Interview – Sam Flintlock

Journalist Sam Flintlock has written extensively about music, in addition to comics and gaming. M3 caught up with Sam to talk about free music, punk rock, and what the future has in store for music distribution…

M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Sam – I’m Sam Flintlock and I’m a freelance journalist.  My specific areas of interest are mainly music, comics and gaming (the last in a broad sense- everything from computer games to tabletop RPGs).

What inspired you to write about music? What is your own musical background?
My own musical background, such as it is, comes down to having been a member of Brummie punk group “Gonorrhoea” when I was 17.  The only songs we ever did were Summer Loving from Grease, Anarchy in the UK and I Wanna Be Your Dog.  At which point the drummer would skin up and we’d spend the rest of the ‘rehearsal’ getting stoned.  Funnily enough, we never made it.  Or even got it together enough to do a gig.  But our friends did write our name all over the graffiti wall in the local café.

So, yeah, my musical background isn’t really that impressive, in terms of musicianship.  But I’ve loved music for a long time.  I came across John Peel when I was 15 and never looked back.  In terms of journalism, specifically, I think the single person that made me want to write about music more than anything was the late Steven Wells.  Agree or disagree with him, he was impossible not to react to.  That’s something to aspire to for me.

Well, him and the fictional Spider Jerusalem from Transmetropolitan.  Hitting people with chair legs as a form of journalism appeals.

What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
I know this is considered sacrilege among many music fans, but I actually prefer MP3s.  Part of that is my disability.  I have dyspraxia (in layman’s terms I’m really clumsy), so I’ve always been really hard on CD and vinyl.  So having my music in a format it’s genuinely hard to break/scratch has been a godsend to me.  But I also like how easy they are to catalogue.  I’m all in favour of being able to find what I want to listen to instantly.

Much has been made of the supposed death of the record store in recent years. Do you believe the digital age has killed the record store, and if so, do you think that this is a necessary part of progression, or a tragic loss?
I think it’s both.  I grew up on independent record stores and going into one on my own for the first time was an important right of passage for me.  I spent many an hour in there.  If I’m honest though, I haven’t been in one for years.

While they were great while it lasted, outside of the niche vinyl shop for collectors or DJ’s, I think they’ve had their day.  It’s fine for people to be nostalgic, but things move on.  At one time, vinyl would have been sold in electronics stores and nobody seriously calls for that to return.

Do you feel the idea of an album, as a piece of art that people will listen to from start to finish, has been undermined or forgotten about in the digital age?
I think that’s overstating it a bit.  Personally, I love listening to albums as a whole.  And there are some bands that really do make entire ‘works’ as opposed to a collection of individual songs. That will always continue.  There will always be a demand for albums.

What’s changed is that it’s now one way of listening to music as opposed to the only way.  So it is more of a deliberate choice for the listener as opposed to something they have to do.  But the idea that some music fans prefer to listen to songs in isolation as opposed to albums isn’t a new development- there’s a strong argument that the single was deliberately downplayed in favour of the album by the music industry.

There are definitely a lot of people that seem to take access to free music for granted these days. Do you feel that the abundance of recorded music that is easily available on the internet has in some way devalued the art form?
Not at all and I’m cynical about the motivations of those currently claiming otherwise.  I think there’s a strong element of “oh, these young people, they don’t really love music, not like my generation” snobbery coming into play here.  I see no evidence that’s justified.

Actually, I am all in favour of the fact that more music is accessible than ever before.  Yes, we can get all nostalgic about the ‘good old days’ when the only way to discover obscure new music was through record shops and the John Peel show.  But I don’t want to go back to that at all.  There’s a lot of bands that I’ve come across via the Internet, including some I’d list among my favourites, that I simply wouldn’t have ever had the chance to hear in the old days.  I think the changes there are overwhelmingly positive.

Do you think the digital age has rendered traditional concepts of copyright obsolete, or do you think they are still relevant?
I’m of the view that the traditional view of copyright is ‘no longer fit for purpose’, if it ever was.  It needs a complete overhaul.  And nothing should be off limits when looking at that.  Yes, illegal downloading is an issue.  But it’s one among many, not the only one, despite what certain vested interests are trying to portray.  To give just one example, the question of a “use it or lose it” clause is easily as important for artists.  It’s both incredibly frustrating for musicians and ridiculous that major labels have entire bodies of work in their vaults that they are refusing to do anything with, yet the artist can’t get back to put out themselves.

As should be clear from that, it’s my view that the way we need to look at copyright is to approach it from an artist-centric perspective, as opposed to the current imbalance in favour of major record labels.

