Read Marc Ribot’s Angry Open Letter To Steve Albini

Lately, Steve Albini — the veteran producer, Shellac frontman, and longtime underground-rock gadfly — has been saying things about how streaming services are the inevitable next development in the way we listen to music, even going so far as to claim that those services have solved “the problem with music,” making labels irrelevant and removing music from the realm of commodity. He made some of those same points again a week and a half ago, when he gave a talk at Barcelona’s Primavera Pro conference. As Billboard reported, Albini talked about the idea of copyright as an “expired concept,” comparing it to the way smoking in bars used to be completely accepted. Here’s some of what he said:

I think we’re seeing that the intellectual construct of copyright and intellectual property ownership is not realistic. Ideas once expressed become part of the common mentality. And music once expressed becomes part of the common environment. I think that the idea of intellectual property will naturally have to be modified to accommodate the way that people naturally exchange ideas and music and information. That old copyright model of the person who wrote something down owns it and anyone else who wants to use it or see it has to pay him, I think that model has expired. And people who are trying to defend that model are like people on horseback trying to fight against the automobile… I think the term “piracy” is absurd. Actually, piracy is people boarding a slip with violence and killing people and physically stealing material goods that are then no longer available to people who used to own them. I think equating somebody downloading something on his iPhone with that is preposterous.

Marc Ribot is another underground-music staple, an adventurous New York guitarist who’s done a lot of work with people like Tom Waits, John Zorn, and Elvis Costello. Ribot doesn’t agree with anything Albini has to say and said so in an open letter posted on the Facebook page of the Content Creators Coalition, an artist-run organization “dedicated to economic justice in the digital domain.” Ribot invites Albini to place everything he’s written in the public domain, saying that Albini, if he doesn’t do that, will simply be “another lousy hypocrite shilling for Google and other huge tech corporations.” Here’s Ribot’s letter:

I’m writing as a recording artist, musician, and activist with c3, the Content Creators Coalition, a working-artist-run organization dedicated to economic justice in the digital domain.

In a recent Billboard article, you referred to copyright as an “expired concept”.

You further stated that:

“… the intellectual construct of copyright and intellectual property ownership is not realistic…That old copyright model of the person who wrote something down owns it and anyone else who wants to use it or see it has to pay him, I think that model has expired.”

If you truly believe that “Ideas, once expressed, become part of the common mentality. And music, once expressed, becomes part of the common environment…”, are you willing to sign a Creative Commons license placing your entire catalogue in the public domain?

Or are you just another lousy hypocrite shilling for Google and other huge tech corporations who have made billions in ad-based profits while using our work, often without paying us or asking our permission, as click bait to increase their advertising rates?

Working artists and musicians, at least those of us who can’t afford to make another record unless the last one paid its production costs, await your response.

Sincerely, Marc Ribot

The idea that Albini is shilling, at least in the being-paid-to-endorse-something sense, is a weird one. But there’s a pretty clear divide between two opposing viewpoints here, a philosophical disagreement that, in a lot of ways, underpins every debate about streaming music.