Steve Albini is a renowned musician, record engineer, producer and songwriter. He’s also not shy of expressing a controversial opinion or two.
The 52-year-old has spent nearly 40 years making music, and developed a unique perspective on the business that surrounds that process.
With a long history in the DIY music scene as one third of Shellac, and a recording engineer for bands including Nirvana, Pixies, Mogwai, PJ Harvey, Manic Street Preachers, The Cribs and many, many more, Albini has made a living without tying himself to a major corporation.
He famously spurned the chance to take a royalty percentage of multi-platinum albums such as Nirvana’s In Utero, sacrificing riches by instead working for a flat fee – simply on a point of principle.
In 1993, Albini’s essay, The Problem With Music, explained his issues with major labels, attacking them for being helmed by “faceless industry lackeys” and holding bands “hostage” with opaque contracts and unfair royalty splits.
Then, during a keynote speech at Face the Music Conference in Melbourne last year, Albini updated his thesis, opining that the internet age has created “audience-driven music distribution” that’s “made it much easier to conduct the day-to-day business of being in a band”.
The Melbourne keynote has since been viewed over 57,000 times on YouTube.
Addressing an audience at Primavera Pro in Barcelona (pictured), he let rip on topics including copyright, the ‘administration’ of the music business and the future of streaming services.
Here are five of the highlights:
‘The music industry is a parasite’
“I don’t feel like I’m part of the music industry, the music industry meaning the corporatised business structures where you have people who are in the lower level, people in the upper level, people in administration, and people making legal relationships between all those people.
“All of that has always really bothered me.
“When I think about it, it makes me angry that it exists as a parasite on the music scene, which is the fans, bands, shows, and the people who help them.
“This administrative structure That’s been syphoning money out of the [music] scene has always seemed artificial and UNNECESSARY.”
“That all feels very organic to me, fraternal and comfortable.
“This administrative business structure that’s syphoning money out of that whole scene has always seemed artificial and unnecessary and I’ve spent my life trying to remove its influence.”
‘Hype and promotion no longer works’
“When bands were signed to record labels before [the internet age], the contacts were unfair and the record label controlled the exposure.
“Now there is so much music it’s hard to be noticed. But that means there’s so much music available because it’s so easy for music to become available.
“So the barriers have been removed for exposure, and the relationships that bands build with their audience is going to be based on the music finding a sympathetic audience.
“If your music is not special, it’s no longer possible for hype to do all of the work.”
“If your music is not special, it’s no longer possible for hype and promotion to do all of the work. There are always going be a few mainstream pop stars, but that is no longer the main focus of music scene.
“The main focus is going to be people finding music on their own and discovering stuff that they like specifically for themselves.”
‘High quality streaming misses the point, but streaming services are just a temporary solution’
“Streaming platforms don’t have very good sound quality for music but that’s not why you listen to music on a streaming platform, you listen to music on a streaming platform because it’s convenient.
“In the 1960s there were transistor radios and the sound quality was terrible, but you could bring it with you to the swimming pool, you could listen to the radio while cooking.
“You listen on a streaming platform because it’s CONVENIENT.”
“Hi-fi has magnificent quality but that’s not the only way to listen to music and I think that’s a perfectly reasonable situation.
“But eventually we’ll have something even easier where you don’t have to subscribe, you don’t have to give any data, you can just play music on your phone or computer.
“I think that the natural progression of technology implies there will be something easier and that will default in the convenience. But I think sitting in the living room and playing records is always going to be there [too].”
‘Contracts are a complete fallacy’
“The idea that you have to have contracts to do [business] agreements, that you have to have formal understanding between people in order to have a long relationship, is a complete fallacy.
“If you enjoy working with someone and both feel the relationship is working out, you naturally carry on indefinitely.
“The way I’ve approached all of my business is that you don’t need contracts.”
“That’s the way I’ve approached essentially all of my business, you don’t need contracts.
“I think it’s the best, safest and also the most reasonable way to conduct, not just an informal things, but even very important things like millions of dollars worth of business between my band and a record company.”
‘copyright is not a realistic way to treat ideas’
“The constructs of copyright and intellectual property ownership is not a realistic way to treat ideas. Ideas once expressed become part of the common mentality, music once expressed becomes part of the common environment.
“I think the idea of intellectual property will naturally have to be modified to accommodate the way people exchange ideas and music and information.
“The old copyright model has expired. It can no longer exclusively control music.”
“The old copyright model – the person who creates something owns it and anyone else that wants to use it or see it has to pay them – has expired in the same way that around the world you’re seeing structures and social norms [lapse] that were standard for many years.
“It’s going to take a lot for the business to catch up to where the audience is, in the same way it takes a while for the church and the laws to catch up to where the people are.
“But there is no longer the possibility to exclusively control music through copyright.
“I think the term ‘piracy’ is absurd. Piracy is people boarding a ship with violence and killing people and physically stealing material goods….
“Equating somebody downloading something on his iPhone with that is preposterous.”Music Business Worldwide