Creativity Actualized – Introduction – An Infrequent Web Series

Creativity leads to self-actualization and it’s a journey I’ve been on most of my life. I’m constantly mining my experiences and trying to find portals into the creative mind. As I’ve been writing about these experiences and my view on life, I realized that some others might benefit from some of the things I’ve learned about how to bring more creativity into your daily life. Whether you’re an artist, a would-be artist or don’t consider yourself creative at all, we all can benefit from a more creative outlook in our lives. 

If you consider that Creativity is the intersection of knowledge, imagination and critical thinking – Creativity is a way of seeing and experiencing the world; in a word it’s a choice and because of that I’m calling this series: Creativity Actualized.

If you find any value in what I write here (and even if you don’t), please let me know by commenting, emailing me via my contact page or by sharing the tips with friends, family, colleagues or wherever you share information.

Sound Traveler ft. Ambient Guitarist, Matt Borghi – Live at The Robin Theatre, Lansing, Michigan – February 24, 2024

Sound Traveler ft. Ambient Guitarist, Matt Borghi – Live at The Robin Theatre, Lansing, Michigan – February 24, 2024 – As part of Ambient Annotations

matt borghi ambient guitarist with Sound Traveler Lansing Michigan

New Longform Ambient Journey Out Today – Embrace of Familiarity

‘Embrace of Familiarity’ A longform ambient journey with two variations is out today. This is part of my ongoing bi-weekly longform series exclusive to Bandcamp. Give it a listen.

Matt Borghi Ambient Guitar Longform Tracks

Ambient Soundbath Redux

Crossposting from original story here; audio of story available here.

I was listening to Altus’ Sleep Theory, Volume 1 and I felt like I was floating. This isn’t an uncommon experience when listening to the best of what the drone ambient genre has to offer; when the artist has resolved to focus on artistry and experience, letting the compositions be rather than shoe-horning knob twiddling and strange incompatible dissonances into a work to just to showcase some antique synthesizer or obscure vintage noisemaker. Why did Jackson Pollack add a faint white smudge to Lavender Mist? Was he in the rapture of the muse, or felt that it needed that just to shift the focus a bit or perhaps it was just an errant paint drop left for time immemorial. Who can know why an artist does what they do? Often, we ourselves don’t know but when we run the creative gauntlet and come out the other side with a work that endures, well the heavens part and universe becomes a bit brighter than it was moments before.

I feel like this gets to the mission of the Ambient Soundbath Podcast. This thing was never meant to be a money-making endeavor, like some would-be silicon valley entrepreneur, at best or some myopic tech bro, at worst, trying to build the next big something or other. No, this was always supposed to be more like a public service, freely available for those who needed it, subsidized by a handful of generous souls who believed in it, too. I ran things as lean and as efficiently as I could to ensure availability and accessibility, but at the same time I was still an artist, working, living and being buffeted by the muse to and fro.

At the same time, when I started the Ambient Soundbath, podcasts were novel and fringe, so too was streaming as a mechanism for delivering music; two fringe areas that have now become front line earning channels for artists such as myself and Bruce Springsteen, alike, to say nothing of billion dollar pay days to podcast producers; an idea that seemed preposterous only a few years before and now was making podcasting a bit of a gold rush.

One name has come to truly dominate music streaming and podcasting – Spotify.

Ahh, Spotify and their insidious approach to being available everywhere, being dead-easy to use and having a veritable monopoly on the streaming market. Sure, there are others, just like there are alternatives to Google (wink,wink, nod, nod) but their market share is so vast that, well…why bother going anywhere else. Spotify’s availability, free or premium, on your phone, desktop, smart TV or in your car has absolutely changed listening habits, first with music and then more recently with podcasts. Things aren’t going well for them on that front, but having a monopoly gives them some latitude to play around with things, throw stuff at the wall and see what sticks.

