Photo ©Steve Lawson, taken from his flickr stream
Steve Lawson, known to many as SoloBassSteve on Twitter, is an independent solo bass player who’s carved out a space for himself as a musician, teacher, and writer. He’s been an enthusiastic adapter of social media from the start and speaks and writes often about how independent artists can take advantage of online media in fostering connections with their audience. We spoke while he and his partner were touring America, playing house parties and offering live recordings from the tour for sale. In this third installment of my series interviewing musicians about their relationships with their audiences, Lawson overviews his progression through social media and compares MySpace, Twitter, and Facebook.
How were interacting with your audiences early in your career?
When I started doing the Howard Jones tour which was 1999, that’s when I first started a blog. It wasn’t called a blog then because blogging didn’t exist. But I started to do a daily diary update on my website. And it was me saying, “Hi. We played in Berlin today. And we did this and this and this and I went sightseeing.” And so my news– what had previously been the news page on my site became this kind of ongoing diary of what I was up to. And I found that — yeah, it’s blatantly obvious to us now — that was far more engaging than a list of upcoming gigs. And so I was getting people coming back to the site time-and-time again. I think early on, someone said to me, they would tell me the statistic that said if someone comes back to a website three times and it hasn’t changed they’ll never come back again.
And that was in the forefront of my mind. I want my site to be constantly evolving. And what’s what a blog allows you to do, obviously, but at the time it was the news page.
And I was a journalist. I mean part of my skill set as well as playing – making weird noises with a bass – is that I’ve always been a writer. I’ve always been a communicator and a teacher. And so it’s the way that the web allowed me to blend all of that into this kind of evolving transmedia narrative, where I was writing about music, playing music without words and teaching people how to do both.
And everything was open source right from the start. I never ever wanted the sense that my career was somehow– there was something special about and that’s what made it possible for me to do that. I always wanted the idea that it was somehow part of a new way of doing a music career that other people could do as well. The idea of the music world as competition made no sense at all. And so when social media came along as a terminology and there was the entire sort of syntax and vernacular that was constructed then, what that meant and how it was described, I went, great, this is what I’ve been doing for 10 years, brilliant.
When MySpace came along, I did the same thing everyone else did and searched for artists that I liked and spammed everyone that also liked them with friend requests. And for a while it generated an enormous amount of play– of listenership. I was getting thousands of listens a day on MySpace.
But I found that MySpace had its own internal currency which was friending, but no one would sit in front of their computer on MySpace with a credit card in hand. And there didn’t seem to be mechanisms for turning that into anything meaningful. The language of it was always about being famous on the Internet. It was always about being a rock star. It was never about ‘isn’t it great that we don’t need to play those stupid games anymore?’
As the sort of technical tools of social media evolved, I was constantly looking to jump to whatever was going to allow me to have a better conversation. So I had a forum on my website for years. And I only killed that when Twitter came along because I wanted to take the walls off it. So as soon as Twitter came along I basically went on to my forum and said this forum is closing, if you want to keep talking to me go to Twitter. And so now all of the regulars on my forum they’re on Twitter now, and they all talk to each other, and they all talk to me, and they talk about other things as well.
Because most of the chatter from the forum wasn’t talking about me because there’s only so much you can talk about one person without it becoming like really bizarrely narcissistic. Or it’s just dull. So we would talk about TV and politics and
other music. And, I mean, I still spend nine-tenths of my time on social media platforms talking about other people’s music.
And then you’re on Facebook.
Lawson: I’m not sure about it. The jury is out on Facebook. Every now and, again, I think I’m going to can the whole thing and just leave it. Because I don’t like the social engineering of it as a platform. I don’t like the fact that the site itself
isn’t honest about what it wants from us. There’s a kind of weird social libertarian aspect to what they’re trying to make us do with the site. And it’s kind of– you must have more friends, you must have more connections, you must put more information about yourself so that we can harvest it and sell it. And it’s like, yeah, what if I don’t want to? I can’t switch off the constant nagging from them.
Is there any platform that works better for you than others? You’re often heard raving about BandCamp.
Lawson: BandCamp’s great because it doesn’t try to be anything other than what it is, and what it is is the perfect digital media distribution platform. If you want to put up things for free you can do it with that. If you want to charge for them, it does whatever you want. If you want to take donations and pay in that way, you can do that. It’s a work of genius, I can’t say enough great things about it. But as genius as it is, it’s not trying to be anything else. It’s not a social network. It’s not a band website. It doesn’t have a blog attached to it, it doesn’t have a news feed, it doesn’t do any of that nonsense at all. It’s just about making music. And so the combination of Twitter and BandCamp is really quite potent. I can be chatting about things and go, oh by the way I’ve got a new album on BandCamp and all of a sudden over the next two weeks I have people buying what I recorded last week. It’s that lack of friction between the place where the narrative is being told, which is Twitter, and the way of people getting contact with that narrative, or the immediate contact to what it is we’re talking about. That relationship is really potent. So the things I use most at the moment are Twitter, BandCamp, my blog and Facebook. As much as I complain about Facebook, the actual interactions that go on within it are quite valuable.
You know the raw numbers of it are always, always moot. I’ve had conversations with people who have –- I’ve had people with millions of followers on Twitter recommend me and it result in 70 clicks through to my website. And I’ve had people with a couple of thousand followers recommend me on Twitter and it result in 300 clicks. The number of people that are actually listening – you know I could stand on a couple of buildings shouting at the entire town and if they ignore me it doesn’t matter, but I can sit on a park bench and talk to three people and if they’re listening then it can change