Nigel Shaw isn't signed to a record company, yet sales from the multiple albums he's produced in his home studio enable him to make a good living from his talents. Paul Tingen talks to him about the business of independent music.
In a stunningly beautiful, 13th century Grade 2 listed building right in the middle of Dartmoor lives a musician who has resisted the traditional record company route to making money from music, and shown a new way forward for like‑minded others. Impressively, he appears to have it all: still only 34 years old, he makes a comfortable living from selling and performing his own music, lives in idyllic surroundings with his wife‑cum‑musical partner, plus two children, and enjoys the benefits of a modest home recording studio. No record or publishing company is involved — no distributors, no middle men, no managers. Everything is done by the couple in‑house: his many solo albums and collaborations, and her albums and prints, are sold either by mail order, or via 'new age' shops, and in some cases via regular record shops. The dubious machinations of the music industry are nowhere in sight. As a result Nigel Shaw and partner Carolyn Hillyer retain complete control over their music, their careers, and their lives.
So how does he do it? And what, exactly, does he do? On a grey and misty day earlier this year, I made the long trek from London to Dartmoor to find out. I marvelled at the remote and pastoral location of Shaw's home, a beautiful Devonshire longhouse, the central part of which was built in 1235, and features walls almost four feet thick.
In the spacious former hayloft, above what once were the stables, we settle in Shaw's recording studio with some tea. A Crystal 16:4:2 desk, two Alesis ADATs, a Roland W30 and SH101, Korg DW8000 and 01R/W contrast quaintly with the age‑old woodwork, as well as a collection of wooden flutes, and a little altar featuring rattles, shells, bird bones and all sorts of other natural artefacts. Shaw himself is an easy‑going, affable person, who speaks with quiet confidence and appears to have a relaxed live‑and‑let‑live attitude.
Occasionally, however, another side of his character shows — a determination which surely must have helped him get to where he is now. He's particularly outspoken about the dream of so many musicians — to be signed by a record company. "The biggest trap in the world," he fumes. "It's fatal, especially when you're young and just starting out. Looking for a company or person to rescue you eats up lots of time and energy that could be spent producing brilliant pieces of work. And I've met very few signed people who've had a really good time with record companies. For almost everyone it's a compromise, and it's the element of compromise that I find distasteful. How can you compromise with your own creativity? Musicians should empower themselves and do their own thing, and stop other people feeding off what they do. If I can get my stuff out and support myself financially from my music, everyone can do it. It's like the early punk attitude: anyone can do anything, regardless of what talent they have. It's not about having a specific skill or technique, it's just about belief: do you believe in yourself enough so that you know you can do it?"
I've met very few signed people who've had a really good time with record companies. For almost everyone, it's a compromise.
For some, this may already be a challenging question too close for comfort. Yet Shaw isn't finished with his sermon: "There's a key issue at stake here. It's not even a matter of whether musicians are capable of doing it or whether they believe in themselves enough, it's often a matter of whether they're willing to do it. Many musicians think it's beneath them to sell their own stuff, that it somehow degrades what they're doing. To me, that's totally weird. How can it possibly be degrading to take your own stuff out to people? In fact, you're actually the best person to stand behind your work. To me, the act of selling your music is no different than producing the music in the first place. You're in a different place when you're doing it, but the energy is the same: you're putting out something of yourself. And it teaches you about personal responsibility. I think that taking more personal responsibility is the way the whole planet is going, and wouldn't it be amazing if everybody was responsible for their own creativity?"
Well, yes. But there will be many unconvinced sceptics asking how on earth Nigel Shaw from Dartmoor has actually managed to sell many tens of thousands of his CDs and cassettes, and has come to enjoy a healthy turnover of £50,000 during 1995. Given that there are few groups or artists who have so far managed to succeed where Shaw has (one extremely notable exception being the unsigned band Show Of Hands, who recently sold out the Royal Albert Hall purely on the strength of their mailing list), he must surely have a sneaky secret, some hidden advantage: a rich dad, a certain contact in a certain place? Well, no. Delving deeper into Shaw's story, it appears that if he did have an unfair advantage, it was of a very mundane kind. His unassuming, instantly likeable personality — people quickly feel at ease around him — is surely of great help when he's representing his music. And the fact that he's always seen himself as a bit of a non‑musician, with no ambitions for fame or stardom, surely takes away a lot of ego and fear‑of‑failure pressure. But to this writer, the defining factor appears to be something that everyone can adopt: Shaw's eminently down‑to‑earth attitude. He has a vision, but he's allowed it to unfold slowly and organically, careful not to get ahead of himself. Instead, he took a small step forward every time, and then made sure that all parts of him and his business had time to catch up. As the Zen masters say: regard the journey as more important than the arriving.
Shaw's journey began when he started playing keyboards at the age of 19, in 1981, while studying Applied Biology in London. He spent his entire grant on a Roland Juno 6: "I figured that with a synth you can get some wonderful sounds just playing with one finger". An SH101, Fender Rhodes, and other keyboards followed. Though Shaw already realised that his future somehow lay with these machines, he nevertheless completed his degree, and also acquired a diploma in Pharmacology.