Spotify, initially, was great for the Ambient Soundbath – It acted as an aggregator getting the podcast episodes in the Spotify app, where folks were already listening to music, but then they changed their policies and music-only podcasts started getting kicked out; that’s what happened with the Ambient Soundbath. This wasn’t great for the podcast or the listener’s on that platform, but another change that was occurring simultaneously, albeit quietly, was the glut of new Spotify-created editorial playlists for sleep, meditation, relaxation, study, reading etc. that started showing up and even being featured on non-customizable frontpage of Spotify. These thinking/being-related playlists became an immediate threat to the podcast since pods like ours had been kicked off/excluded from the platform, those users intent on sticking with the ease of Spotify just did a quick search and found some other playlist that fit the bill. To be fair, Spotify is killing it and giving folks what they want, but, and this is probably why I’m drafting this long screed. Spotify is marginalizing artists and podcasts like the Ambient Soundbath out of existence by pulling listeners in en masse, altering the service offerings and then changing things up just enough, almost imperceptibly, to keep listeners engaging with the platform.

It’s this last bit that’s the kind of evil genius that Henry Ford, J.D. Rockefeller or Thomas Edison would have been pleased with because it wasn’t enough to marginalize and significantly undermine and under pay these artists and players, but then seeing the issue of scale they decided to create their own music that sounded like popular ambient, downtempo, jazz, you name it. Spotify then used these ‘works for hire’, a copyright term for a music composition or recording that’s purchased outright vs. licensing, which is pay per use. The producers who created this music have become colloquially known as ‘fake artists’ and Spotify uses these ‘fake artist’ created tracks to populate their big exclusive editorial playlists with these ‘wholly owned ‘works for hire’ so that they didn’t have to pay royalties for the streams. These ‘fake artist’ tracks were then just slid into a playlist (no surprise Spotify often suggests using shuffle mode) next to your favorite Moby or Brian Eno track. Even the best of us were none the wiser to this and many of these tracks are great, such is the case with the sometimes generic nature of the Ambient genre.

Fake artists have created a lot of ethical issues, but more concerning still is the major investments Spotify has made in AI and machine learning. A time will come when a  $.0001 royalty per stream is too much and they’d like to get it closer to $.0000001, or maybe why are we even bothering with humans? We can pay zero $$$’. Spotify has worked to kick some AI-generated music off, but they’re heavily invested in AI and I believe it’s only a matter of time before they begin investing in the fledgling AI music generation industry, investing in and purchasing companies that could generate tracks to fill these exclusive editorial playlists, something I’ve heard rumors that they’re actively experimenting with and I believe, they’re close to beginning to implement.

The philosopher in me says none of this matters and this race to the bottom will continue until user listeners get fed up or more likely move on to some other option that builds on what Spotify has created. At the same time, who could’ve imagined vinyl would make a comeback? In this period of late stage capitalism, nobody could have anticipated that so I believe Spotify and maybe even podcasts will run their course and be outmoded, that’s just the natural process.

For me, however, I feel like there’s still something to do here. Do I act as a human arbiter and curator separating the wheat from the chaff, a lone citadel on the edge of a dying frontier being consumed by The Nothing? Perhaps. I won’t lie, I was ready to pack it in, sell the podcast off or just dump and run, but after so many thoughtful notes, I couldn’t help but wonder if I was throwing something away that didn’t make the world a little brighter, something that folks valued in their own individual ways. Maybe.

I need community, something I’ve talked about before, as working alone in a dark cellar, looking at stats and imagining somebody in Bulgaria enjoying the soothing tones of the most recent episode of the podcast isn’t nearly enough to keep me going. I need the exchange of energy that occurs in a positive interaction, hell, any critical interaction.

At the same time: Where have all the music journalist’s gone? Why did I give up a moderately successful music journalism foothold? A question I’ve asked myself over and over. In a world with music journalists acting as way finders, ‘fake artists’ and AI-generated music doesn’t stand a chance. So, where are they? Here and there, but mostly lost in a sea of tweets, social media posts and so-called micro reviews. More and more is being said about how social media killed the Internet; this seemed an unlikely perspective, as social media is of the Internet, right? It was until stand-alone apps became exclusive channels unto themselves as apps on your phone, outside of the browser, divorced from the rest of the World Wide Web. Sadly, I think folks are right – Social media did kill the Internet. And with the death of the Internet came the death of the last stronghold of music journalism.

