is that you’ve made something impossible or magical.     

MAKING SENSE OF AUDIO – PART 2 – Why CD Audio has all the resolution any audiophile will ever need.

The invention of the Compact Disc format that we know and love today is dated to around 1980 when Philips and Sony settled on the ‘Red Book’ standard, specifying a 120mm optical disc containing 2 channels of digitally encoded audio, with 16bit values sampled at 44100Hz. The format could store 74min-80mins of music on a single disc which was almost double capacity of a typical long playing record.

MAKING SENSE OF AUDIO – PART 1 – Your Ears

 I’ve decided to start writing more about audio because I’m endlessly fascinated by the whole thing and it helps me to cement my own knowledge in what I do in producing Cosmograf records and for other artists.
  

Every day is school day and I kind of think it is a responsibility to have some answers for those people that do see me as having some knowledge and expertise in this area.  I’m also interested in the misunderstandings that a lot of people seem to have about audio particularly in the area of playback and the myth and legend that seems to come up when people start banding around file formats, bit depths and sample rates and maybe not understanding what those numbers mean.  I don’t want to start a war with audiophiles, as we are very much on the same side in terms of caring about audio quality,  but I do think there’s a clear disconnect between what we do in the studio and what people think we do in reference to what they hear on their hi-fi systems.

Releasing New Music and The Art of Progression

I’m about to release my next album, a few weeks away now and someone asked me a great question recently which I think deserves a wider audience because I think the answer is relevant to any anyone that has ever presented any artistic endeavour to a wider audience.  WARNING. This is a long rambling post so skip to the tl; dr below if you don’t have the time.

Are you nervous before releasing new music? (Thanks to Jean-Maurice Bicard for this great question)

An Artist’s Dilemma- Deciding to Sign or Self Release your Music.

Here’s a dilemma which will surely resonate with all modern artists of all media.

The modern artist today has seemingly 2 major choices to get their work out there. 

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