Belfast legends Stiff Little Fingers should need no introduction. They’ve been railing against the establishment with their invigorating punk rock anthems since 1977, never losing sight of their razor sharp social commentary and keen ear for a tune. M3 spoke to frontman Jake Burns about rethinking copyright, how the internet has clarified the band’s relationship with their fans, and their long awaited new album…
M3 – First of all, could you tell us a bit about yourself, and what it is that you do?
Jake Burns – I’m the singer/guitarist and main songwriter with Northern Irish band: Stiff Little Fingers. This has been an on and off occupation for the best part of 35 years. I also spent a year as a producer at BBC Radio 1 in the late 80’s and did a fair amount of freelance production for BBC Radio Newcastle thereafter.
What inspired you to form Stiff Little Fingers? What are your own musical backgrounds?
My initial love for the guitar came about after seeing Rory Gallagher. Even today, his recordings can make the hairs on my neck stand up. It’s hard to think of a more melodic yet aggressive guitar player. I adored that attitude. I was fed up with the way rock music was developing in the mid to late 70’s. It seemed like everyone had to have a Grade 8 musical education and perform on ice skates to simply be in a rock’n’roll band. I was yearning for short three minute catchy pop/rock songs. All the better if they actually meant something, but I’d take three chords, a decent melody, energy and an attitude any day. So, when first pub rock (Graham Parker, Dr. Feelgood etc.) and then punk came about, I was an obvious and willing volunteer. Initially, I didn’t see punk as anything but the short, sharp kick in the backside the bloated business needed around then until I heard The Clash. To hear guys singing about their lives made so much sense to me. I was hooked.
What would be your preferred medium to listen to music (eg. Vinyl, CD, tape, MP3 etc.), and why?
I still buy CD’s as much as possible simply because I like to have the actual artifact in my hands. However, I then tend to copy them onto my iPod and file the CD away. This is simply for ease of transport. I spend a lot of time on the road and carrying a large number of CD’s with me simply isn’t practical. I still have most, if not all of my vinyl (much to my wife’s annoyance as it takes up an entire wall!)
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?
To a large extent, yes. The ease of not just buying “the single” via MP3s but the fact that you can select the tracks from the album you like and leave behind the others has eroded the album concept. Having said that, I still try to buy “new” albums in their entirety as too often in the past, the track I didn’t care for much on first listen turned out to be my long term favourite. I understand that folks may not have the disposable income to buy an entire album, but that’s how the artist visualised it and sometimes by “cherry picking” you miss out on the highlight.
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 miss not browsing an afternoon away in a record store, that’s for sure. However, it’s difficult to dispute the ease of online ordering coming up to Christmas, say, when its raining outside, cold and you know the stores are rammed! On the whole though, I do miss record stores, in much the same way as I miss bookstores. But, it is progress (I suppose) and I don’t want to appear as some form of latter day Luddite.
Many people have claimed that there is no longer any money in record sales, and that touring is the most efficient way to earn an income as a band. How much truth do you think there is in this sentiment?
Sadly, from our point of view and many other artists I talk to (not just in the rock field) that is very much the case. Obviously, as a band you want to produce new material. You want to keep things fresh for yourself and your audience. However, even leaving aside the lower sales these days, we find that our audience clammers for new material. You provide it and then they don’t buy it because: “It’s not as good as the old stuff”! Which, frankly, is an argument I’ve heard since the day we released our second album!
Would you say new technologies like the internet have affected how you operate as a band (not only in terms of distribution, but organising tours, reaching out to fans etc), and if so?
The internet is vital and has changed everything. It has clarified our relationship with our audience. For all of our career, we have striven to break down the barriers between performer and audience. After all, a live show is pretty flaccid if the audience aren’t there to roar you on. In that respect, they’re as important as the band. Tools like Facebook and our own forum on our website allow us to interact on a personal level with members of our audience in a day to day fashion. Sometimes just chatting online about football, the price of curry in central London or the delays at train stations is as beneficial as them hearing a record on the radio. You’re building a bond with the audience which was never possible before and which lets them know how much you value them much more than just a ticket sale. Also, my band all live not just in different towns, but in different timezones. Thanks to file sharing, I can record a demo at home in the afternoon, e-mail it to the band and have their reaction within hours as opposed to having to mail them a CD or wait for the next rehearsal. Same with planning tours: our agent can send me “rough” routings which we can discuss and have a clear idea of what we want to do in minutes as opposed to days.
Do you think traditional copyright laws are still enforceable in the digital age, or do you think we will have to rethink the concept of copyright itself?
That’s a very thorny one. If copyright laws can’t be enforced then where is the incentive for the musician to write any new material ? If you spend years writing an album, weeks or months recording it and then on the day of release find it perfectly copied and shared for free, how do you expect to live ? Having said that, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. I fear that, much with the whole “blank cassette” levy, the industry has buried its head in the sand instead of embracing the new technology when it first arrived. Obviously, copyright has to be re-thought as it is all but unenforceable as it stands. Surely, it can’t be beyond the capabilities of technology to have some way of making these songs only “streamable” and NOT “downloadable” unless some sort of fee was paid. That way, we could view YouTube (for example) as a form of “free radio station” and simply advertising as opposed to the devil incarnate some see it as today. (I fear that radio revenue probably is a thing of the past, thanks to Spotify. Although again, I use Spotify as an adjunct to iTunes or amazon. In other words, I can listen to the entire album and THEN buy it. I appreciate I’m probably in a minority there.)
What is your take on the recent SOPA/ACTA controversy?
Pretty much covered that in the previous answer. My main concern with it was it seemed too wide ranging in its scope. A bit too “scatter gun” and not picking its targets appropriately.
What would you say are the main challenges facing an up-and-coming musician/band in today’s cultural climate?
The sheer number of bands. It’s bewildering the speed at which bands proliferate these days. Obviously, most of this is down to affordable home recording etc. which is a good thing. I’m all for new talent expressing itself. However, the one thing missing from the equation as I see it is the chance for a young band to develop a career. Thanks to shows like “X-Factor” etc. a huge amount of talent is thrown up, used up and thrown away within months it seems. When we were striving for a record contract, most companies would offer you a three album deal. This showed an amount of confidence and financial commitment on behalf of the company and it gave the band a chance to grow. That seems to be missing as an option for today’s young musicians. Look at David Bowie’s early career. These days he’d have had a hit with “The Laughing Gnome” and been dismissed as a one hit novelty act. Not, as we know, the whole truth.
What do you personally believe the future of music distribution will look like?
I honestly have no idea. (I should probably ask my wife as she works in the internet field and probably saw all this coming way before I did !) As things stand, the internet is a leviathan and will probably be the marketplace for many years to come…unless Bill Gates knows something he’s not telling us.
Finally, what does the future hold for Stiff Little Fingers? Is there any news on the long awaited new album?
To quote the Allman Brothers: “The Road goes on Forever”! Writing on the album is coming along nicely, although it seems like every time I hit a hot streak something comes up in my personal life to disrupt that. (Possibly moving house is the next one!) If we can get funding, then we hope to be in the studio before the year’s out and have the record available by the start of 2013. That’s it. Thanks for the questions!