Steve Albini has recorded well over 1,000 rock albums, from famous names like Nirvana and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page, to more obscure but beloved bands like Jesus Lizard. He’s also played in a few bands that are well known in indie rock and punk circles, like Big Black.
But he’s equally well known for a 1993 essay that he wrote. The essay, “The Problem With Music,” was an essential read for any musician who dreamed of signing a big record company contract. The basic idea was that most of those contracts were one-sided, and ended up making record companies rich while keeping musicians in a state like indentured servitude. The essay was shared and reprinted and published all over the internet.
Fast forward 21 years. This weekend, Albini gave a speech at an Australian music conference in which he basically said that the internet hasn’t broken the music business at all — at least not as far as fans and 99% of musicians are concerned. Fans have easier access to more music than they ever could have dreamed of 20 years ago. Musicians have many more ways to reach fans directly, and as a result the relationship between fans and bands is stronger than ever. Albini says his band’s live gigs can pay 10 times better than they did a decade ago.
According to Albini, the only people who don’t like the way it works are the middlemen who profit off the old way of doing things. Look no further than mega-star Taylor Swift, whose record label pulled her songs off Spotify.
He takes particular issue with a statement that’s often thrown around these days in the music business: “We need to figure out how to make internet distribution work for everyone.”
As he puts it:
I disagree that the old way is better. And I do not believe this sentence to be true: “We need to figure out how to make this digital distribution work for everyone.” I disagree with it because within its mundane language are tacit assumptions: the framework of an exploitative system that I have been at odds with my whole creative life. Inside that trite sentence, “We need to figure out how to make this work for everyone,” hides the skeleton of a monster….
The internet has facilitated the most direct and efficient, compact relationship ever between band and audience. And I do not mourn the loss of the offices of inefficiencies that died in the process. I suppose some people are out of work. But the same things happened when the automobile replaced the horse, and all the blacksmiths had to adapt, spending their time making garden gates rather than horseshoes.
It’s a great speech for anybody interested in digital music and the music business.
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