Well, as a long time music journalist, it might just be time to pick up the pen again and get to work. I stopped because the ephemeral nature of my writing felt unimportant, lost to the winds of time and culture change, but anymore: What isn’t ephemeral and what doesn’t change? Hell, even much of Mark Twain’s writing has been lost to time… and cultural change. If his work can be lost to the ages then I guess I’m Ok with mine being lost too. The important thing is what we do now, in our particular place in time. So with that said, there will be more reviews and commentary popping up on the Ambient Soundbath Podcast and/or website, both the written word and audio voice posts that Spotify might even even let into their black box, but either way, as T.S. Elliott said: You are the music while the music lasts.

If the Ambient Soundbath is going to keep going, like anything, it needs to change, it needs to evolve. As artists, we’re always looking for someone or something that will showcase our work and put it in the best possible light? We want attention and we want recognition. I want those things. I don’t know an artist who doesn’t want those things, otherwise, why bother creating anything and putting it in the world.

I’m going to stop short of saying the Ambient Soundbath is back, because every time I make such a declaration life interrupts the plan and I do something else; such is the mystery of unseen forces, what Alan Watts called the law of reversed effort, sometimes called the ‘backwards law’.. I can say, however, that I see the value in what has been built here and even if I work on it inconsistently that’s still a net positive that might make the world a little brighter.

Thanks for reading and/or listening to all this.

A Layperson’s Guide to Music Streaming Royalties and Other Problems

Music Streaming Royalties Opinion Matt BorghiMusic streaming has never been great for the artist. It wasn’t great for the artist when it first started becoming a thing 20ish years ago and it’s less great now that there’s billions of dollars in it. But, this isn’t going to be another article with another artist bitching about how they’re getting screwed on streaming or making less than a penny per stream; there are already a lot of people telling that story. I just want to give a high-level overview of how streaming and royalties work from my perspective.

Before I even get started, though, I should talk a bit about how streaming pays me. Whenever somebody streams a track of mine, I make a royalty, some arbitrary dollar amount that I didn’t negotiate and have virtually no insight into or any knowledge of whether that rate is consistent, day-to-day, month-to-month. I have to count on the streaming service to report the amount of times a track has been streamed – Spotify is a good whipping boy, so let’s use them.

Spotify sends a report to my distributor saying, Track X was streamed 100 times, and earned five cents, cumulatively, for those streams. My distributor then sends me $.05 via check or wire transfer; actually there’s usually a threshold you have to meet before they pay you $250 is common… Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, money is sent to me. Sweet, except for the part where Spotify is a service built on using my tracks and millions of other tracks like mine to build their business. And, even sweeter (read: not sweet at all), there’s no oversight or regulation on how or even if Spotify is accurately reporting the number of streams played and subsequently what they’re going to pay. So, basically, we’re talking about a multi-billion dollar, multinational corporation that uses the honor system to not just pay their vendors (artists) but also they use a completely opaque model of self-reporting to let folks know how much they should pay them. What could go wrong?

Sure, we could believe that Spotify, in their infinite goodness, is an altruistic, artist-centric entity that wholly exists to publicize and promote artists of the world, but that would be ridiculous. Spotify uses artists like a bakery uses flour and baker’s don’t get unlimited flour and only pay for how many loaves of bread they sell, based on their own super secret accounting. In fact, it’s artists like myself, who are willing to treat music streaming as a loss leader in exchange for greater exposure. At the same time, this model is not only not Capitalist, it’s exploitive bordering on a criminal enterprise, but only mostly because there’s absolutely no regulation on streaming services nor is there any kind of regulatory body to even look into these things. So, yeah, it’s all legal and legit even if it is ethically questionable.

In some cases, old music business legislation provides a modicum of regulation and quasi-oversight, but most of these laws pre-date the Internet and most lawyers can easily navigate these old laws to get music streaming companies a pass. That, however, infers that any real attempt at oversight and/or regulation has ever been undertaken.

