January 10, 2013
Steve Albini to update “The Problem With Music”
by Kelly Burdick
Twenty years ago, Steve Albini wrote an essay for The Baffler titled “The Problem with Music.” Albini is a musician and recording engineer, a member of the celebrated punk groups Big Black and Shellac. He’s most famous, however, for his recording work, including as engineer on hundreds of indie and major label albums. Even if you don’t know his name, you’ve heard his recordings — the drums are loud, the vocals low. To just shoot at some of the most famous examples: there’s Nirvana’s In Utero and The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa. He also owns a wonderful recording studio in Chicago, Electrical Audio.
Albini’s 1993 Baffler essay was a way of biting the hand that fed: though Albini had worked for almost all of the major labels, he hated their business model. The essay was big news and soon became one of the most anthologized and reprinted essay of the 1990s. He begins by imagining a band about to sign with a major label:
I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed. Nobody can see what’s printed on the contract. It’s too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody’s eyes water.
And he went on to document just how shitty the money was … A standard contract for a new act might net a record company some $700,000, but a band member only walked away with about $4,000 — and that was after selling 250,000 records and going on tour.
But twenty years later, the music business has changed radically, and so, it seems, has Albini’s take on the business. As announced in a Jacobin cover story attacking the magazine that published the original essay, Albini will publish a sequel in the next issue of Jacobin “in which he strikes a more hopeful note about the post-Napster era than he did in his earlier anti-major label screed.”
Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.