Steve Albini celebrated the Internet, announced the death of copyright, and voiced his ongoing disdain for the music business during an eloquent and expectedly provocative talk at the Primavera Pro conference in Barcelona. The musician, engineer and record studio owner answered questions from local music journalist Joan Pons and from the audience a day before his band Shellac’s perennial performance at the Primavera Sound festival on Saturday (May 30).
Albini is best known both for his work on Nirvana’s In Utero and his 1993 essay, “The Problem With Music.” That notorious screed on the music industry opened with artists fighting through a trough of shit to reach a label contract on the other side, only to be told “Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim it again, please. Backstroke.”
The digital evolution has rendered the A&R scouts who Albini especially abhorred obsolete, and on Friday he had the relaxed posture of someone who time had proven right as he sank into a Modernist leather couch in the chapel at Barcelona’s contemporary art museum, where the event took place. But he did not miss an opportunity to speak out against the existing structures of the music business.
“I don’t feel like I am part of the music industry,” Albini told an admiring crowd that broke into applause several times. “The music industry meaning the corporatized business structure where there are people on the lower level and people on the upper level, and people in administration making legal relationships between all these people. I’ve never felt like I was part of that. All of that has always really bothered me. And when I think about it, it makes me angry that it exists as a parasite on the music scene, which is the fans, and bands the people who go to shows. This administrative business structure that’s siphoning money out of that whole scene, that has always to me seemed artificial and unnecessary.”
Albini revealed that he worked without contracts, both with his band’s record label and at his studio, Chicago’s Electrical Audio.
“My band has been releasing records on the record label Touch and Go since the 1980s,” he said. “One band and the next band and now Shellac. We’ve never had any kind of formal arrangement with them, no contracts, not even a conversation about how we are obligated to each other. But they keep doing a good job with our records and they keep being satisfied with us, and we keep having a good experience, so the relationship just naturally continues.
“I don’t use contracts in my business,” he added. “If someone wants me to work on a record we organize the time, we do it, they pay for it and its done. As long as everyone is having a good time it will continue. And I think that is the best, the safest and above all the most reasonable way to conduct business. Not just with an informal thing, but even very important things like millions of dollars worth of business through my band and a record label.”
Albini, who by his count has worked on thousands of albums by other artists, explained why he calls himself an engineer instead of a producer.
“…I’m not George Martin, I’m not Jay-Z,” he said. “I’m not a person who produces music in that method. What I do is take a band to the studio and ask them, what kind of record do you want to make? What song are you going to do next? Are you happy with that? Can we move on? That’s basically what my job is.”
More than once, Albini used smoking as a metaphor when talking about changes in the way music is disseminated and consumed.
“It used to be you would go and play a show and everybody would be smoking,” he said, in answer to a question about whether new technology had made people more isolated. “So the air would be filled with smoke. Now, you are not allowed to smoke in the venues anymore. So the air is clear, and for some people that’s a distraction to be able to see everybody’s face and bodies. For me I like it. I think it’s good. But the smoke also covered up a lot of the smell in the venues, and now the venues smell terrible, they smell like old beer and vomit…So things have changed and the experience is not the same, but it is still an experience and I think it’s still valuable.
“You can never bring back things that have been lost,” he went on, during a discourse that celebrated the Internet as a tool for free communication and connecting musicians to like-minded fans without major label “hype”. “You adapt to the culture that has grown organically. People are going to be on their iPhones, they’re going to be taking selfies, they’re going to be somewhat isolated and internalized in their artistic experience. I think its a mistake to be nostalgia, or pretend to recreate a historical experience that has died a natural death. The most comfortable is continue your normal life, and incorporate this [new] behavior into your normal life.”
Albini referred to copyright as an “expired concept,” similar to the act of smoking in public.
“…Social acceptance of public smoking disappeared, and it’s now rare to find a place indoors where you can smoke. And that’s not because there was a single decree. It’s because society changed in its treatment of public spaces.
“I think were 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.”
Likening spectacularly staged concerts to “putting on a trained monkey show in front of an audience,” Albini said his refusal to play at most festivals went back to the 1980s, when “the bands were all whoever was being most heavily promoted by the industry and the bands that were lower on the bill were treated very poorly, and the audience was being exploited. The ticket prices were unrealistically high. And the venues were terrible, just a tent in the woods or something. The experience of going to these festivals was really bad, and the experience of playing these festivals was really bad…and the money was very good.
“There are still these big corporate cattle call festivals where you have every fucking horrible sensation band, but there also exists festivals with a curated presentation, where the audience is treated with respect, and the stages are set up with performance spaces and not just like a circus tent.
“Primavera Sound is the one that has had their shit together the best,” he noted. “…You can tell that they have selected the bands because they like them and not because they made some deal so they can play.”