"I actually feel like the online communities are one of the most important parts of the music scene."
For seven years now, Face The Music conference (now in its fifth year of partnership with Melbourne Music Week) has brought some of the biggest names in music to Melbourne to give their perspective on the ever-changing industry that surrounds them. This year, however, they have outdone themselves by obtaining the services of none other than Steve Albini for the major 2014 keynote speech, a man with not only a ludicrously impressive list of achievements under his belt but one who also possesses a fountain of musical wisdom and knowledge that he’s more than willing to share in his inimitable style.
Albini is, of course, best known in mainstream circles as the controversial choice of producer for Nirvana’s 1993 third album, In Utero, despite having produced or engineered releases for literally thousands of artists (including names such as the Pixies, The Breeders, PJ Harvey, Silkworm and Jason Molina). Plus he’s no musical slouch in his own right, having spent decades fronting uncompromising bands such as Big Black, Rapeman and his current outfit Shellac, all of whom accrued big followings in the underground realms.
Despite this more than impressive résumé, however, Albini is more notorious amongst purist circles for being an outspoken champion of the independent music sector — and, conversely, a scathing critic of most elements of the mainstream music scene — and it’s without doubt lessons he’s gleaned in this latter capacity which will unequivocally make his Face The Music keynote so fascinating. With this in mind, does he have any qualms about actually being involved in music industry conferences?
“I find myself becoming more comfortable with it the more I do it,” he tells. “Originally I was only doing speaking engagements in an educational capacity in front of students, so I would be a guest lecturer or a guest of the classroom and that sort of thing. I enjoyed that because the people in the audience are interested in entering a profession that I can give them some advice on, but then I’ve also spoken at music conferences about music in general — which is sort of what Face The Music is — and in that context I find that you run into more attitudes and more perspectives that you have not considered previously, because it’s a general audience and not a specialist audience. So I find that the questions that I deal with and the conversations and stuff cover a broader range.
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“In the case of Face The Music I’m going to be giving a speech, but the speech is — hopefully — then going to be the starting point for a conversation, and that conversation is going to be with the entire audience and the whole of the music scene. I definitely don’t feel like I have something that I need to say, I feel like I have a perspective that might enlighten some of my positions — and I have a perspective that might be worth considering — but I genuinely feel that I learn as much as I teach in these scenarios.”
Given his wide palette of musical experience has he had the chance yet to consider what tack he’s going to take with his Face The Music keynote speech?
“The main thrust of it is that there is kind of a general perspective in the public that the music scene is not doing well now, and that comes from the corporate music industry suffering due to the devaluation of the sale and purchase of music,” Albini explains. “So the corporate music industry is suffering, there’s less money being thrown around and that means that other corporate players like radio stations and television stations and promotion companies and managers and lawyers and people like that all have less business as well, and that side of things — the administrative side of things — is becoming something of a ghost town. There are very few people left doing that, they’re not making as much money as they used to, record labels are collapsing — that sort of thing — and there’s a perception that all that is bad. The problem is that those people were never the most important part of the music scene; the bands and the audiences were the most important parts, and from their perspective — the perspective of the bands and the audience — things are going great.
I just want to pierce the partition between the perception that the music business is failing and the reality that being in a band and being an active musician right now is pretty fucking great.
“It’s never been easier to be in a band. It’s never been easier to get your music distributed around the world, but that now happens by default and for free, so bands are building audiences around the world without any expenditure or any effort really. And that makes a large part of the music business — the former vertical monopoly of the music business — irrelevant. The whole promotional side of it, where radio pluggers and promotional people and ad people and publicists and people like that were making their living by trying to make people listen to music, now people can listen easily just by clicking a link on their computer, because they want to and not because they’re being directed to something by a publicist or whatever.
"So the public perspective that the music scene is suffering is a mistaken association of the music business and the music scene — the business side is not doing great. There’s not a lot of money in it anymore and big companies are not succeeding, but on the street level — people in bands and people who like music — everything seems to be going quite well. There’s much better access to music, there’s much better access to audiences, there are more bands playing, there are more places to play, there’s a much wider variety of music available to your average listener, people can indulge their tastes with remarkable specificity — I have a hard time picturing any of that as being bad. It’s hard for me to think that any of those things that have happened could be described as bad in any way. I just want to pierce the partition between the perception that the music business is failing and the reality that being in a band and being an active musician right now is pretty fucking great.”
The Music posits that perhaps the gradual decline in access to decent record shops may be one of the few downsides of these tech-driven changes, but Albini still manages to find a positive spin on this.
“The thing that’s cool now though is that if you find a decent record store now, the people who are running it are hardcore,” he enthuses. “If you go up to the counter now and say, ‘This is what I like — what do you recommend?’, that guy will go off on you for twenty minutes giving you recommendations. It’s a really under-utilised resource — it’s like running into somebody who’s an antiquity re-enactor or something like that, he’s going to about his area of expertise in really deep, almost autistic, detail. Those people are great resources to have, so if you stumble across a kind of music and you find a record store that carries it, somebody there is going to be the world expert on it. That’s a really rewarding exchange when that happens. And if you find a great record store — and there are a number of great record stores in Chicago, this place called Reckless Records has been around forever and their staff is really knowledgeable and exactly the type of people I was describing, and there’s a record store called Dusty Groove in Chicago that’s similar but specialising in black music and it’s exactly the same deal, the people there are just rabid fans – and when you run across somebody that’s deeply enthusiastic about something and they know everything there is to know about it, that’s a great resource as a fan.”
