CARVING OUT A NEW PATH:
Bat For Lashes speaking to The Guardian via Dave Simpson
by Norman Warwick
´By selling my songs to fans directly, I’m getting agency back in a world where music is undervalued by streaming companies and the UK government,´ says Natasha Khan, an artist better known as Bat For Lashes, (below left) in a statement that revealed she knows the power of words.
Speaking to the Guardian contributor, Dave Simpson of The Guardian she went on to explain she feels changes are needed.
´I’ve come to realise that the old models of making albums are becoming defunct. I spent 10 years on a major label, and it was sometimes hard: I was signed to EMI by the two guys who originally signed Radiohead and Kate Bush, who were excited that I dabbled in lots of different art forms. However, they left and I was given the man who signed Lily Allen and Kylie, and after that I felt tolerated rather than supported.
I didn’t want to “go pop” or compromise my vision. Many of the artists I loved – David Bowie, Kate Bush, the Beatles – had been associated with EMI, and others such as Björk had also proved that it is possible to have commercial success and be unique and artistic. Had I been working in the 1960s or 70s I would have ridden a wave of avant garde work into the mainstream. I had three Top 10 albums, and Brit, Ivor Novello and Mercury nominations, but at times I felt like I was negotiating my art school philosophy of DIY´.
Ít shouldn´t be thought that Natasha is simply a hard-to-handle artist. She has clearly thought all this through. Her reference to those who rode ´a wave of avant garde into the mainstream during the sixties and seventies´ might bear more examination, though, surely. Certainly avant garde acts were plentiful and some broke through, but there must have been fierce competition during that era. In fact she mentions the quality of competition in speaking of Bowie and The Beatles. She seems to be suggesting that the music she makes isn´t a problem but that the labels do not how to categorise it of how to promote her,
´I played the game sometimes. At one of my first photo-shoots they wanted me to stand in a field with a guitar. I said, “But I want to be in a boxing ring with a taxidermy bear!” It’s very hard to stand in front of a major label person and refuse to shorten a song, but Thom Yorke gave me great advice: “If you’re proud of the music you’re making, don’t worry about anything else. Because the music will remain forever.”
I’ve joined Patreon to be able to connect more closely with fans, and for a small subscription fee, fans will be able to access original music, recipes, tarot readings, have creative mentorship or chats or see pictures of my paintings – artists such as MIA have also been doing it. In the past I’ve put postcards, stickers or handwritten letters in limited edition records, but this offers much greater opportunity to curate my own world as one might an art gallery. It’s my own universe, somewhere that can be audio, visual, anything I want. My incentives are to have a more direct connection and be creatively fulfilled´.
Those are three tough ponies to ride, Label Demands, Fan-base Expectation and the satisfaction of the Creative Satisfaction of the artist, though Natasha is determined to stand on their backs and stay in the circus ring. She further explored that notion with The Guardian.
´For me, the creative spirit is a fragile thing, and when business gets over-involved it pollutes the river, and sets off on a journey that makes nobody happy. It makes me sad that artists get interfered with. The three-year album-tour-album cycle means there are bursts of creativity and then long gaps and a lot of creative stuff drops by the wayside. I made my 2019 album Lost Girls with then-independent distributors Awal, and for the first time owned my own record. And from now on, I want to share music when I want, to keep pushing it and for more people to hear it´.
Perhaps we’re losing sight of how valuable music is?´ Overlooking what music can achieve?
´I get messages on Patreon or Instagram from fans telling me how my music got them through a huge depression or losing a child. It was the same for me. When my father left home when I was 11 I’d just pump Nirvana’s Incesticide because it really resonated with that suffering, anger and frustration.
Similarly, I feel we’re affording less value to music, and that our culture is being let down by governments and institutions. I’m sure that if you ask any consumer who loves an artist, they would want that artist to be paid, but it’s not the consumers who decide what Spotify pays artists. The problem is with the middleman, and that’s what needs to change. You don’t go up to an ice cream vendor, ask for six ice creams and walk away without paying, but that’s how the tiny royalties from streaming feel. As we’re moving into a more digital age, it has to become a safe space for professionals to not be taken advantage of. Creativity must be properly rewarded´.
