Friday, November 21, 2014

Some Thoughts On Music In The Internet Age From Steve Albini

Steve Albini speaks at Melbourne’s Face the Music. Photograph: Jayden Ostwald

Steve Albini

I didn't have much time to listen to new music this week, but I did carve out enough time to read this fantastic piece by music producer and Shellac frontman, Steve Albini. In it, Albini discussed how the internet has addressed and in many cases solved the issues that he wrote about in his 1993 essay, "The Problem with Music." The way music is created, distributed, and consumed has changed rapidly within my lifetime, so it was nice to reflect on the way it used to be to realize that we truly are moving in a positive direction. Below is one passage I found particularly interesting:
"As the label shifted from vinyl to CD as the dominant format, the labels could easily sell the CD as a convenient, compact, trouble-free way to listen to music. The profit margin exploded and the money got stupid. Retails costs of a CD was half again or double more than an LP but the manufacturing, shipping and storage costs were a tiny fraction. The labels even used vinyl’s legacy as a tool to increase this profit margin by charging bands for unique packaging, despite the fact that CD packaging was designed to be standardised. Or pre-emptively charging back for broken CDs at a rate implying that someone was attacking the inventory with an axe. 
In the end the bands operating under this system earned very little from their record sales, unless they were monumental stars. Often enough bands would conduct their entire careers with a label and never reach the point where they had sufficiently recouped to get paid anything at all. Now the label made its per-piece profit on every record sold. And could recoup the cost of any records unsold. And all those other people got paid using the money that would have otherwise gone to the bands as royalties. Unsurprisingly, those other people also got paid pretty well. It stands to reason that if the label is paying you with someone else’s money, the label doesn’t need to care how much you charge. 
During the 90s there was something of an arms race to see who could write the biggest deal. That is, the deal with the most money being spent on the band’s behalf. In a singularly painless contest the money would either be paid to the band as a royalty, which would take that money out of the system and put it into things like houses and groceries and college educations. Or it could be paid to other operators within the industry, increasing the clout and prestige of the person doing the spending. It’s as if your boss, instead of giving your paycheck to you, could pay that money to his friends and business associates, invoking your name as he did. Since his net cost was the same and his friends and associates could return the favour, why would he ever want to let any of that money end up in your hands? It was a system that ensured waste by rewarding the most profligate spendthrifts in a system specifically engineered to waste the band’s money."
If you don't have time for the essay or if you're just not interested, maybe you'd just like to listen to a song from Shellac's new record, Dude Incredible:

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