Steve Albini Says Many of Music's Problems Have Been Solved, Addresses That 'Purple Dwarf in Assless Chaps'

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.

Legendary engineer, producer and musician Steve Albini delivered a densely packed, hour-long keynote speech at Melbourne's Face the Music conference on Saturday. The substantive bulk of his 6,700-or-so-words were spent defending, not lambasting, the Internet's role in the total transformation of the music industry from an old guard label system "built by the industry to serve the players inside the industry" to a digitized one that neatly bypasses many of the middle-men, like A&R, distribution, promotion and the like.

"In short, the internet has made it much easier to conduct the day-to-day business of being in a band and has increased the efficiency," he said, via a transcript by The Guardian. "Everything from scheduling rehearsals using online calendars, to booking tours by email, to selling merchandise and records from online stores, down to raising the funds to make a record is a new simplicity that bands of the pre-internet era would salivate over."

Albini spoke at length about the pre-Internet days, which he spent producing and engineering landmark albums for Nirvana, the Pixies, Fugazi and others, as well as playing in his own band Shellac. The speech is already being seen as a worthy follow-up to his seminal 1993 essay on major labels, "The Problem With Music."

One of the most illuminating chunks of Albini's speech was spent meticulously dissecting the state of distribution, via the sentence, "We need to figure out how to make this digital distribution work for everyone." Rather than try to paraphrase it, here are the key elements of what he calls "the framework of an exploitative system that I have been at odds with my whole creative life." Emphasis ours:

So who is this "we"? The administrative parts of the old record business, that’s who. The vertical labels who hold copyright on a lot of music. They want to do the figuring. They want to set the agenda. And they want to do all the structural tinkering. The bands, the audience, the people who make music and who pay for it -- they are conspicuously not in the discussion.

How about the word "need," we "need" to figure out? The need is actually a "want," a preference. These remnants of the music industry are unsatisfied with how the internet, the bands and the audience can get along fine without them. So they prefer to change things to re-establish relevance. You see this in the spate of 360 deals that are being offered now, where everything a band does, from their music to their T-shirts to their Twitter accounts belong to the record label. In exchange the record label offers startup money. I believe this approach is doomed by things like Kickstarter, which have proven more effective and efficient at raising money directly from the audience that wants to support the music.

How about the infinitive "to figure out"? We need "to figure out." That presumes that we can know how to attack a global distribution enterprise long after the internet has crowdsourced an efficient and painless way to do precisely that. There’s a reason the water faucet hasn’t changed radically over the years. Time and trial have demonstrated that the best and simplest way to control hot water is by turning a tap. Problem solved, no further solving of the hot water faucet problem is required. I cannot be the only one who is annoyed by the constantly misaligned proximity faucets in public washrooms. Imagine if listening to music was as frustrating as that.

The next part of the sentence: "make" distribution work. This implies that we have control over the distribution, that we can make it do some things but not others. The internet proves this to be a fallacy. Once we release music it’s out of our control. I use the verb "release" because it’s common vernacular. But I think it’s a perfect description. Even more apt if you consider what happens when you release other things, say a bird or a fart. When you release them they’re in the world and the world will react and use them as it sees fit. The fart may wrinkle noses until it dissipates. The bird may fly outside and crap on windshields; it may get shot down by a farmer. It’s been released, so you have no control over it. You can’t recall the fart, however much you would like to. You can’t protect the bird.

That word is problematic, but the most problematic word in the sentence is the word "work": we need to figure out how to make it "work." Work is an impossible word in this context. Depending on who uses it, it will have contradictory meanings. For a label the system would work if it generated a profit per play, controlled access to music while providing access to the audience for advertisers as an additional income, and allowed the availability of push marketing for promotion. For the listener it would mean open access, ability to find specific and niche music, continuous playback, lack of nuisance, ease of use, freedom from spying, low or no cost, utility on different devices, lack of push marketing and lack of advertising. For a band it would mean finding an audience and having no barrier to participation, and no limits on amount of material made available. You can see how this is problematic. It is literally impossible for a system to satisfy all of these needs simultaneously when they are contradictory.

The conclusion of that sentence, the "for everyone" is also problematic. I don’t think it is necessary or even preferable to have everyone involved in defining the experience with music or more generally the relationship with the band and its audience. We seem to accept that record stores, who were once the welcoming face of the industry and the recipient of much promotional patronage described earlier, are not coming along in the digital era. Record stores now get their appeal from carrying secondhand records, something the industry used to have a regular shit fit about. And by carrying speciality and niche material that is too marginal for corporate attention, they are clearly not part of the "everyone" in the sentence.

Albini also delved into the topic of intellectual property and copyright laws as it pertains to technology. It led to the most soundbite-y moments of his speech, wherein he takes digs at a certain "purple dwarf in assless chaps" (Prince) and Miley Cyrus ("They don't print money big enough" to make me listen to her).

From my part, I believe the very concept of exclusive intellectual property with respect to recorded music has come to a natural end, or something like an end. Technology has brought to a head a need to embrace the meaning of the word “release”, as in bird or fart. It is no longer possible to maintain control over digitised material and I don’t believe the public good is served by trying to.

There is great public good by letting creative material lapse into the public ownership. The copyright law has been modified so extensively in the past decades that now this essentially never happens, creating absurdities whenever copyright is invoked. There’s a huge body of work that is not legally in the public domain, though its rights holder, authors and creators have died or disappeared as businesses. And this material, from a legal standpoint now removed from our culture – nobody may copy it or re-release it because it’s still subject to copyright.

Other absurdities abound: innocuous usage of music in the background of home videos or student projects is technically an infringement and official obstacles are set up to prevent it. If you want a video of your wedding reception – your father’s first dance with a new bride – it’s off limits unless it is silent. If your little daughter does a kooky dance to a Prince song don’t bother putting it on YouTube for her grandparents to see or a purple dwarf in assless chaps will put an injunction on you. Did I offend the little guy? Fuck it. His music is poison.

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.

Pour a glass of the good stuff and read the entire speech here.