None of that is to say that I’m an abolitionist when it comes to copyright.  While ideologically I lean towards anarchism, we aren’t in a post money society, neither is one round the corner.  So, actually, we need to recognise that artists need to make a living.  Music may very well want to be free.  But until food and shelter become so, that can’t happen.  And it’s unreasonable for the “everything should be free” brigade to expect artists to pick up the burden of supporting themselves without payment for their work.

Similarly, do you think some copyright laws could be seen a threat to certain artists’ creativity (those who make use of a large variety of samples, for instance)? Do you think actions with music, film, or any kind of copyrighted media for non-commercial purposes should be subject to legal sanctions?
It’s definitely a threat.  It’s my view that a transformative use of sampling should be legal.  I’m not looking at the American ‘fair use’ model, I’m looking at something far stronger than that.

A similar issue that recently arose was EMI making The Men That Will Not Be Blamed For Nothing change the name of their debut album from Now That’s What I Call Steampunk! Vol 1.  That’s obviously farcical.  There’s no way any genuine confusion could have risen from that kind of parody.  In my view, it really illustrates that the major labels are the enemy of independent artists and labels, no matter what they may claim for public relations purposes.

The flipside is that, if any money at all is made, some of that should be obviously going back to the original artist.  But that needs to be resolved in a way that doesn’t favour big artists over small ones.  Provisionally, my preferred solution is for that to be look at in terms of a percentage of flat royalties, as opposed to any kind of lump sum.

What is your take on the recent SOPA/ACTA controversy?
I think they’re a really good example of my view of the major industry voices being listened to at the expense of everyone else.  It certainly does nothing to help most people with an interest in this issue.  I’d even suggest that it doesn’t even help the industry; they’re just flailing wildly as opposed to looking seriously at where they’ve got it wrong.

And that’s without even getting into the ethical questions surrounding the criminalisation of generic medicines and the possibility of loss of life that comes from that.

What do you personally believe the future of music distribution will look like?
I think we’re probably coming to the end of the sweeping changes we’ve seen over the past twenty years; I broadly hold to the old cyberpunk view that technological changes comes in spurts, not as a process of gradual evolution.  So what I think we’ll be looking at is a refinement of the current developments, not more sweeping changes.

While I don’t think they’ll die out completely for some time, I do think that the age of the music ‘superstar’ is on the decline – more and more we’re going to see artists that are important to a specific fanbase rather than across the board.  Fan funding, pay what you like, special editions and merchandise are going to be of increasing importance for small to medium sized bands.  We’re probably going to see a rise in companies that specialise specifically in promoting and doing P.R. for bands as well, without those companies owning the copyright to recordings.

I’d say we’re also going to see one country breaking from the pack and introducing a flat fee for legal downloading, with money going to the artist.  Canada is my best bet for that, or possibly Sweden.  A lot of people are going to be watching that carefully to see if it succeeds.  Personally, I have mixed feelings about that.  Unless the needs of independent labels and artists are specifically placed at the centre of the negotiation process, there’s a real danger they’ll end up screwed over.  Spotify is the textbook example of that.  It’s another example of how, despite their claims to the contrary, the majors will actually go out of their way to disadvantage the indies giving half the chance.

That links me to something that’s more of a hope than a prediction.  I hope independent artists and labels will come to the conclusion that the majors are not their friends.  One of the biggest cons the majors have pulled off is managing to link themselves in the public eye with the indies, as far as the downloading issue is concerned.  Even from a cynical marketing perspective, that’s not in the indies’ interest.  One of the most effective ways of countering the illegal downloading issue is to persuade the public that they have a real emotional stake in fairly compensating indie artists and labels.  That won’t happen while they’re simply seen as a smaller version of the mainstream.

Finally, I suspect at least one of the major labels will go under, or at least abandon their music arm in favour of more stable business interests.

Finally, what does the future hold for Sam Flintlock?
That’s a difficult question.  If anything, music journalism is currently in an even bigger state of flux than distribution!

Ideally, I’d like to carry on writing and manage to make a living from it.  I’m not overly ambitious.  Supermodels and swimming pools full of cocaine are not a necessity, nice though that might be.  But having a regular income, enough to not live on supernoodles at any point.  That would be nice.

For more information about Sam Flintlock, you can visit his official Facebook page, and you can also read the article he recently contributed to the M3 site.

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About M3 Event

The music industry is rapidly changing. The internet has enabled widespread piracy, as well as a variety of new business and distribution models. We want to offer an engaged audience in and around the Euregion an opportunity to develop a coherent and detailed picture of the future of music distribution. On the 31st of May 2012 a music conference in Maastricht, consisting of oppositional debates, creative workshops and lectures, will provoke opportunities for intellectual stimulation, debate, as well as networking. We hope to utilise the skills and ideas of some of most forward thinking minds and operators in the industry in order to highlight some promising new ideas and areas which can be improved upon.

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