I’m here today with Mark De Clive-Lowe. He’s an worldwide touring musician with more than a decade entrenched in London’s underground club culture… he’s contributed to more 250 releases w/ a style equal parts jazz club with a live remix element involving drum machines, keyboards, electronic gadgets and impromptu dance parties. He’s based now out of LA… and I know him personally because we throw kicks at each other’s heads in morning capoeira classes.
He was cool enough to talk about being on major and indie labels, raising money with Kickstarter, and the distribution of his new album ‘Church.’
Let’s check him out.
Vincent: So briefly paint us a picture about the musical adventures of the younger Mark de Clive-Lowe, and when and where did you first learn to love music?
Mark: I grew up in New Zealand, and my dad pretty much decided that I was going to play piano from age four. So I was taking piano lessons from a super young age. It was never a choice, but it was something that I did. Then later on I kind of fell in love with jazz and hip hop through high school, but it was always the thing that I did. Like the guy who always plays tennis, or soccer, or whatever. I just always did music.
Later on I started playing in jazz groups in New Zealand, and then went to college in Boston briefly for a year to Music College. It was probably after that, that kind of a career I really started recording and touring and kind of facilitating what it has become now.
Vincent: I read somewhere that you moved from New Zealand to New York City to pursue straight ahead jazz. Give us some background about this quest of yours and how does it inform your sound today?
Mark: That was always an aspiration. I never did it. I grew up thinking that was it. I was going to move to New York and play in jazz clubs and I play with my idols, that kind of thing. Life just kind of pushed and pulled me in different directions. I ended up spending a year traveling around the world, spending time in Cuba, in London, a little bit in New York.
I think Cuba and London most formidably where I really connected with other styles of music, especially in the UK where it was all about club music. It was music that I would love partying to and hearing, but I hadn’t really explored the playing so much.
So London really showed me how there could be a way to kind of bridge being a piano player and a musician with this music that I loved. I ended up getting really heavily entrenched in that, in that scene, in their culture, very much a DJ culture, and I ended up not playing any piano for like ten years. Just because that wasn’t where my head was at, and I wanted to explore other styles, and other ways of expressing myself.
It wasn’t until I moved to the States five years ago, that the whole thing really connected back again. I eventually did get to America, but then I was in LA instead of New York and it kind of took me by surprise.
The irony is by the time I did get back to New York and I was doing my club night, CHURCH, that through these different experiences and genres and styles and experiments, by the time that I got to New York I had something to actually say, I had my own musical personality to bring to the city, instead of going there as a young jazz musician fifteen, twenty years earlier and struggling along with everyone else.
Difficulty with Jazz and playing music full time.
Vincent: So I’m sure that playing jazz full time is a difficult way to pay the bills, especially in New York City and Los Angeles. Share with us that moment that you felt comfortable with the making the decision to play music full time and professionally.
Mark: That was in the very beginning. I mean it was never about money. I’m a huge believer in if you follow your passion and you commit to it, and you dedicate your diligence, that the money will be provided.
I think if you become really good at something, especially at a more kind of niche skill set, which not everyone is trying to do. Then things will work out, and your needs will be provided for.
Had I tried to pursue it as a straight jazz thing the whole time, I wouldn’t have made the kind of career headway and money that I managed to make by moving more into club music and coming at it from more of a DJ perspective.
Only through a decade plus and then I worked up fifteen years international career of releasing music, remixing, touring and that kind of thing. That’s allowed me to come back to the music I wanted to make in the first place, and have a platform to do that.
Vincent: So on average what is your weekly hustle look like? I mean how much time are you dedicating to practice, promotion, touring and etcetera?
Mark: I mean it’s not too regimented but I like to practice every day. I wish that I could practice more but this is a reality of life and hustle, and family that, that can’t be everything. But I try and practice every day a little bit. There’s definitely a lot of emailing, a lot of organization.
No matter who I’m working with in this day and age, as the artist you have to take a lot of the responsibility yourself. That kind of old model of; you have your manager, and your label and they take care of everything. That just doesn’t really exist anymore. It’s like no matter what scale you are at, or what point of the ladder you are at, there’s always a lot more what to do now than I think it used be.
