Marc Ribot Shares “Copyright, Hypocrisy And Steve Albini” Essay

Last year, Steve Albini did an interview with Quartz in which he stated that online music streaming solved many of the frustrations he discussed in his classic 1993 essay “The Problem With Music.” Since then, Albini has commented on developments in the streaming industry fairly regularly: He re-asserted his belief in streaming’s potential months after that first interview; then he weighed in on Tidal after a slew of musicians dismissed it; and at a recent Primavera Pro conference in Barcelona, Albini stated that he believes copyright law to be an “expired concept.” Earlier this month, the experimental guitarist Marc Ribot penned a pissed-off open-letter to the engineer and Shellac frontman. Albini then responded to the letter on the Content Creators Coalition Facebook page under the name “Scooter McKeever.” Now, Ribot has published a very lengthy response to the Facebook debate, which he titled “Copyright, Hypocrisy And Steve Albini.” The essay initiates with a steady stream of compliments before Ribot brandishes his real intent.

I like Steve Albini’s production values and guitar playing. Friends in Chicago tell me he’s been generous with local musicians by keeping his studio costs low.

Albini has been a fierce partisan of the ‘indie label movement’. I support his DIY idealism; it has helped a lot of creative people make music.

But when an admirable desire for independence morphs into an ideological fantasy of omnipotence; when problems demanding a public/collective (rather than private/individual) solution can’t even be acknowledged; then DIY ceases to be a tool for the empowerment of musicians, and becomes an instrument of our corporate enslavement.

Ribot then responds directly to Albini’s prior statements:

Steve Albini has chosen this moment to speak out in opposition to the copyrights that are basic to our ability to get paid for our work…indeed, to even be able to call our work ‘ours’:

“… 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.”

“Ideas, once expressed, become part of the common mentality. And music, once expressed, becomes part of the common environment…”

I felt this was wrong. If an artist doesn’t like copyright: they can opt out. Creative Commons provides easy to use forms. Love it, or leave it, dude.

So I posed the question online: “are you willing to sign a Creative Commons license placing your entire catalogue in the public domain? Or are you just another… hypocrite…?”

Albini responded:

“Your challenge that I put everything in the public domain is of course a needle I’m not going to indulge.”

Well, now we know the answer. Steve Albini believes “copyright has expired”: just not HIS copyright.

My favorite part of his response was the “of course”.

It’s worth unpacking: ‘Of course I wouldn’t really give up copyright. Any working recording artist would have to be insane to do that…because copyright is how we get paid. Its how we prevent major labels, Hollywood studies, and Madison Avenue ad agencies from making fortunes off us without paying us, or from using our work in ways we hate. Of course.’

He concludes the diatribe with three definitive, bulleted statements:

Albini’s final gambit is to hide the human agency of those attacking our rights behind a myth of ‘nature’ and inevitability (“not much you can do about it”):

“My point was (is) that the audience will naturally share music once it’s been released, that there’s not much you can do about it, and that it is generally a good thing.”

1. This isn’t about “the audience”, or the fans, or the consumers: its about corporate business models designed to profit from commercial, ad based infringement at the expense of artists. There’s nothing ‘natural’ about it, and there’s PLENTY that can be done.

The digital revolution is inevitable: the destruction of musicians’ livelihoods isn’t.

2. Ad based commercial copyright infringement is most definitely NOT a good thing. The existence of the black market has distorted the whole market, allowing even legal streaming sites like Spotify to get away with paying unsustainably low rates.

Endless hype and misinformation has been circulated on this subject. Those interested in peer reviewed research, see here.

3. It isn’t “sharing” if you don’t own it.

It all comes down to this, Steve: if you think posting or allowing others to post your material for free download or streaming is helping you get gigs in Istanbul, you go for it: we all respect your right to choose. The question is: do you respect our right to choose differently? If you do, then cool: you respect copyright. Copyright = An Artist’s Right To Choose. If you don’t…well: its like labor, sex, or governance: consent makes ALL the difference.

Read the entire, unedited response over at Noisey.