Article originally published on Dec 2008

The Fingertips Q&A was launched in August with the express intent of allowing actual, working musicians the chance to talk about the state of the music industry in the digital age. I guess I've been growing tired of reading "future of music" stories online that seem full of either one music writer's opinion or the opinions of pundits and technology experts and record company officials and just about everyone except, in fact, work-a-day musicians who are out there seeking a living wage in the middle of the indie jungle.

The Fingertips Q&A is not intended as a comprehensive discussion. Each time I ask five simple questions. The interviewee this time around is Mark Northfield, a thoughtful and eloquent British musician who identifies himself as a "pianist, songwriter, arranger, and occasional singer." His answers to the questions below are unstintingly interesting, articulate, and well-reasoned. Northfield's haunting song "Zero," from his album Ascendant, was featured on "This Week's Finds" in July. (Note that I have Americanized Northfield's spellings, just to keep things consistent here. I kind of prefer the British originals, but time marches on, all good things must come to an end, etc.)

Q: Let's say you're in charge of everything, and the music industry will work, moving forward, exactly how you want it to. Do digital downloads exist? Why or why not? Anything you would change right away?

A: I presume the first question is asking whether or not digital downloads should be sold (they can't be uninvented after all). My simple answer is yes, but at the same time I would actively encourage file-sharing by appealing far more openly to people's sense of fair play. Stop treating the audience like naughty children--it only encourages bad behaviour. Tell them that if they like something enough, then, and only then, they should go and buy a copy, or something else by the artist, or go see them live, or enthuse about them to their friends. I think there is a great deal more public discussion that can be had in this area.

A lot of music can take considerably more than one listen to get under the skin and so for the vast majority of (relatively unknown) artists file-sharing is the best advertising possible--it's radio play, effectively. If an artist is so widely known that this "advertising" is not needed then they're probably earning quite enough as it is and don't need the revenue "lost" from those who have no intention of ever buying their music or seeing them live. (Is it really lost revenue, I ask?) If that means a marginally reduced income for our top-earning artists, big deal. They'll live.

I'd certainly put a stop to the ridiculous contention that file-sharing is the same as stealing from a shop. A physical product costs money to produce, a file being copied costs the artist or record company nothing. Sure, there's the issue of copyright, but the concept as it stands is far too inflexible at present, for reasons stated above. It suits the big boys to emphasize it at every turn, as a means of trying to maintain their dominance of the status quo, but it doesn't serve independent artists very well in their quest to be heard. Pointing to declining sales figures and blaming file-sharing with no regard to other factors (competing "entertainment," internet radio, saturation of people's music collections, etc.) is also misleading. I notice that home-taping never did kill music, despite years of trying.

The main problem with the music industry for me is the cozy relationship between the major record companies and mainstream media (I can't speak for the US, but it's very apparent here in the UK). Art is not generally well served by the pursuit of corporate profit margins, which constantly err toward the slightly plagiaristic and safely marketable. Here in the UK, the main pop station (BBC Radio One) has some interesting music in the evening (John Peel's legacy at work), but the main daytime playlists are frustratingly repetitive and narrowly focused, favouring the majors' product most of the time. The argument from both parties might be "We're giving the audience what they want to hear," but it seems rather more like "We'll tell you what you want to hear." Far too much like news and politics for my comfort. The BBC digital music services have broadened things somewhat but they're still small beer compared to the reach of One and Two. Commercial radio is a joke.

Musing wildly and entirely unrealistically, if all record labels were to vanish overnight and those musicians left creating stuff were those who really cared about doing it regardless of whether or not there was money to be made, I suspect that might be quite a good thing for music. There might be fewer acts willing and able to make it, but we're not exactly lacking at present--the world of music seems to be amazingly oversubscribed. Artist development? That doesn't need a huge budget as much as dedication and talent. Promotion? There would certainly be more opportunities to be heard, but as with anything it pays to be organized. With so many mechanisms now in place for musicians to sell their music independently, I don't think it's such a stupidly impossible leap as it might have seemed even a decade ago. The media gatekeepers might struggle to readjust for a while, but they'd get used to it.

Meanwhile, back in the real world... ;)

Q: Talk about one or two things that people who work in the "music industry" don't seem to understand about musicians in the 21st century.

A: Hmmm...I'm not sure what to say about this one! I don't think musicians are that different in the 21st century from the 20th, they just have much greater opportunities right now. I think the industry understands only too well what could happen and is running scared of the possible consequences. Events may surprise the aspirations of both, but more of that shortly...

Q: Ringtones: good or evil?

A: Evil, in that they contribute to the endless wallpaper of everyday human noise (as if we didn't have enough). If someone asked me to sit in a public space with one tiny, tinny speaker and play the same snippet of a piece, out of context, over and over again, I would be embarrassed to be associated with it. That's a ringtone to me. I suppose they're "good" in the sense of giving extra revenue to artists, but as a social phenomenon they're pretty irritating. I have yet to be exposed to anything interesting and worthwhile via a ringtone.

Q: Does the existence of the internet, and digital distribution of music via the internet, now influence how you think about music, and how you write music?

