Steve Albini's Music Industry Talk Was Great … But It Forgot About (Some of) the Little Guys

If you're a music enthusiast who has access to social media, chances are you've probably, by now, seen a thing or two about Steve Albini's excellent keynote speech at last weekend's Face the Music Conference in Melbourne, Australia. In it, Albini argued that the music industry is better off now than it was before the advent of digital music, in part because of the sheer access it affords listeners, as well as the ease of creation and distribution offered to musicians. His arguments were extensive, well thought-out and articulated, and certainly a refreshing change to all of the “music is dead” melodrama we've all been subjected to for years now, as record sales continue to decrease and the industry giants increasingly flail. 

[jump] Then on Monday, Garth Brooks hit the Access Hollywood studio and, prompted by a question about Taylor Swift's bold decision to pull her music from Spotify, gave Swift a clear thumbs-up: “When music starts standing up for itself, it's gonna get a lot better,” Brooks said. “There's some big friends in music we need to stand up to. I mean, if iTunes is gonna tell you how to sell your stuff and it's only gonna go this way, don't forget who's creating the music.” In the same interview, Brooks called YouTube “the devil.” 

Now, ordinarily, if you asked us to pick sides in a Brooks-Albini music philosophy fight, we'd immediately side with Albini, no questions asked. (It really is the principle — punk rock everyman beats stadium-filling cowboy every time. That's basically the law.) However, in this case, neither one of them is all the way right — or all the way wrong.  

Steve Albini is renowned for operating under strict, pretty Socialist ideals. As was documented in a recent episode of Dave Grohl's HBO series Sonic Highways, Albini never takes royalties on the albums he records (which is uncommon for a sound engineer at his level). Instead, he gets paid by the hour, “like a plumber,” until the job is finished. He is careful to keep costs as low as possible. Because of this, he has had to resort to playing cards, at times, in order to cover the monthly costs of keeping his recording studio. We mention this because it is a great indicator of just how much Albini walks the talk and just how uncomfortable Albini is willing to be, in order to stick to his principles. 

Taking this into account, Albini's stance on the crumbling infrastructure of major labels is not a terribly surprising one. And in many ways, he's absolutely right. Technology has taken the DIY nature of punk and hardcore, and given it to the masses. It is more possible than ever before for people to make and put out music from the comfort of their bedrooms and, yes, that's pretty magical. It is possible to listen to any kind of music you want at any time of the day or night, at the mere touch of a button. And for people who grew up before the Internet existed, jumping through hoops and struggling to access independent music, that is unquestionably awe-inspiring. 

But there's a principle that Albini glosses over in his talk. After removing her back catalog from Spotify, Taylor Swift told Yahoo last week: “I just don't agree with perpetuating the perception that music should be free.” And while Swift has undercut her own words almost immediately by moving all of her music to Google's new streaming service (something that Billy Bragg wrote an awesome Facebook post about yesterday), not making money from sales is a serious issue, not just for artists at Swift's level, but mostly for very young, still unknown bands starting out. That's who everyone seems to forget in these arguments about streaming and royalties: the artists who nobody knows yet. 

Small bands do not have the luxury of making up for lost record sales in tour revenue, because they're just trying to get seen in the first place. And when small, independent labels don't sell enough records to give their as-yet-unknown artists a little money to help them go on the road, it is a major problem. We're sure Albini and Grohl roughed it out for years as struggling musicians, but these days, bands are in an even worse position. Because if nobody's buying a demo or a CD at the show, and if there's no small label behind you giving you an allowance, that's a lot less gas and food money. Bands might be able to make a lot of music and release it from home now, but increasingly, that's precisely where young bands get trapped: home. Because there's no money to tour — not far anyway.

Finally, in his talk, Albini broke down expertly why having a music industry run by a tiny handful of power-mad, money-hungry giants was bad for both artists and listeners. And we agree with him entirely. But who's to say that, as the old giants are falling, there aren't new, just slightly different ones popping up in their place? Albini notes that, in the bad old days, bands on major labels were frequently cheated out of money. He's right. But does that justify artists still being cheated out of money in newer, more technologically advanced ways? Does the fact that Pandora and Spotify give music away for free, (or for a small subscription fee) justify how little compensation they give to artists? Let's keep in mind too that these are relatively young companies still finding their feet. Who's to say what they'll turn into in the next ten years? The major labels didn't start out so monstrous and iTunes didn't start out by invading private accounts with shitty U2 albums.

Dave Grohl said last week that he didn't care what people paid for his music, because he had some big stadium shows coming up. And Albini asserted in his talk that people today were “more ardent” for music and therefore “willing to spend more on seeing it played live.” Are they willing to pay more? Or do they just not have a choice? It seems to us like people — in our vicinity at least — are forced to pick and choose more and more who they're going to see because they can't afford to see everyone they want to (especially for individuals who have a fondness for big pop artists). Ticket prices have ballooned in the last five to ten years to levels that are, frankly, ridiculous. It's a side-note, but we'd rather pay $12 for an album and $60 for a show than nothing for an album and $140 for a show.

We're not saying that we don't agree with the vast majority of what Albini said here. We're just saying that shit's not all roses for the little guy right now. We must not assume that just because we're swimming in a sea of endless free music, somebody isn't paying for it.   

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