Steve Albini Part 2

A Reply As Posted on Rec.Audio.Pro Usenet Newsgroup on December 27, 2000


Subject: Re: The problem with music...
Date: Wed, Dec 27, 2000 10:05 PM

ryanm wrote:
"I read "The Problem With Music" by Steve Albini and I've heard all of this before, but now my question is: How does a band avoid all of these problems?

Steve answered:
Ryan: This is a very long discussion, if it were to be complete. The gist of it is that the system of the mainstream music business (which includes, but is not limited to big record labels, agents, lawyers, managers and promotions people) is a ready-made solution to the problem of promoting and exploiting music and musicians. It is a system into which anyone can be plugged, and the results (while they vary from case to case) will be that the system reinforces and rewards itself, using the artist and audience as raw materials. If there is exceptional success, the artist will receive some small part of the reward.

A system with so many components is bound to be inefficient with money, and since the money is generated by the artist/audience interaction, it's easy to see why it is skewed against them. A faucet doesn't operate for its own benefit, but to fill up the myriad cups held up to it.

If the question you're asking is "Can my band become a world-wide household name and my records become hits without all this machinery?" I think any reasoned analysis would answer "No."

Hits and world-wide promotion are expensive to acquire, and no individual band or small label -- starting from scratch -- can do it. Long-term, stable core audiences, yes, but quick saturation and overwhelming, sustained hype, no.

If the question you're asking is "Can I play music, sell records in the hundreds-of-thousands, tour the world and continue doing these things indefinitely without all this machinery?" The answer is yes.

The independent music scene is a flourishing, sustaining environment, and many bands have done this and continue to do it with literally _no_ participation from the conventional mainstream industry. There are also niche markets for specialty music (ethnic musics, the rock and dance underground, jazz/improv and experimental music, christian music, protest/political music, women's music, children's music, roots music and others) which have their associated touring and record sales environments which make the short-term/high risk mentality of the mainstream moot.

You may need help to get anywhere in music, but you can choose the people who help you according to the criteria of efficiency, fairness and sympathy to your type of music and personality rather than profile, clout and pre-ordained status.

If the question is "Do these big companies really need to behave this way in order to stay in business?" the answer is no, but there is no incentive for them to change, and it is unlikely they ever (fundamentally) will.

From the music business perspective, the system works quite well. Bands are a disposable commodity whose purpose is to generate money, which is then redistributed among the players. The bands are rarely popular for long enough or command enough respect to become players themselves -- they are merely the day laborers who bring in the receipts.

There are rare instances where a big label is the best option for a small band, and I don't mean to sound condescending, but if you love your band and you love music, you will do it regardless of your potential for stardom. If your band doesn't mean much to you, and you think your music won't last long enough to earn its own unique "natural" audience, then the big labels are the only way to exploit it temporarily, and the risk to your band may be worth taking.

Ryan: "I mean, it's not like they have a quarter-mil just sitting around that they can use for recording and touring."

Steve replied: Records can be made much less expensively than that, as you must know by now, and tours don't need to cost _anything_ if they are organized efficiently. In fact, a very strong case can be made that any tour which requires outside "support" shouldn't be undertaken, as it isn't likely to generate any real interest in the band.

Ryan: "I mean, I'm not Jimmy Page, I'm not independantly wealthy enough to support a band through it's first year or two until it starts selling records."

Steve replied: Presumably, you are supporting your band as a hobby right now. There's no reason that relationship can't continue indefinitely. Is it imperitive that you quit your job and forsake all other income? I never have.

Ryan: "I also don't have the distribution connections, the radio connections, the weight with the venues, etc."

Steve replied: If you sell your records to people who want them, and are content with however many that is, then you don't need "connections." You make your records available and they will develop their own interest, if there is any there to develop. If you are content with radio stations playing your records only when they like them, then you don't need radio promotion. If you are content to play only in those places which want you to play, then you don't need "weight" at the venues. All of these things develop themselves over time, and time doesn't cost anything.

Ryan: "So how do you get around all of this? I mean, how does a small-time band become a big-time band without ending up in the hole, owing a small fortune to a label? And how does a small time band get distribution, etc, without giving up all the royalties? It seems to me that, unless you are Nikka Costa (Bob Costa's daughter) or Mariah Carey (married to Tommy Mottola), the only way you'll get the right connections and stuff is to sign on with a label. Unless there's a way you know about that I don't."

Steve replied: Like I said, if you want world-wide saturation and hype, you have to use the ready-made solution of the mainstream industry. If you are willing to let your audience develop over time, then you have many more options, and you'll need to figure out along the way which are the best for your band. If there was another ready-made solution, everyone would do that instead.

Good luck,
-steve albini
Electrical Audio
sa@electrical dot com