I try to find time to relax and unwind, exercise and hang out with the family. Then making music itself, if I’m working on a remix or an album then that time is totally allocated. But it’s not that kind of romantic ideal of in the lab all day, and then playing gigs all night.
When that happens it’s busy and touring especially is really hectic. But then most of that time is spent in planes and airports and trains and buses and taxis. Then it’s like two hours on the stage or something.
Major Record Labels vs. Indie Labels
Vincent: So along the way you’ve worked with various independent and major record labels. What was your experience with them and how do you feel about their role in today’s musical landscape?
Mark: I think labels are really important now. I mean people talk about how the independent artists can just do it all themselves. Where labels bring both a brand partnership, occasionally a financial investment, and hopefully always some kind of infrastructure resources, those are the things that I think everyone can make use of.
My kind of biggest experience was with Universal based out of the UK, and Columbia and Japan, and as far major labels go they were really interesting experiences, but then I wasn’t making super major label music.
It was still very niche music, and they did this thing with it. But I think I was too kind of artistically entrenched to compromise the vision to super label. So after that I worked with a lot of independent labels.
There’s a whole different range of those out there. Some they just have their name, and they won’t do anything else. They won’t spend any money. They won’t support the release. There are other ones who will really grow, and develop step by step with the artist and the releases, and look for the long term relationships.
Now having done so many of both, I’m more focused on having my own label, and infrastructure and having that as a partnership with a company who can help with the resources and the running of it.
Vincent: That’s what you’re doing with Mashibeats and Ropeadope?
Mark: Yeah Mashibeats, and Ropeadope is a partnership where it’s my imprint. Ropeadope is basically managing the label. It still means that I have a lot to do, and when it comes to that kind of leg work, and advancing the money for physical manufacture, putting in the infrastructure for the distribution, and merchandise, that kind of thing.
It’s really great to have a partner who can facilitate that.
Vincent: You have a Bi-Coastal residency in New York and Los Angeles, talk to us about the decision to start this and how did you grow it and what have you taken away from it?
Mark: When I was living in the UK, I did a residency in London for a few years. I love playing and performing. It’s a great way to evolve the music and explore it. So when I moved to LA I wanted to do something similar but not the same.
The opportunity came to do it in LA once a month. I guess more than anything I wanted to showcase my journey as a musician, so I wanted to bring the night to tell that story starting with from the jazz side, going to live electronics, and live remixing and then turning to a dance party basically.
So that’s what CHURCH was always meant to be. It was meant to reflect my story and my journey. It grew pretty quickly in LA from, I think the first one there was like thirty people, and then it kind of grew exponentially to the point where I’ve had to do one at CMJ in New York, and then that led to a residency in New York which Giant Step was involved with.
At this point it’s become more of a seasonal event. We do a monthly coast to coast, on both coasts was just too much for me, as far as having a balanced life and being able to prepare properly for the shows. But it is great where it has been three years of these shows going on and different guests coming in.
Guest DJs, the audience has been growing. I get a jazz audience checking out the dance floor stuff, a dance floor checking out the jazz stuff. There was this great cross -pollination stylistically. Now it’s led to the record which will hopefully facilitate things growing even further.
Vincent: So this being a segment that kind of highlights the importance of fan engagement; I’m curious to talk about how important the fans have been for you in this process. If you have a favorite way that you would like to involve your fans and if there’s a particular story that you can share with us.
Mark: Yeah, obviously fan engagement is nothing new. It was there before the internet. It was always super important without the fans; you’re not really playing to anybody. It’s great now that we have kind of more direct ways to connect with people in more immediate ways.
For me it’s always been great as far as online communication goes and social media to be able to be accessible to fans and be able to give the information straight to them. So late last year I did a Kickstarter campaign for this new record, and that was a litmus test of that fan integration and outreach.
Vincent: Let’s talk about that experience raising 20K with Kickstarter, because I remember talking to you about it offline. What were some of the trials and tribulations of this process? Break it down for the people that are interested in thinking about launching their own.
