Steve Albini Says Online Streaming 'Best Thing Since Punk Rock'

Singer/guitarist Steve Albini of Shellac performs onstage during the ATP New York 2008 music festival at Kutshers Country Club on September 20, 2008 in Monticello, New York.

Singer/guitarist Steve Albini of Shellac performs onstage during the ATP New York 2008 music festival at Kutshers Country Club on September 20, 2008 in Monticello, New York.

Old man Steve Albini does not yell at the Cloud -- at least, not anymore. Just over 20 years after publishing his seminal 1993 essay "The Problem With Music," which painted a bleak picture of an industry driven by record label fat cats preying on baby bands that didn't know any better, the famously analog producer known for Nirvana's "In Utero" has changed his tune.

In an interview with Quartz, Albini praises the Internet for leveling the playing field. “The single best thing that has happened in my lifetime in music, after punk rock, is being able to share music, globally for free,” he said. "That's an incredible development."

Albini continues, “Record labels, which used to have complete control" -- and which he once compared to a trench filled with "runny, decaying shit," not unlike Thom Yorke's comment that Spotify is "the last desperate fart of a dying corpse" -- are essentially irrelevant. The process of a band exposing itself to the world is extremely democratic and there are no barriers . . . You can literally have a worldwide audience for your music . . . with no corporate participation, which is tremendous."

He doubts that streaming will provide a livable source of income for artists but argues that the compensation Spotify's business model provides "is not as preposterous" as something like revenue from terrestrial radio plays, for example. To someone like Galaxie 500's Damon Krukowski, who a few years ago wrote an op-ed in Pitchfork arguing, among other things, that the pittance he received for song streams was laughable compared to what he used to make selling records, Albini would say he's "complaining that cars are going faster than horses." 

Albini's words are especially relevant in light of the rate court ruling that Pandora will continue to pay performance rights organization ASCAP a rate of 1.85% of annual revenue, which many viewed as a defeat to songwriters. "Songwriters can't live in a world where streaming services only pay 1.85% of their revenue," Sony/ATV CEO Martin Bandier said of the proceedings. "This is a loss, and not something we can live with." Again, Albini would beg to differ, calling publishing "extortionate" and accusing that it never acted for the benefit of the songwriters these organizations represent.

On the one hand, it's somewhat surprising that Albini, a bit of a Luddite (at least when it comes to recording technology; it would be illuminating to hear his thoughts on Neil Young's high-quality Pono MP3 player), would be on board with these digital developments, especially following "The Problem With Music." On the other, it's not: the notorious curmudgeon never been afraid to tell people how he really feels (like, say, calling Sonic Youth "an embarrassment") and his current hopeful perspective runs counter to the feelings of other musical legends like David Byrne, Yorke and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich, and Bette Midler, among others. 

Deep down, though, he's still the same Albini. “On balance, the things that have happened because of the internet have been tremendously good for bands and audiences, but really bad for businesses that are not part of that network, the people who are siphoning money out," he concludes. "I don’t give a fuck about those people.”