The fact is regulation and oversight will come for music streaming. Why? Because there’s just too much money in streaming that could be taxed and is being done so haphazardly, if at all. With taxation comes fiscal accountability and fiscal accountability is what music streaming services don’t want. To be fair, most streaming companies are publicly traded which means that the SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission) could build in more accountability, but there just hasn’t been a mortgage crisis-like moment for them to be engaged. Music streaming services aren’t alone; many companies and in fact whole industries rely on overworked and underpaid federal employee’s inability to keep up with many scheming grifters that litter our United States. This is why Fox News is bitching about border control and Wal-Mart pays for their advertising with the savings they’ve gained using illegal immigrants to clean their stores… As fellow bard John Mellencamp once sang: “Ain’t that America…”

What’s the answer to addressing music streaming? Regulation and oversight

Why do I bring this up? Well, because I want folks to know how things work. I was fortunate enough to get in at the ground level with music streaming and I’ve watched it go from being niche to being the primary mechanism for the consumption of music, the fruit of this guy’s labors. I’ve grown my audience and there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not grateful for the opportunity costs that music streaming has provided. Hell, I’m a Spotify Premium subscriber. I get it. Spotify is easy, convenient, has a solid user experience and is ubiquitous across many platforms, but I haven’t lost sight of the fact that it’s me and about a hundred thousand other unknown artists that have provided Spotify and other services with the content that it has needed to grow.

So, yeah, that’s how music streaming and royalties work in a nutshell. I’ll expand on this in future articles, probably, because I’m always learning new things about how janky these unregulated companies operate in darkness.

In closing, please listen to our music, but don’t forget that these digital services are absolutely taking advantage of the situation. If possible, when possible, purchase music from us at shows, our respective websites, even Bandcamp, where we can keep all or most of the proceeds. It’s a win/win because we’ll promptly spend that money on synthesizers, guitar pedals and other accouterments to keep bringing you music.

Bandcamp’s Not Going Anywhere…

bandcamp is not going anywhereAs I sit here writing this, there’s a lot of talk on social media and elsewhere about Bandcamp’s impending demise. If you’re not familiar with the situation, Bandcamp was sold by Epic Games, who bought them from the founders about 18 months ago; they were then sold to a start up I’d never heard of called Songtradr, Google: “Songtradr is a B2B music platform that claims to facilitate brands, content creators, and digital platforms in their use of music for licensing purposes. As of 2019, Songtradr was the largest music licensing platform in the world.” As someone who uses Bandcamp quite a lot and has really benefited from it, I was surprised at how little coverage everything was getting and then Songtradr/Bandcamp busted their union; kind of a tone-deaf move in the current climate. This has sounded the current death knell for Bandcamp

But I don’t think so…. 

I rely on Bandcamp as an independent artist. It’s a wonderful tool that makes music easy to release, get paid and interact with fans of the work. There have been many such tools through the years, the last, best one, in my opinion was which was a going concern when I first got online in 1999. It was also a great resource for artists and musicians; it was the dawn of the Mp3 and the great DotCom boom; by 2003 it was all but gone. I had moved on to my own website and working with labels and distributors at that point, but I still felt like something significant was lost and grateful for the opportunities it gave me. For years after, I was skeptical about investing time and energy into another platform that could be gone with the wind; that’s why I was such a late adopter of Bandcamp. I believe I joined in 2014 after years of people telling me how great it was; I don’t regret joining.

In my musical life I have two primary release channels, Bandcamp and my digital distro, which includes Apple Music, Spotify, etc. As most of my readers know I haven’t done hard copy releases in over a decade, so digital is my only outlet. Basically, it breaks down like this:

Digital distro means good availability for anybody almost anywhere that wants to listen, but there’s next to no fan engagement and even less $$$ because of the pittance that streaming pays. Might be good for some, at scale, but it’s not a scale that about 95% of indie music artists can/will achieve.

