Written by: Jimmy McQuadeDate: August 8th, 2014
America’s best lefty magazine, The Baffler, a wonderfully crotchety arts & politics journal that claims, as its motto, to ‘blunt the cutting edge’, has recently digitized its entire back catalogue, including, among many other great pieces of cultural dissent, Steve Albini’s notorious but seminal essay on the music industry’s moral/artistic corruption and all-around fuckedness, “The Problem with Music.” Now, some of Albini’s points may seem self-evident if not just outdated in the post-Napster musical paradigm (I mean, the thing was published in ’93, right around the time Albini recorded Nirvana’s “In Utero” and was, consequently, immortalized as a sort of punk-rock anti-hero), but what’s important about this bold attack on the corporate beast, especially when the beast was at its most robust, is that it evinces a staunchly independent attitude which bands nowadays could do much worse than take heed of.
For those who don’t know, Steve Albini was a fixture of the 1980s punk scene in Chicago, most notably as a member of Big Black and the short-lived and incendiary Rapeman. While producing a body of noisy, abrasive, delightfully fucked-up music, Albini began moonlighting as the recording engineer of his contemporaries who likewise inhabited the very margins of music. Slowly, surely, Albini’s “sound” – if he even has a sound – caught the attention of medium-sized and larger-name acts, such as The Pixies, PJ Harvey, Fugazi, (as I mentioned above) Nirvana, and even Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for 1998’s “Walking into Clarksdale” (you know, when they forgot John Paul Jones’ phone number and then reformed Led Zeppelin), and all the while maintaining an unwavering punk-rock philosophy; Albini rejects the title “producer” and refuses to accept royalties for any work he does, rather he insists on being paid not unlike a plumber, i.e., payment upon services rendered.
With Albini at his most caustic, the essay opens: “Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit.” On one end of this metaphorical trench are the band and their contemporaries; on the other end “a faceless industry lackey… holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed.” With his opinion of the music industry made unambiguous, to say the least, Albini proceeds to pry open A&R Scouts, so-called Producers, and the general economics of a major-label record deal like it’s Crabfest at Red Lobster. But instead of performing a dull, undergraduate-style exegesis of Albini’s text, I’ll just quote you the best snatches of the essay and let it speak for itself:
Here’s Albini on A&R Scouts:
“The A&R person is the first person to make contact with the band, and as such is the first person to promise them the moon… Hell, he’s as naive as the band he’s duping. When he tells them no one will interfere in their creative process, he probably even believes it.”
“Producers and engineers who use meaningless words to make their clients think they know what’s going on. Words like “Punchy,” “Warm,” “Groove,” “Vibe,” “Feel.” Especially “Punchy” and “Warm.” Every time I hear those words, I want to throttle somebody.”
“The current trendy thing is compression. Compression by the ton, especially if it comes from a tube limiter. Wow. It doesn’t matter how awful the recording is, as long as it goes through a tube limiter, somebody will claim it sounds “warm,” or maybe even “punchy.” They might even compare it to the Beatles. I want to find the guy that invented compression and tear his liver out. I hate it. It makes everything sound like a beer commercial.”
And after sketching out a Profit & Loss statement for a hypothetical but not implausible band who’s signed to a major, recorded an album, and hit the road, Albini concludes:
“This is how much each player got paid at the end of the game.
Record company: $710,000
Previous label: $50,000
Band member net income each: $4,031.25…
Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.”
All this may sound like just a bunch of trivial, early-90s cynicism, and I’m sure a lot of it is, what with the tectonic shifts that have occurred in the music industry since “The Problem with Music” was penned, but nevertheless Albini’s points and general attitude in this essay are, I think, important and insightful for bands and musicians active now. Even though a band can theoretically operate off the traditional corporate channels by promoting themselves on social media and, if feasible, by recording at home or in somebody’s grandmother’s basement, it never hurts to keep a keen eye out for exploitation in whatever form it may take; and Albini has quite an eye for hucksterism of any color and shape.