Steve Albini Praises Internet, Pans Miley Cyrus in Keynote

Marc Hogan

By Marc Hogan

Lead News Writer
on 11.17.14 in News

Steve Albini has no truck with false nostalgia for the pre-internet era. The Big Black and Shellac band leader and recording engineer who oversaw such watershed albums as Nirvana‘s In Utero made that plain in a keynote address over the weekend at Melbourne, Australia’s Face the Music Conference. Earlier this year, a little more than two decades after his essay “The Problem with Music,” Albini told an interviewer the internet had essentially solved the problem, and he expanded on that point in his roughly 7,000-word remarks, as transcribed The Guardian.

The fascinating, unsparing address covers an array of topics that’s well worth reading in full. Albini declared himself “both satisfied and optimistic about the state of the music scene” and said he welcomed the related “social and technological changes.” He also framed the comments as a possible starting point for a conversation about the resilience and welcomingness of the music community.

“The internet has facilitated the most direct and efficient, compact relationship ever between band and audience,” Albini concluded in remarks that ranged from Tim Hecker to Miley Cyrus. “And I do not mourn the loss of the offices of inefficiencies that died in the process. I suppose some people are out of work. But the same things happened when the automobile replaced the horse, and all the blacksmiths had to adapt, spending their time making garden gates rather than horseshoes.”

As for why Albini is satisfied with the state of the music industry, he began by describing a pre-internet system that he served the interests of many people but, as he sees it, bands and listeners.

He praised the late British DJ John Peel, a longtime champion of independent music, as a “great man” and an exception to the old, “payola-driven” media landscape. And Albini recalled how independent bands, labels and stores started to form the beginnings of an alternative distribution framework.

Without the major labels’ excessive spending on middlemen, independent artists could make decent money, Albini recalled. “My band, as an example, was returned 50 percent of the net profit on every title that we released through our record label,” he said. “I worked it out and that earned us a better per-piece royalty than Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna or any other superstar operating concurrently. And we were only one of thousands of such bands.”

The internet put an end to that particular independent alternative, Albini said, but it also created a world where listeners can hear vastly more music than was previously available. “Music that is hard to find was now easy to find,” he explained. “Music to suit my specific tastes, as fucked up as they might be, was now accessible by a few clicks or maybe posting a query on a message board.”

This “audience-driven music distribution” has helped bands, too, according to Albini. As an example, he pointed out how the internet has brought new attention to long-ago recordings, even leading to the reunion of Detroit band Death decades after their sole album. And people who want to make music, he noted, now have easy access to technology to make and distribute it — even to locations across the world, which used to be tougher than we perhaps now remember.

Albini painted a picture of a fan in a “far-flung” place sending a message to the singer of a new favorite band, and then the singer responding from a phone on the other side of the globe. “If such a thing were possible when I was a teenager I’m certain I would have become a right nuisance to the Ramones,” he said.

The change recalls the independent model that rose up before the internet, Albini observed. “The old system was built by the industry to serve the players inside the industry,” he explained. “The new system where music is shared informally and the bands have a direct relationship to the fans was built by the bands and the fans in the manner of the old underground.”

As part of this shift, listeners’ tastes have grown broader, too, as Albini — after mentioning Leather, Hecker, Cincinnati soul, “handbag disco” and improv guitar noodlings from Oren Ambarchi or the Takoma label —  detailed with a colorful analogy that can only be quoted in full:

“Imagine a great hall of fetishes where whatever you felt like fucking or being fucked by, however often your tastes might change, no matter what hardware or harnesses were required, you could open the gates and have at it on a comfy mattress at any time of day. That’s what the internet has become for music fans. Plus bleacher seats for a cheering section.”

The post-internet model has led to music fans who are more passionate about music and willing to pay more for it, he went on, noting a massive increase in how much bands can earn from playing live.

As for Albini’s optimism about the future, he assailed what he called the “platitude” that “‘We need to figure out how to make internet distribution work for everyone.’” He criticized just about every aspect of that sentence, mentioning U2′s Apple-distributed album, drawing a comparison to water faucets and discussing farts along the way.

(OK, here’s the fart quote in full: “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.”)

Albini closed his remarks with some endlessly quotable asides. Pointing out what he described as the absurdity of rules preventing users from uploading videos containing copyrighted background music, he said: “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.”

Finally, if music companies want him to pay for listening to music, he said he wants to get paid for being subjected to unwanted music. “If you think my listening is worth something, OK then, so do I,” he said. “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.”

Read the full transcript over at the Guardian.