Back in April, Steve Albini told an interviewer that online streaming had solved the music industry dysfunctions chronicled in the legendarily abrasive producer’s famous The Baffler essay “The Problem With Music.” As Wondering Sound points out, Albini expanded on that idea Sunday in a keynote address at Melbourne’s Face The Music Conference. The Guardian transcribed Albini’s full 7,000-word address, during which the Big Black/Shellac frontman pronounced himself “both satisfied and optimistic about the state of the music scene.” It’s a seriously entertaining and informative speech; check out some highlights below.
After noting a widespread “bitchiness” in the music industry about how to replace a cash flow that has been drying up for years, Albini explained how hard it was to record your music when he was starting out:
It’s worthwhile to remember from where we’ve come. From where this bitchiness originates. In the 1970s through the 1990s, the period in which I was most active in bands in the music scene – let’s call this the pre-internet era. The music industry was essentially the record industry, in that records and radio were the venues through which people learned of music and principally experienced it. They were joined by MTV and videos in the 80s and 90s, but the principle relationship people had with music was as sound recordings. There was a booming band scene and all bands aspired to getting recorded, as a mark of legitimacy.
But recording was a rare and expensive enterprise, so it wasn’t common. Even your demo tape required considerable investment. So when I started playing in bands in the 70s and 80s most bands went through their entire lifecycle without so much as a note of their music ever being recorded.
After a fascinating, detailed breakdown of how various parties including labels, retail outlets, radio stations, and journalists used to benefit from the music industry’s inefficient system, Albini reiterated how that system exploited musicians:
As the label shifted from vinyl to CD as the dominant format, the labels could easily sell the CD as a convenient, compact, trouble-free way to listen to music. The profit margin exploded and the money got stupid. Retails costs of a CD was half again or double more than an LP but the manufacturing, shipping and storage costs were a tiny fraction. The labels even used vinyl’s legacy as a tool to increase this profit margin by charging bands for unique packaging, despite the fact that CD packaging was designed to be standardised. Or pre-emptively charging back for broken CDs at a rate implying that someone was attacking the inventory with an axe.
In the end the bands operating under this system earned very little from their record sales, unless they were monumental stars. Often enough bands would conduct their entire careers with a label and never reach the point where they had sufficiently recouped to get paid anything at all. Now the label made its per-piece profit on every record sold. And could recoup the cost of any records unsold. And all those other people got paid using the money that would have otherwise gone to the bands as royalties. Unsurprisingly, those other people also got paid pretty well. It stands to reason that if the label is paying you with someone else’s money, the label doesn’t need to care how much you charge.
During the 90s there was something of an arms race to see who could write the biggest deal. That is, the deal with the most money being spent on the band’s behalf. In a singularly painless contest the money would either be paid to the band as a royalty, which would take that money out of the system and put it into things like houses and groceries and college educations. Or it could be paid to other operators within the industry, increasing the clout and prestige of the person doing the spending. It’s as if your boss, instead of giving your paycheck to you, could pay that money to his friends and business associates, invoking your name as he did. Since his net cost was the same and his friends and associates could return the favour, why would he ever want to let any of that money end up in your hands? It was a system that ensured waste by rewarding the most profligate spendthrifts in a system specifically engineered to waste the band’s money.
Albini noted how difficult it was to get people to pay attention to music from outside the industry’s payola-laden top-flight, but he had extremely kind words for the late BBC DJ John Peel in that regard:
The one exception to this was the brilliant BBC DJ John Peel. He listened religiously to every single record he received in the mail, devoting hours of every day to the task. I sent him a copy of the first album I ever made and not only did he play the record on air, he sent me back a postcard with a personal remembrance of Chicago, of visiting a matron aunt as a child in Evanston, the suburb where my post office box was kept. I treasured that note as the first indication that John Peel was a great man.
He described the vast network of independent bands, labels, and retailers that sprung up in the shadow of the major labels, a network that resulted in bands actually getting paid. Albini acknowledged that the profit from that system vanished when music became free online, but he also suggested that the benefits outweigh the costs:
Through the internet, which more than anything else creates access to things, limitless music eventually became available for free. The big record companies didn’t see how to make money from online distribution so they effectively ignored it, leaving it to the hackers and the audience to populate a new landscape of downloading. People who prefer the convenience of CDs over LPs naturally prefer downloaded music even more. You could download it or stream it or listen from YouTube or have your friends on message boards or acquaintances send you zip files. In the blink of an eye music went from being rare, expensive and only available through physical media in controlled outlets to being ubiquitous and free worldwide. What a fantastic development.
There’s a lot of shade thrown by people in the music industry about how terrible the free sharing of music is, how it’s the equivalent of theft, etc. That’s all bullshit and we’ll deal with that in a minute. But for a minute I want you to look at the experience of music from a fan’s perspective, post-internet. Music that is hard to find was now easy to find. Music to suit my specific tastes, as fucked up as they might be, was now accessible by a few clicks or maybe posting a query on a message board. In response I had more access to music than I had ever imagined. Curated by other enthusiasts, keen to turn me on to the good stuff; people, like me, who want other people to hear the best music ever.
This audience-driven music distribution has other benefits. Long-forgotten music has been given a second life. And bands whose music that was ahead of its time has been allowed to reach a niche audience that the old mass distribution failed to find for them, as one enthusiast turns on the next and this forgotten music finally gets it due. There’s a terrific documentary about one such case, the Detroit band Death whose sole album was released in a perfunctory edition in, I believe, 1975 and disappeared until a copy of it was digitised and made public on the internet. Gradually the band found an audience, their music got lovingly reissued, and the band has resurrected, complete with tours playing to packed houses. And the band are now being allowed the career that the old star system had denied them. There are hundreds of such stories and there are speciality labels that do nothing but reissue lost classics like that once they surface.
Here’s what he said about how today’s music economy affects musicians:
Now look at the conditions from a band’s perspective, the conditions faced by a band. In contrast to back in the day, recording equipment and technology has simplified and become readily available. Computers now come pre-loaded with enough software to make a decent demo recording and guitar stores sell microphones and other equipment inexpensively that previously was only available at a premium from arcane speciality sources. Essentially every band now has the opportunity to make recordings.
And they can do things with those recordings. They can post them online in any number of places: Bandcamp, YouTube, SoundCloud, their own websites. They can link to them on message boards, Reddit, Instagram, Twitter and even in the comment streams of other music. “LOL,” “this sucks,” “much better,” “death to false metal,” “LOL.” Instead of spending a fortune on international phone calls trying to find someone in each territory to listen to your music, every band on the planet now has free, instant access to the world at its fingertips.
I cannot overstate how important a development that is. Previously, in the top-down paradigm allowed local industry to dictate what music was available in isolated or remote markets, markets isolated by location or language. It was inconceivable that a smaller or independent band could have market penetration into, say, Greece or Turkey, Japan or China, South America, Africa or the Balkans. Who would you ask to handle your music? How would you find him? And how would you justify the business and currency complications required to send four or five copies of a record there? Now those places are as well-served as New York and London.
He also joked that now that music has become an atmospheric element, listeners should be paid just as readily as bands:
Music has entered the environment as an atmospheric element, like the wind, and in that capacity should not be subject to control and compensation. Well, not unless the rights holders are willing to let me turn the tables on it. If you think my listening is worth something, OK then, so do I. Play a Phil Collins song while I’m grocery shopping? Pay me $20. Def Leppard? Make it $100. Miley Cyrus? They don’t print money big enough.
There is much, much more, and it’s all extremely interesting, so click over to The Guardian and read the whole thing.
[Photo by Jayden Ostwald/The Guardian.]