Outside The Box - In Conversation With Mark Christopher Lee
Chatting to Mark about revolutionising the digital music industry, next highs, occasional lows and the cool, crazy world of The Pocket Gods!
GJW; I’m always amazed at your energy and creative output – as soon as one project is done you are straight on to the next. Where do you think that creative compulsion comes from and what fuels that drive?
MCL; Thank you Grae, yeah, I'm always thinking ahead to the next project whilst finishing the one I'm on - it's like a creative compulsion that I've just got to go for it each day. It might stem from a troubled childhood, where I had the feeling that each day might be my last I guess, that is carried on now. The other thing is that I'm sure most people get these ideas, which seem crazy, like my idea of the 100X30 albums (one hundred songs each 30 seconds long). Most people would just think that's too crazy and far out and why would anyone do that - well I guess I don't have that filter. I just think yeah that sounds cool and interesting and I will just start it, not knowing how it can be done - but I guess that's like life, you can't figure it all out at once you just have to start the journey.
What fuels that drive? Well it's not monetary especially with the 30 second song albums we've had 800k streams on the thousand song album and made £300 - I think it's making an impact in some way on the world - hopefully in a positive way - I really feel like that I'm on a mad mission to change the musical world (that's just the bit of the world where I feel I can make a difference), to make it fairer, more equal and less controlled by the big tech giants - who are more concerned with the commercial rather than the creative. I also shy away from the competitive mode in music and have fun with creativity and I guess I'm a believer in the power of the mind and that old adage that you can achieve whatever the mind can conceive. But you’re right, I have this compulsion and because it gives a focus to my mind it really helps me with my mental health issues as it gives purpose to a life in an ever increasingly fragmented world. Music has the power to heal and to bring people together, this is why I feel so strongly about the attitudes of Spotify and the other tech giants - their commercial success has been built on the power of music and its creators, but now from a monopolistic position of power they can brush aside our concerns - at the end of the day they will never kill off the spirit of rock and roll - and just think what the would be like without music - it's part of the human condition.
GJW; Thanks Mark – really interesting. How many X30 albums have there been now? I can relate to the cathartic nature of the creative process and how it helps to temper mental health issues. Going back to childhood, do you think also, that part of the artistic drive is still seeking some kind of adult approval and acceptance from a kind of placebo parent/educator?
It did occur to me when I was thinking of something to say for your new X30 movie that the issue of artist payment via streaming relates to so many other issues of inequality and disparity. I guess in some ways it’s easier to choose our battles as the whole war can seem somewhat overwhelming? I do worry that at the heart of this, and so many issues, lies a global consumer culture that is constantly seeking to get something for nothing (or at least a lot cheaper), so as to maximise profits. I think it’s a difficult habit to break even on a personal level and I know I’m guilty of this – for example buying a bootleg T-shirt after a gig, so many issues; Firstly, I’m depriving the artists of income, but really I should also be asking where the shirt was sourced, and is it so cheap because it involved unethical treatment of a labour force somewhere else on the planet. Was the shirt produced in a country with a good record on human rights? Do I even really need another T-shirt and if I do shouldn’t I be looking at second hand…
I did hear of a new streaming service where artists are paid a little fairer (Tidal), but I think the entry level sign up was about £20 per month – could you see people around the globe buying in to that kind of model? What would be the markers that allowed you to feel that the campaign had achieved ‘success’?
MCL; There's 13 now, just finished a UFO one! Yes, that's a good point my parents were musicians and I remember sneaking around to do demos in my dad's studio as I was told that I was useless musically and that my brother was talented - I still had that urge to create, so used to sneak in and record weird goth electronic music (well it was the 80's). I even sent one to a magazine at the time, called Underground, where it got a good review - but as I was always put down, I never felt confident doing music until I started the pocket gods 24 years ago - so part of it I guess is proving them wrong, but also reclaiming my life, as this is what I always wanted to do and so maybe I'm seeking that approval from a placebo parent.