Bandcamp, on the other hand, is an artist-first tool – They have great features for marketing, promotion, distributing/selling your music to fans, selling merch, doing live streams, etc. It’s a wonderful 1:1 tool for artist engagement and with the artists getting a fair share of $$$, it provides a nice subsidy, too, but it’s been lacking in some key areas:

  • Digital distro: Bandcamp should be tied into digital distro, like Distrokid, Tunecore, etc. In my mind, this is a significant missed opportunity. Sure, there’d be a lot of work to do and maybe it becomes a premium add-on or something and/or they take a cut of streaming royalties along with a premium fee, but to not have digital distro in-line with everything else Bandcamp does doesn’t make any sense. It’s possible this was on their roadmap before the acquisitions began. Maybe they’ll get to it.
  • Listener User Experience – Playlists weren’t an option until 15 years after Bandcamp was founded. Think about that. They had sold billions of dollars of music and probably billions and billions of tracks, but there was no great way to listen to them without organizing them on your own device. That lack of user focus is both the problem and the opportunity – Bandcamp is artist-centric. Spotify & Apple Music are user-centric. Bandcamp needs to evolve to be able to cater to the user/consumer every bit as much as the artist. A happy balance could definitely be struck. Bandcamp has the intellectual and business infrastructure to rule this domain.

And that’s why I think that Bandcamp isn’t going anywhere. 

I believe that there’s a significant opportunity with a big payout to anybody that can strike a balance serving both the artists and the consumers. From a product management and experience perspective, if each of these were to get equal attention, now then, you’d really have something. I’m talking about a balanced product roadmap that ensures the users and the artists are being served equally. Bandcamp is the darling of the indie music industry; they’ve made billions of dollars catering to that audience, they can make billions and billions of dollars if they can bridge this gap. The Epic purchase was always a head scratcher, but could Songtradr be the one who decides to move a bold agenda forward. So far, they don’t look great, but maybe they can turn that around? Maybe it’s someone else?

What I wonder, at this point, is if Bandcamp just ends up in the startup sales and acquisition churn where any number johnny-come-latelys come in with big pockets and big ideas, but no ability to execute so it just gets passed around like a joint on a Friday night until it burns down to nothing but ash. Or will somebody come in and make something happen? One thing is for sure, we indie artists are a viable and lucrative audience and we keep demonstrating that, but nobody’s been able to mainstream it. Admittedly, few have tried. I believe that Bandcamp could be on the precipice of that. Will it happen? Let’s wait and see… 

Matt Borghi, Singer/Songwriter Bandcamp Page

I’ve been trying to figure out how to promote my singer/songwriter work for, well, quite a while. I tried a bunch of pseudonyms, but maintaining all the different accounts became quite a challenge I couldn’t really keep up with. I’ve tried intermingling the ‘songs stuff’ as it’s come to be known in my marketing shorthand, with the ‘ambient stuff’, but my problem here is that when you buy something from an artist, most people want to have a sense of what they’re buying. If I bought my favorite bossa nova artist’s new recording and found out they were now doing free jazz, I might be a little bummed. At the same time, I think of artists like Miles Davis and Frank Zappa who’s style was to explore wherever they were at; there was no ‘off brand’ for them. Simpler time, maybe? Maybe.

After much fretting and hand-wringing I just decided things were irreconcilable. I’ve been a singer/songwriter since I was 13, but I made a name for myself making ambient music. I love both. I love electronic music synthesis, but my favorite instrument to play is the steel string acoustic guitar. My situation is full of dichotomies as is the case with most of us, I’d imagine. Finally, or at least this time, as every time I make a proclamation something changes or proves said proclamation moot, I decided to create a Bandcamp page for my singer/songwriter stuff and a Bandcamp page for my ambient stuff. 

So that there’s no confusion, the singer/songwriter stuff is simply called:

The other, exclusively for ambient and drones, is:

Yep. Pretty creative stuff. I’m glad I spent the better part of a decade trying to work all this out. (Insert sad face emoji here).

Now, with Spotify, Apple Music, streaming services, et. al.. things aren’t that easy, so you’re still going to have to try before you buy, but fortunately, trying things out is built into the experience. 

Here’s are my three singer/songwriter recordings, with a little bit of ambient guitar thrown in for good measure… Also, new songs and recordings are in the works.

Ambient Guitar is Dead. Long Live Ambient Guitar!!