Mark: It’s very difficult. You’ve got to be definitely be committed to it. I have people saying to me it’s like doing a presidential campaign, trying to get people to vote. It was like that. People will like your post on Facebook and they re-tweet you on Twitter, but you want to get fifty bucks from them, that’s a whole different thing.
So it’s a really interesting kind of a process. I had a game plan. I thought I understood that social metrics and stuff. I’ve definitely learned a lot of about those. The reality of it is there is a three percent engagement level on average. If you break conversion level, if you can break three percent conversion, then you’re well above average.
It’s interesting when I see, I look at my own campaign and my social media stats and metrics at the time; it was three percent of that fan base that actually contributed to the campaign. On average they contributed fifty dollars, which across the board is how this works. If you look at a Kickstarter campaign that doesn’t work, but all the video is cool and the concept is cool.
Then if it doesn’t work, you can usually look at that person, see how many people follow them on social media, take three percent of that, multiply that by fifty bucks and that would be what they raise. So if you have someone with a thousand fans, and they try to raise ten thousand dollars, then based on their stats they’re not going to make it.
I would say first and foremost; anyone trying to go into it is to look at those kinds of numbers and understand that you need to have a certain size fan base in order to engage three percent of that fan base.
Vincent: Interesting… and these were stats that Kickstarter provided you after you raised this? This is what they talked about?
Mark: I think that there were stats that I just saw; I did a lot of research as I was putting it together. I decided to learn about crowd-funding and people’s experiences of it. I looked at some of these successful models and how they worked and thought about how to strategize the engagement throughout the campaign and before it as well.
Just something that kept coming up – these figures. And then I saw through my own experience that it was true. Then I just ran those numbers against a whole of other people’s Kickstarters and Indiegogo campaigns, it’s all the same.
Vincent: So what was it that made you choose Kickstarter over Indiegogo or over Pledge music?
Mark: It’s a better brand. It’s as simple as that. It’s more recognizable. Some people were like, “Oh man, you should go with Indiegogo because you will get the money anyway.” But that’s no use to me. If it’s going to cost me twenty grand to do this project and then you pledge a hundred dollars for a vinyl and t-shirt package but then I only make eight thousand dollars, then I can’t make the vinyl and the t-shirt. So then I’m going to end up burning you.
It doesn’t make sense. So it has to be all or nothing. Also it’s nice to have a goal. If any amount will do, then there’s no goal. But to actually say this is what I need and I have to make it, that’s some real reality right there.
Other Media Platforms
Vincent: Have you seen that new platform by Jack Conte called Patreon where people can pay per video? Have you thought about doing that? I know that you use a lot, or make a lot of videos.
Mark: It’s interesting. I would like to see someone else do it first. I haven’t seen someone that I related to doing it yet. I love the idea of it, I’m just not sure that the fans can engage on that level. It’s like you don’t expect to part with money to see someone’s videos, or every time someone puts up some piece of content that you’re going to give them money. It’s a great idea, it’s just the precedence is not there for me.
But I would like to see that platform grow and succeed.
Vincent: I found myself becoming a ten dollar patron for the experience, because I’ve only done it with one and it was group of theirs called Pomplamoose. I found myself doing it, in order to kind of be part of the experience of them making that, but also because he offers the ability for artists to have access to stems, so that people can remix stuff. It’s a certain kind of communication that you get a certain level of access to –
Mark: That sounds kind of interesting, at the same time; such a fine line with that is like say with remixes. The idea of anyone can do a remix of so such and such track. I understand the engagement level but there’s not much artistic integrity on that. Back in the day, you might get at track where one person got to do a remix and there was a credibility in that, and no one else could get the part.
So it was a really special thing, but now it’s like the part of the fan engagement seems to be, let me get beat-makers all over the world to do remixes with my stuff and then my stuff is out there more and they’re more into me.
But then the reality of it is that the majority of the music is not good. It’s not like the majority of the music made is quality music and that’s because there‘s a lot of amateur enthusiasts who just like making beats, which is cool. It’s like everyone got a blog, but are there any journalists out there? Are there people who can spell and get their grammar right? So the craft is dying.
