The Problem With Steve Albini

In 1994, guitarist, analog devotee, music producer and critic Steve Albini wrote a very detailed creed entitled "The Problem With Music."

In it, the auteur, who presumably charges people decent money to produce their albums so he can pay the property taxes on his recording studio, blamed the recording industry for setting up such a toxic environment for musicians. In the piece, the A&R guy is the wolf in sheep's clothing. Sucky producers (and to another extent, sucky engineers) are inexperienced and ignorant assholes trying to dilute the pureness of a band, by trying to make an album that might appeal to the masses and therefore make the label money as well as the artist without having the intelligence to match their temerity. As well as electronic technology and people who want to sound like the Beatles, and bands who didn't bother to hire lawyers when signing contracts who remain at the mercy of the recording industry, those greedy bastards.

It's interesting to me how many famous and semi-famous musicians came to the same conclusion. What I love though, is that in 1994, Albini broke it down nicely for all of us laypeople to understand how much (or how little) was paid out to the interested parties.

Record company: $710,000
Producer: $90,000
Manager: $51,000
Studio: $52,500
Previous label: $50,000
Agent: $7,500
Lawyer: $12,000
Band member net income each: $4,031.25

Cut to twenty years later. The same breakdown layouts are occurring by other outraged, cynical and jaded musicians, only they're talking about streaming and web broadcasting sites. Not only is the new boss same as the old, today's critics maintain it's even worse because unlike the record labels, there is no investment on the part of Spotify/Pandora etc. One could argue this is also true of terrestrial radio, and I would happily do so if every sad bastard on the planet hadn't drunk the Kool-Aid of disruption and have, in my opinion, been just as hoodwinked as in days of yore.

Just last year, during a Reddit AMA, Albini had this to say in a response to a person asking about music piracy and whether or not it hurts him economically.

I reject the term "piracy." It's people listening to music and sharing it with other people, and it's good for musicians because it widens the audience for music. The record industry doesn't like trading music because they see it as lost sales, but that's nonsense. Sales have declined because physical discs are no longer the distribution medium for mass-appeal pop music, and expecting people to treat files as physical objects to be inventoried and bought individually is absurd.

Quite simplistic, as we all know not every musician wants their music being shared for free, in exchange for exposure. Also quite simplistic as google happily places ads on such infringing sites, making it tons of money. Keep it in mind before you put up a straw man argument, google did not create the sites, so they can't hide behind all the hard work it took to build such sites. It merely placed ads on it, with a nice 32% share of the profits to boot.

In revisiting the twenty-year old essay, Quartz Magazine finds Albini is not just happy that musicians have access to such exploitive services, but is pretty much wearing kneepads in the front of companies like Pandora, Spotify and the like, polishing their greatness. "The single best thing that has happened in my lifetime in music, after punk rock, is being able to share music, globally for free...that’s such an incredible development.”

Keep in mind, it was only two years ago Albini called Amanda Palmer an idiot for not understanding the economics of the music industry well enough, for essentially doing exactly the same thing he espouses via the internet today. When Amanda Palmer promised high-fives, hugs and lots of exposure for a volunteer army of professional (not amateur) musicians, it was bad. When torrents do it, it's cool.

Albini continues in the same vein.

“Record labels, which used to have complete control, are essentially irrelevant ,” he says. “The process of a band exposing itself to the world is extremely democratic and there are no barriers. Music is no longer a commodity, it’s an environment, or atmospheric element. Consumers have much more choice and you see people indulging in the specificity of their tastes dramatically more. They only bother with music they like.”

If that's the case, Albini should produce albums for free, right? Why does the worth of the music decrease only after it's been recorded and uploaded? Seems unfair to me.

But hold up-- if we are now freed from the old label system why do Sony BMG, Universal Music, Warner Music, EMI and Merlin all have investments and are essentially part owners of Spotify? Why are they part owners if not to make money? Isn't Spotify tainted because of this?

If music is no longer a commodity than I presume it's okay that Aretha Franklin and hundreds if not thousands of other artists who recorded before 1972 no longer receive royalties, because Pandora has decided this should be. Indeed, a service that doesn't pay a living wage to artists and in fact pulls their albums when they start to make money, is really the only likely outcome.

While we're at it, why should distributors make any money either? They're distributing music, which we've now established is no longer a commodity and is worthless except as an atmospheric element. I'll get back to you on merch, but I'm sure there's a very good argument we could make as to why I shouldn't have to pay for a Ween t-shirt.

And, getting back to advertising, why should I pay to license a band's music for my commercials? It's atmosphere.

The Quartz piece ends by saying due to all this innovation, producers like Albini have ironically had to readjust, in most cases, downward. I have no doubt this is true. If a musician, or producer, or engineer, or record store owner had a career before the advent of Napster, there is no possible way they haven't made a seismic shift today. if they're even still around. You don't need to be a detective to know a lot of record stores have closed. Same with small to middle-sized music venues. And even some musicians have quit all together, citing an impossibility to make ends meet. How this can be with all that free exposure is beyond me. But that's the contradiction that arises when it comes to such innovative sites. They are amazing for all on one level, while making millions for few and exploiting the content creator (and producer) on another level.

For Albini, this adjustment means surviving on a "settling into a niche role for really high quality work." Which for all I know, is code for Charging A Fuck Load Because I Can. How noble.

By the way, I'm guessing charging a fuck load is fairly easy to do when one was fortunate enough to have solidified the Steve Albini™ brand name twenty years before. It also didn't hurt to have spent a career producing albums for some bands who were on major labels like Island, Warner Brothers and Geffen. Because even if those big evil labels didn't pay a Phil Specter-like salary, in addition to the exposure a big label surely provides, earning one hundred thousand dollars to produce a Nirvana album is still a lot of money today. That's almost like having your cake and eating it, too.

Try doing that on Pandora.

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Dabitch's picture

If his point it tl;dr one can sum it up as "fuck you I got mine"

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