I actually feel like the online communities are one of the most important parts of the music scene, just because they develop an identity and can provide a group energy and enthusiasm for a project.
In his youth, Albini wrote constantly and enthusiastically for underground mags and fanzines — has he noticed a resurgence in grassroots criticism with the proliferation of blogs and the myriad other ways to access and deliver criticism on the internet?
“Oh yeah, I see a very strong parallel between all of those message boards and the fanzines and the early BBS [bulletin board service] culture and stuff,” he tells. “I actually feel like the online communities are one of the most important parts of the music scene, just because they develop an identity and can provide a group energy and enthusiasm for a project. There are clubs that have opened and record labels that have started and tours that have been put together and big get-togethers that have been started because of online communities — I think they’re genuinely important parts of the music scene.”
It’s been twenty years since Albini dropped his infamous manifesto about the problem with the major universe, his essay The Problem With Music written for literary magazine The Baffler exposing the inner-machinations of labels and the way that they, in his view, basically extorted bands. Many of these issues have dissipated naturally over time as technological change has eroded major labels’ power, but Albini believes that many of those lessons are still relevant.
“The specifics of it are not [relevant]; the specifics of how a record label behaves or the way people behave dealing with the technology of the day, that has all changed,” he argues. “In particular, from that article, the breakdown of where the money would be spent on a band’s behalf — that money would be spent differently now. But the principle that the music business does not exist to benefit the bands but instead exists to benefit itself, that principle is still valid, and I think that’s the reason why the music business is becoming increasingly irrelevant and why bands are just comfortable taking matters into their own hands.”
Albini’s idiosyncratic take on his studio craft — whereby he has minimal input to a band’s aesthetics, focusing on sound — means he prefers to be credited as “recording engineer” rather than producer. Despite the massive names he’s worked with in the past he routinely takes on bands of all styles and statures at Electrical Audio Studios (the Chicago concern he’s owned and operated for nearly two decades) and keeps his rates remarkable affordable. Does working with bands from all levels of the totem pole give him a better perspective on the musical landscape?
[Cheap Trick are] a terrific example of a band that’s taken advantage of all of the stuff that the internet and the changes in the music business have allowed them.
“We do everything from teenagers making their first demo to people who have been making record for thirty years making another one — we get all stripes in here — and every single band we work with has had to figure out a way to take advantage of the changes in the music scene that the internet has wrought,” he offers. “And the surprising thing is that you’d think that older, more entrenched bands would have a harder time of it, and granted some of them do — the ones that are sort of detached from the business of their existence — but the ones who have remained engaged in day-to-day operations, those bands [are doing surprisingly fine].
"I’ll give you an example in Cheap Trick, a band who had hits in the ‘70s and who are still playing and are still great, an astonishingly great live band — they have been managing their band very successfully in the transition to the internet age by gradually getting control of their masters from their old record labels and then doing their own licenses for things like soundtracks and video games. And they have their own YouTube channel, where they’ve opened up their own archive of old bootleg and television footage of them. They have done a really remarkable job of bringing a dinosaur band into a contemporary milieu, and they’re a terrific example of a band that’s taken advantage of all of the stuff that the internet and the changes in the music business have allowed them. They can make their own records and sell them directly to the audience, rather than having to deal with a record label. They can promote themselves to their own intrinsic fanbase, rather than having to hope that a general audience would like them.”
Albini was a passionate, albeit idealistic, lover of music in his youth and unsurprisingly he’s found it challenging to maintain that zeal existing as he does at the nexus between art and commerce.
“I won’t lie — my relationship with music has changed,” he muses. “Quite a bit. When you’re in the studio and you’re listening to music non-stop, when you’re constantly being exposed to music and you’re having to listen critically to it hour after hour, day after day, it ceases to be special in certain aspects. When you finish the day in the studio, you don’t race home and put on a record, and in a way I kinda feel like I’ve been cheated slightly from that experience. I used to have this joy in encountering a record that I haven’t seen before, and I still get that but it’s pretty rare now. If there’s something I’m anticipating and it shows up, or there’s something that I’ve been looking for a while and I find it, then that’s great but I used to be an absolutely voracious consumer of new music and I’m not anymore. And that does bother me — it does make me feel like I’m falling out of touch.
When you’re in the studio and you’re listening to music non-stop ... it ceases to be special in certain aspects.
“There’s a thing when you’re granted permission to do something that you love as your profession where your relationship to it changes, and over time it stops being the thing that seemed so magical to you in the beginning and it just seems like everyday monotony. My appreciation for music is still there, but I definitely am not as active in the music scene as I used to be, and that’s one-hundred percent due to the fatigue of having to deal with music non-stop every day.”
Fortunately for fans of Albini’s own music, this creeping malaise affecting his love of the form has not seeped into his creative world (perfectly evinced by Shellac’s brand new long-player, Dude Incredible).
“Well, I should say that when Shellac gets together to do stuff it really does seem like the rest of the world disappears and I’m quite content with Shellac as a creative outlet,” he smiles. “The way we play together and the way we get along and way we deal with each other — I feel like we’ve all adapted supremely well to that environment, so it’s not the case that I’ll ever resent Shellac for being an intrusion in my life.”