Natasha feels that today’s pop industry cheats songwriters and deters the risk-taking that made Abba. In fact Bjorn Ulvaeus himself spoke on this same topic a while ago. ´Performance royalties from broadcast TV and radio are in long-term decline, because audiences have migrated from broadcast TV and radio to on-demand alternatives. Physical sales of music and sync revenue – where both artists and songwriters are rewarded – continue to fall, which means fewer mechanical royalties for songwriters. They have none of the other means of making money available to artists – no diversity of income: songwriters don’t tour, nor do they sell T-shirts and other merchandise. In essence all of their income comes from the song.
Streaming has changed everything, but songwriters are last in line for streaming royalties: the system works in such a way that for a million subscriber streams, an independent label artist could earn more than $3,000 (£2,175), whereas the songwriter could expect to earn between $1,200 (£870) and $1,400 (£1,015) and, even then, only if they are the sole songwriter on the track. If you co-wrote the song, that money is split between you and your fellow writers. On average, songwriters therefore earn between a third and a half of what artists do. If we live in a “song economy”, that’s unfair: the distribution of royalties needs to change to reflect that´.
Bjorn there was giving us a clear financial picture of what Natasha is arguing, but it is not only for herself that she is concerned.
´I’m also saddened by the proposed cuts to UK arts education, because my early career teaching kids and subsequent art school years really formed me as a person. I tried German expressionism, used animation and created synthesisers – there was even a module about Sonic Youth. It was an amazing learning experience and creative community, and I’ve found that creative community again in Los Angeles, where I’ve spent the last four years. There’s a music school for kids where I’ve seen a really cute Indian boy in a Nasa space suit play Guns N’ Roses, or a little girl singing Kate Bush’s And Dream of Sheep, and I’m seeing that spirit trying to prevail´.
Natasha Khan (Bat For Lashes), despite some of the comments and observations made here is far from giving up. In fact she is back on an up curve, as she concluded when speaking to Dave Simpson.
´I’ll still make records and go on tour, but with this new Patreon site, it feels like I’m 20 again, or when I was a nursery teacher in Brighton promising myself I’d do a gig every month until I got noticed. In the years I’ve been doing this, social media has become swamped, but Patreon feels as homegrown, punk and DIY as selling your own fanzine or CD because you’re going direct to people. I’m lucky enough to have a fan base so hopefully it will build, but that doesn’t take away the joy of doing it. I think that this way I can make sense of a world in transition. It’s about finding a way of being true to myself´.
Natasha Khan (born 25 October 1979), known professionally as Bat for Lashes, is a Pakistani British, singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist. She has released five studio albums: Fur and Gold (2006), Two Suns (2009), The Haunted Man (2012), The Bride (2016), and Lost Girls (2019). The album of hers I have is Two Suns, and I must have bought that when living in the UK. I´m pretty sure that I must have dashed down to my local HMV after hearing a track played on the radio by a dj I trusted for his or her taste, like Bob Harris or Jo Wiley. That´s the way I always bought my records before coming here to live on Lanzarote, an island of sun, sand and sea but not a single record store !
My recollection of the album is now somewhat refreshed of Two Suns being not her debut but the second album studio album by English singer Bat for Lashes It was released on 3 April 2009 by The Echo Label and Parlophone. The album was produced by Khan herself and David Kosten (who also worked on her debut album Fur and Gold), and features collaborations with members of Yeasayer and Scott Walker. Stand out songs for me were Moon And Moon, Peace of Mind and Siren Song, and having played them again just now I wonder had I remained in a country where it albums could still be bought without a degree in technology I might have more closely followed her career. In a review of Lost Girls, the 2019 release by Bat For Lashes, Rolling Stone headlined their commendation as Bat For Lashes Finds Beauty in A Burning World, so with such an intriguing come on from a trusted source I´d have been down to Bury Market to seek out a copy had I still been in England,
For further information subscribe at patreon.com/batforlashes
The prime sources for this article were pieces written by Dave Simpson for The Guardian, and by Mark Pytlik for Pitchfork.
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This article was collated by Norman Warwick (right) , a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.
Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve Bewick, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio Four.
As a published author and poet Norman was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (for which he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.
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