Finally released from the last remaining pressures of 'common sense' (get a degree, then a day job) in 1984, he made the "very conscious" decision to become a musician, and instantly went on the dole. He started recording on a Fostex X15 cassette 4‑track, went on the Enterprise Allowance Scheme in 1985 as a composer, and produced his first "very basic" album, Spirit Of The Elements. He took it round to a few new age shops, some of whom bought it. An "amazing turning point" was some improvised performances he did at the Festival for Mind, Body and Spirit in London in 1985: "I sat up all night after I sold all my 10 copies of the album after the first performance, copying more tapes and drawing more covers. I thought: 'hey, something's happening here'." A second album followed, and Shaw gradually expanded his studio to 8‑track. To support himself, he initially worked in a music shop, and later rented out his home studio. Meanwhile, he still felt like a stranger in a strange land: a chops‑challenged non‑musician and non‑engineer entering an undiscovered country and learning about it as he went along.
"It was an organic process, each time doing a little bit more with my music, expanding a little bit more. I learnt gradually to deal with the business side as well. Apart from one point, when I couldn't see the next step, couldn't see how I could make it bigger, it never occurred to me to take the music to someone else to sell it for me. As I said before, to me the business is inseparable from the music: doing my accounts is as much a part of the process as recording a new album. One may be more enjoyable than the other, but it's about a process of growth, where you learn to handle all those things. By 1989, I was selling one or two thousand copies of four album titles, and was just starting to make a living, selling my tapes at new age festivals and via new age shops. The advantage of doing it all myself was that I had a much higher return on every cassette copy I sold, as much as £7. Had I been with a record company, I would only have made a fraction of that per copy."
Shaw was by now playing at every new age fair or festival around the country, and his contacts with new age shops were growing rapidly, helped by the fact that he had several album titles, "so they could order a selection and make the postage and investment in my name worthwhile." Personal contacts with audiences at the festivals or feedback from the shops also helped: "You really get a sense of how music affects people's lives, you see it working. It's amazing." In 1991 Shaw produced his first CD, Brother Sun, Sister Moon, a project for which he borrowed £2,000 from the bank. Two largely improvised ambient CDs followed: The River, which used a background of nature sounds recorded in Dartmoor, and which has become Shaw's best‑selling work to date, with over 15,000 cassettes and 6,000 CDs sold; and The Seventh Wave, featuring a backdrop of ocean sounds, which sold about half that amount. The River was his first album recorded in Dartmoor, where he moved in early 1992.
If I can get my stuff out and support myself financially from my music, everyone can do it.
It was around this time that two other events took place that were of pivotal importance: he met Carolyn Hillyer, a painter who wrote songs to accompany her paintings, and he began playing the flute, an instrument that soon became of central importance to his music. Shaw and Hillyer became both personally and musically involved, and "things took off. There was now this joint vision; two sets of energies going out in the same direction." The two combined forces under the umbrella of Shaw's Seventh Wave Music, the name tag that he had used for his ventures since 1987. Today Seventh Wave Music produces a beautifully laid‑out mail order brochure that features six of Shaw's eight solo albums to date, three of Hillyer's albums — House of Weavers (1992), Heron Valley (1993) and Grandmother Turtle (1994) — and a series of her cards and prints. There are also several collaborations with other musicians, amongst them two albums by the band Global — Willywoman (1994) and Shamanka (1995) — both featuring wild "ambient trance‑dance music". And this May two collaborations between the couple were added: Songs From The Forgotten People and Echoes of the Ancient Forest.
So what, then, of the music with which Shaw has achieved such remarkable success? Given that he has spent the last 10 years selling most of his music to new age audiences, one would be forgiven for assuming that his music falls firmly into that category. Shaw himself begs to differ, stressing that he does "ambient music. New age doesn't mean anything to me." New age music has acquired quite a bad name for itself, courtesy of a flood of tedious, repetitive, unimaginative albums that appeared to be an excuse for the creatively‑challenged to make a quick buck. And a market for purely functional, impersonal new age music — like 'music for meditation', or 'music for massage' has also done little to earn the genre artistic respect. Shaw's music is a world away from the latter type: it's personalised music with a theme and a message — and, apart from the two ambient CDs, The River and The Seventh Wave, it demands attention. Yet it has many of the characteristics we commonly associate with the new age tag: slow‑moving, synth‑string washes, nature noises, lots of space in the sparse arrangements, much rhythmless hanging on one chord, and so on. It is generally very slow, calming music, and it is easy to see why it would appeal to a new age market.