So do I want a like a thousand remixes of something that I have done with my name on it out in the internet, where only twenty of them are any good? It just seems like a really short-sided way to kind of brand your own artistry and integrity.
Vincent: So with that said, how do you feel about platforms like SoundCloud and making downloads available?
Mark: That’s fine if you want your download to be available that’s fine. I’ve had projects with the Acapellas are up in the package and stuff. I wouldn’t do that myself on my label right now but I know people who do do that especially in the more state club music scene it seems to be a good as a DJ tool.
SoundCloud is an amazing platform. When it came about, I just think whose going to pay for the audio storage base? Then it turns out, hey I will pay, and everybody else as well. It’s kind of amazing how it’s become industry standard.
Distribution of CHURCH Album
Vincent: So now that you had a successful Kickstarter and the delivery of the record is upon us with the release date for the end of May in 2014. What are your plans for distribution and the support of this album?
Mark: The album is going to be on a visual CD and double Vinyl. Digital will be everywhere where it should be. We’re pushing mostly through iTunes and Bandcamp as the main platform but people will be able to get it elsewhere. Then on CD. CD is definitely a dying medium but there’s some markets still like it.
Some people still like it, it is definitely tangible. I guess not everyone has got a record player. Some people it makes more sense they have the CDs than the vinyl. The vinyl and the CD both will be kind of distributed through independent networks and the retailers who kind of already support that niche of quality independent stuff.
Vincent: Do you have a particular middleman that you would like to go through better, like CD Baby or Tunecore? How do you do that with your own record label?
Mark: I think they’re all the same. I don’t really see a difference. In the partnership with the Ropeadope, they deal with one aggregator; I can’t even remember who it is right now. But I don’t see the difference, as long as they can get the stuff through and then it’s up to your own relationship with the label, the relationship with iTunes, or whoever it is to get those spotlight spots happening.
Presales are great. So we will be pushing presales. They work really interestingly; they count as numbers on day one of the record release. So as far as getting the visibility of chatting on iTunes or something it’s all about hitting the presales, to preload that.
Vincent: Do you want to say something specific about CHURCH and what this album has meant to you in the making of it?
Mark: This record for me, I feel like it’s a record that I’ve always wanted to make. It’s very much kind of meeting in the middle of the jazz musician, the piano player, the composer, the electronic producer, the club music, the organic, and the more synthesized and sonically electronic. To get up and to get all those things together in the way I want to hear them is what really makes it really special for me.
Vincent: Who are some of the people that are playing on the album? I thought I saw some big names in there.
Mark: There‘s a lot of really amazing musicians in the jazz community that will be well known people, but basically the New York Band and the LA Band which I do CHURCH with. Some of the guests are the Miguel Atwood-Ferguson on the strings for some of it. A great young player harp player named Low Leaf who is kind of brain-feeding all those things.
A few vocalists, Nia Andrews, (Janelle Monae/Common), John Robinson who is an MC with the Danger Mouse, and MF Doom. Another vocalist named The Kid Icarus, he is MC from Virginia who came through Pharrell and Chad Hugo’s camp. So it’s a nice selection of people.
For the most part it’s an instrumental project. There is a few vocal gifts here and there, but it’s really about having the music tell some story.
Advice for Young Musicians
Vincent: Do you have any final advice for the musicians out there with globetrotting ambitions like yours?
Mark: I get a lot of people asking me, I guess they see me kind of wear different hats as far as being a musician, the label, the events, the branding, the marketing and kind of managing my stuff. People do ask me, how do I do that. It’s not easy and not everyone is cut out for it basically.
I know some musicians, are just the most incredible musicians or vocalists, but they couldn’t manage how to put their breakfast together, let alone a whole career. So it’s just not cut out for some people. But I would say if we have weaknesses, it’s all about bringing a team together where people can fulfill those functions you are not good at.
Most of all it’s about pursuing your aspiration and your dreams and not be too clichéd, but if you do that then you’re super diligent about it and really honor and respect the craft of it, then you can only be good.
I don’t think there’s any other option.