I had no idea what I was doing. I had no idea what I was trying to achieve. It was one of a hundred experiments at the time and one of hundreds of thousands since. It was 1998; 25 years ago. Then, like now, I had an economy of musical gear. At that time, I hadn’t even moved to recording music with a computer yet, so armed with my old Fender Gemini acoustic guitar, a Woody Seymour Duncan pickup and a brand new Alesis Nanoverb I plugged it all into my Tascam four track recorder and began to experiment with a variety of noisy and hissy experiments. 

At some point, after a couple hours of fruitless experimentation, I set it to plate reverb and turned the effect and the mix all the way up. In seconds, I found what I was looking for.

What was I looking for? Hell if I knew, but I could try to explain it in my vocabulary of the time. I wanted to be able make music like Claude Debussy’s solo piano work, utilizing an almost chromatic dream-lime lack of a tonal center that’s just awash, ebbing and flowing, without an attack; like a piano key struck with the sustain pedal down all the way and the stroke of the key removed, or imagining the strings rising and falling as in Ralph Vaughan Williams Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis. The guitar, acoustic, especially, is/was effectively a percussion instrument. What I was imagining simply wasn’t a thing; physics precluded it…  at least I thought so until this experiment.

For me, musically and artistically, this was a defining moment. My creative life is divided between before and after this discovery. I called it space guitar, then ambient guitar, but really it was a drone style of playing; a pedal note sustained while other harmonic goodies occur all from the sound hole of my acoustic guitar and into the spaciousness of the reverb. Anything was now possible. A couple years later live looping via Ableton and reliable looping pedals made whole soundworlds possible with just a guitar, imagination and a couple doodads. I went in this new direction hard. I explored sound with many guitars, effects, players, ensembles and pretty much any scenario I could imagine. 25 years later, dozens of recordings and hundreds of gigs all over the continental US came to be and I explored anything and everything that caught my fancy. 

In the last few years things have dissipated for me creatively where the guitar is concerned. At a time when there are hundreds, maybe thousands of ambient guitarists with music on Spotify and videos on YouTube there’s a lot of droney, textural and ambient music out there. To be fair, a lot of this stuff sounds the same and “ambient guitar” has gone the way of a million vaporous piano recordings that may or may not be informed by the work of Harold Budd. I have ambient drone music on nearly 24/7, in my various spaces and while I couldn’t name most of the artists I hear from the derivative lack of variance and the ephemeral nature of new music showing up, I’m glad that new voices are putting new spins on guitar and reverb. The more music that comes out, the more likely that future greats will be revealed.

For me, though, it’s becoming harder to put original, thoughtful sound into the perpetual motion machine of streaming and social media. I don’t want to release garbage just to keep momentum, to keep something out there feeding the machine. 

With all of this said in what is possibly the longest preface ever, I’m afraid I’ve reached the end of my period of exploring the ambient guitar. I’ve made this pronouncement before and like all pronouncements, no sooner do I make one and inspiration strikes. Honestly, I hope that happens. It’s really hard to look at my guitars and feel nothing but frustration at the lack of ideas for new work; the same objects that I’ve looked at for decades, played all day/night and could barely bring myself to sleep out of an anticipation of what new sounds might come the following morning. To be fair, I’ve been extremely lucky and prolific; I count those blessings. I’m reminded of an interview where Doc Watson talked about getting his first guitar and his father told him “…so that life might be a little better with it.” My life has been better having picked up the guitar and better still when I connected it to an old Alesia Nanoverb all those many years ago.

There are so many situations and aspects of sound that I want to explore and I will, just sans the guitar. The guitar is the instrument I’m most proficient on so it will be my primary instrument in any band or ensemble situations, maybe even some ambient artists will reach out with ideas and ask me to contribute (something that rarely happens) but as for ambient guitar, by myself, that will only show up on droney periods in the various ensembles I play with when I kick on one of the several reverb pedals I have on my effects board.

Ambient guitar has been really good to me.Ambient guitar is dead! Long live ambient guitar!!! 

Please enjoy my final ambient guitar longform work: Castles, originally titled “Castles Made of Sand”, an allusion to the beautiful Jimi Hendrix song of the same name that aptly reflected my feelings as I created this final work.

“And so castles made of sand
“Melts into the sea eventually”
– Jimi Hendrix