At the same time, there's a haunting, melodic quality to Shaw's music, and this, combined with the extensive usage of American Indian flutes on later albums, and other acoustic sounds, whether sampled or 'real', gives his music a timeless, other‑wordly quality, rather than a synthetic feel, and is thus far removed from new age clichés. Hillyer's albums, filled with intense, shamanistic‑ritualistic songs, and the up‑tempo dance rhythms of their band Global, also bear little resemblance to new age's stock‑in‑trade. Shaw agrees, though, that most of his music is undramatic and slow‑moving, and explains: "It definitely is a reflection of my temperament. I love slowly‑changing textures, and I love strings and polyphony. Classical music, for that reason, has always been a big influence on me, especially composers like Mahler, Fauré or Vaughan‑Williams, who also have that brooding, slow‑moving quality in their music. I don't like that Mozartian thing: here's a theme in your face and let's play it at 90 miles an hour and repeat it over and over again. And other than in the dance music, for which I use the W30 sequencer, I don't sequence my music. Horrible, rigid, sequenced predictability is one of new age music's greatest failings."
Shaw stresses that it is the quest to create a "sense of beauty" in his music that drives him, and adds that his biggest inspiration is Dartmoor: "That's a direct resource that I use in my music; to get that feeling of space and emptiness, to capture the energy of the land. We don't make folk music, but there's an ancientness of feeling to our music that is intentional and linked to Dartmoor."
This 'ancientness of feeling' has been particularly enhanced in recent years through the use of the aforementioned American Indian flute, especially on albums like Seven Stones (1993) and The Lone Tree (1994). Flutes, like synth strings, have played an important part in Shaw's music for many years. In the past they were samples, initially played on an S50, and later on his Roland W30. His Korg 01R/W, he says, "has the best string sound I've ever heard. It's not a brilliant machine — a lot of sounds are based around the effects that are in it — but the string sounds have a very rich quality to them, and the touch response is fantastic: the string sounds are beautifully playable."
Holding one of his American Indian flutes in his hand, Shaw dryly observes that "this technology has lasted longer than the music technology that is around at the moment. But brilliant results come from the combination of ancient things and electric stuff. There's something that really works about that." The only other keyboards Shaw owns are a Roland SH101 and a Korg DW8000. Combined with his 3G Crystal desk (a PA desk that he has slightly modified, and praises for its superior EQ and transparent sound quality), two ADAT machines ("dead easy to use, and brilliant for recording flutes") and some minimal outboard gear, Shaw's studio is positively spartan. He explains that equipment, for him, is just "work tools to get a result, I don't get attached to any particular box. I don't need anything more. You can always feel that you need a new piece of gear, but it quickly makes you a victim, rather than a user, of technology when every time the next thing rolls off the production line, or is reviewed in SOS, you think: 'I really need to buy this.' You're forever learning about new equipment, rather than actually making music. It's for a similar reason that I don't use a computer sequencer: you can get so easily lost in the technical side of it, and get distracted from making music."
Towards the end of our conversation, we return to the subject of Shaw's DIY approach to selling his music, and talk about the nuts and bolts of his business — like how he never makes sale‑or‑return agreements with shops, "because it is a nightmare. Shops often don't keep records of what they sell, and the extra admin just takes time and energy. When I ring a new age shop, or an independent record shop, I make sure I make personal contact with someone, send him or her some material and agree to ring them back a couple of weeks later. If they like it, I suggest that they order five or something, with a 30‑day invoice. I only charge £3.50 per cassette and £5.50 per CD, so that's not a big risk for them. My prices are very cheap — distributors sell CDs to shops for £7.50. If my production costs were higher, I would charge more too, but one of the main things that makes this whole DIY venture possible is the low production costs of CDs and cassettes. You can have 500 CDs made for £1000. If you sell them at concerts for £10 each, you only need to sell 100 to break even."
Shaw stresses the importance of having more than one album, and of taking things step by step. "The mistake would be to press up 1000 CDs, 500 cassettes, and then contact the shops. You should initially just have a few, and talk to people, make friends with them — there are many really nice people working in shops. It's a long, slow process, but it works." Shaw warns that the American market is virtually a no‑go area, because new age shops won't buy other than from official distributors, no matter how much they like an album.
Finally, he denies that he's been successful purely because he has found a hole in a niche market: "I've carried on with exactly the same attitude with which I approach new age shops when I deal with record shops, and/or sell my dance music. Of course, you can forget about Our Price, but there are many independent record shops, including HMV and Andy's, with buyers who are always keen on new and adventurous material. They often can't stand the stuff that is dumped on them by record companies. It's your attitude that is the most important thing. Becoming independent and self‑sufficient as a musician is a path, a spiritual path, that involves not just music and business, but your whole personality. I don't tend to define things in terms of spirituality particularly, but to me it's totally that."
Shaw's Seventh Wave Studio
- Korg DW8000 synth
- Korg 01R/W module
- Roland S50 sampler
- Roland SH101 analogue monosynth
- Roland W30 sampling keyboard
- 3G Crystal 16:4:2:1 mixer
- Alesis ADAT and ADAT XT digital recorders
- Alesis Microverb II reverb
- Alesis Quadraverb effects
- Beyer MC834 mic
- dbx compressor/limiter
- Denon cassette deck
- Ibanez SDR1000 digital delay
- JBL monitors
- Sony DTC690 DAT recorder
- Sennheiser 421 overhead mics
- Sennheiser 541 mics
- Sennheiser HD480 headphones
- XRI Systems synchroniser
- Yamaha GC2020 compressor/limiter