A: It means I'm more likely to make it in the first place! Knowing there's a worldwide outlet for my art and that the manufacture/selling of physical CDs isn't essential to be heard is a good motivator. I don't think I write differently (at least, not yet) except that I'm aware people are more likely to download individual tracks these days. Being a big fan of the album as a musical form in its own right (not merely a load of tracks bundled together by chance), I've tried not to let this bother me too much. I've made my intentions clear in my promotion and tried to link the tracks on the album together to push the idea of it as a whole piece. At the same time, the songs are available as edits, so if people choose to stick with those, that's up to them. I'd say they're missing out, but you can't make the horse drink the water...

I guess the internet has made me more aware than ever before about the power of categorization, especially on sites like with their review system, but also from the simple act of searching for suitable blogs to approach. As I've learned, it can be kinda tricky to promote music that straddles genres, especially when one of those genres is classical--musical snobbery is alive and well it would seem! (And that's not just in the classical field...) But to be fair, the internet is only highlighting human nature--we create boxes to help navigate our way through life, then magically forget that the boxes are our own creation and become slaves to them. Great. (Note to self--go put on a Stereolab album.)

Q: A lot has been made of the assertion that in the future, people won't buy music, and artists will make a living only via performance. What are your feelings about that idea?

A: There are far too many assumptions made about the future based on extrapolating recent trends. Not wise. My own feeling is that we are in for a much, much tougher time over the coming decades than we have been used to in the west recently, from peak oil and gas supply issues in particular (think the '30s rather than the '70s, economically speaking). I don't imagine there will be anywhere near as much discretionary spending as there has been over recent decades and musicians may well find it harder to make a living solely from music than other more "essential" workers. That said, people will still want some kind of entertainment no matter what. Music may prove to be one of the cheaper means still available, so at the very least live music should continue to thrive (even if it's more of a supplementary income for the musicians concerned). CDs and vinyl will probably be getting too expensive to be viable come the 2030s, but as long as the internet hangs together music will continue to be recorded and distributed somewhere. How many will be able to afford to make it is another matter, but then our recent phase of prosperity is something of an historical anomaly. Prepare for surprises.

The busted myth of progress may unleash unexpected cultural effects too. We've spent many years being convinced that faster, bigger, shinier, more complex, etc. is the only way to go, and that has influenced artists accordingly, as well as contributing to music's apparent decline in popularity. When we collectively realize we've hit our ecological limits (regardless of the threat of climate change), that energy will need to be conserved, that infrastructure is fragile, that what goes up must come down--what then? Who knows what effect these things will have on the world of entertainment and pop/rock culture in particular? And I don't mean another Live Earth concert or any other such drop in the ocean, I mean widescale cultural reassessment of what humans are doing on this planet and how we intend to survive the coming century.

Yes, I imagine people will still be enthralled by idiotic hooks, songs about love and dancing will still be made and assorted music lovers the world over will still access a few of them with whatever currency is available. Every new generation has to come of age and see itself reflected, and a certain amount of escapism is part of the human condition, so some kind of profit from recorded music will undoubtedly remain a possibility. Whether it will be on anything like the same scale we've been used to is far more doubtful, but music sales are not the absolute measure of music's impact on people's lives, whatever the industry might like us to believe.

Far-fetched predictions? Well, 1988 doesn't seem that long ago to me--2028 isn't really so far away. For myself, I hope to still keep my musical day-job, as well as keeping going with all this creative spare-time stuff, regardless of the economic conditions. Guess I'll have to wait and see what time has in store. I'll always be a musician, even if it doesn't pay.

For those keeping score at home, there have already been five questions. But if you're interested enough to read to the last page here, you deserve one bonus question, which is a sort of meta-question, based on the fact that I was probably leaving out something important. Here goes...

Q: What question would you like to answer about music and the internet that I didn't ask?

A: Q: Does the sound quality of your song files (not the mix/mastering) matter to you? How much do you think the general shift away from decent hi-fi reproduction and the embracing of lossy formats such as the MP3 is having an effect on how people value recorded music?

Following on from the Radiohead/NIN spat, I feel moved to ask these questions. On the face of it, a useful element of making music available for free seems to be not to give it away at the highest quality possible, yet if the majority of listeners are content with MP3s played through rubbishy laptop speakers or cheap in-the-ear headphones then does it really have any impact? I've made the MP3s on my website available at a reasonable quality (128) because I personally feel anything lower would devalue the experience of the music too much and make it less likely to be listened to. Nonetheless, I am having to make a compromise of sorts. I come at this from more of a classical angle, having deliberately kept a fairly wide dynamic range in my music. Perhaps if I were making super-compressed pop songs it would be less of an issue.

The CD/vinyl debate has raged for many years but I've not noticed so much of an outcry over the advent of digital files. I use MP3s for convenience's sake but I will always try to get hold of the full audio version of something that moves me enough in order to experience it fully. Am I weird? Will lossless encoding ever grab popular attention? Have we become so entranced by visual entertainment that we've stopped caring about our ears? Maybe the difference is just too subtle--too much like hard work. Maybe it will remain the sole preserve of classical and jazz listeners. A shame. It feels like the audio equivalent of dumbing down; the crumbling of empire.

(The other bonus question I considered asking was: Music: has it all been done? But I had no answer.)