Yes, I think you're right music streaming is just one part of an inequitable and unattainable future and I guess this is the battle I have chosen - what I'm looking at now, rather than moaning at the system that is in place, is to create a new fairer one for creators and also to get people to value music more - as you say people expect to get it for free in a globalist world gone mad...
I do release music on Tidal and it does pay a higher royalty to artists, but my experience is that it takes 6 months plus for any funds to come through - what I envisage is a new platform or co-operative label where artists keep ownership of all their rights as well as getting a higher rate - there is talk by a lot of political parties such as the Greens on a basic income - well we should be introducing that for creators - how will this be funded? Ever the realist the money needs to come from somewhere - should the state fund it? Should music be valued more by consumers, but how do you do that? Do we find an ethical corporate sponsor to subsidise it? I don't know - I had a really good chat for the film with Mike Errico the music professor from New York who came up with the 30 second song idea - he says we need to take another look at music copywriting in general, as the only reason it was created at the turn of 20th century was so that the white man could own the blues and take ownership of black music. The whole system needs rebuilding somehow - a bit like society and the world as a whole. There are positives with streaming and as much as I love vinyl there are ethical and environmental issues associated with this which we all tend to ignore.
As regards success, like I say I want to help build a new platform/system. Do we need to bring Spotify down? Perhaps - like Mike Errico said to me, Spotify is built on sand, especially relating to the 30 second criteria for paying out a royalty - songs are getting shorter and shorter which means they are paying out more and more whilst releasing more and more without taking any old music off - so either they will introduce a fee for releasing music or they will crumble....music and art makes the world a better place and I'm hoping we evolve to a fairer society where we all have the chance to follow our passion.
GJW; Wow – so that’s like 1300 songs – which must make you one of the most prolific songwriters of all time!
I like the idea of the co-operative label/platform – though I wonder if the Americans would think it was all a bit ‘communist’. You’re right to point out the sustainable issues of vinyl (and indeed CD) – an industry promoting more plastic products is patently not what we need. It would be good to try and retain the notion of cover art and sleeve notes in the digital world, as I think that’s what most keeps me going back to physical product. Mike sounds like he has some interesting thoughts and history there – look forward to hearing more in the film.
Amidst the campaigning and film making, are you still working on regular Pocket Gods material? Is there a new album in the offing with more traditional length songs? Live outings seem to be less frequent at the moment are there any plans for more gigs? I know you’ve had some tough moments in recent years and wondered if you’d managed to transform those into any new material – I’m quite a believer that some of the brightest art emerges from the darkest of times – does that hold true for you?
MCL; Well actually Grae it's closer to 2500, as one album had 298 another 456 and another 1000, and Guinness have just given us the record for most studio albums recorded and released digitally (75).
Yeah, I can see the Americans being like that- was thinking possibly of an ethical sponsor to help start a platform but it would have to be something music related.
Re The Pocket Gods, yes, we're just released a normal(ish) kind of album - has 10 songs, 2 or 3 minutes long, called Bitcoins in The Fountain - as usual it has a theme this time being music and technology. Songs include - Living in The Metaverse, NFT (no fucking talent), and leading on from your question about tough times, yes, I have written a song called Not Feeling Very Good About Myself for the album, which is about battling depression and those dark demons which keep coming back from time to time - it's not a typical gods' song, but like another old favourite My Next High, it was written from the heart and with feeling as opposed to using my wit and plays on words, which I usually use - it's a rare dark moment on what is a poppy album, but for the next album I'm going back to our indie guitar roots, and it is gonna be a full on Ramonesy punk-pop kind of album. thanks for the questions Grae!
GJW; Thanks Mark. Been really good to catch up and I look forward to hearing the new album – you know I’m a sucker for Ramonsey punk-pop! What are the best links and URL’s where folks can keep up with the band, campaign, movie...?
MCL; Thanks Grae, much appreciated. Best to go to…
www.nubmusic.co.uk and twitter @thepocktgod and Instagram is markchristopherlee