Steve Albini on the Liberation of Indie Artists

Steve Albini performing live in Minehead, England in 2007.(Photo credit: Freekorps.)

Steve Albini performing live
in Minehead, England in 2007.
(Photo credit: Freekorps.)

Steve Albini has worked with legions of indie rock bands over the years, although he is most famously associated with Nirvana’s multiplatinum In Utero album, which is getting a souped up 20th anniversary reissue this month that was overseen by Albini, Dave Grohl, Krist Novocelic and Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear. These days, the Chicago-based producer runs his Electrical Audio studio and continues to record and make music on his own terms. His candor and bluntness have prompted some to call him a curmudgeon, although I found his directness refreshing, even if he does not seem to hold high esteem for a lot of professional music journalists these days. That’s okay, he’s still interesting to talk to.

I recently chatted with Albini about In Utero for, and we addressed so much more about the music industry that is now presented here on A.D.D.

What were your expectations for In Utero when you made it, and are you surprised at how it holds up now?
I kind of expected that there would be some resistance from the administrative part of their career, the record label people and management. Just because the way they decided to make the record, which I thought was appropriate, was to just go off on their own and knock it out in a few days and then present it that way rather than having to go through a long, drawn out, committee-based process of record production where a lot of people get to provide input and influence the process. The non-musician parts of this industry don’t have very much respect for musicians, so they tend to want to interfere so they can claim authorship of something without actually having to go through the effort of creating anything. That’s a persistent problem with this industry, but now that the artists have more control over their careers, it is becoming much less of an issue. Now there’s much less of an industry to bother trying to influence, so the artists organically have more control over every aspect of their careers now, which is pretty great.

Steve Albini being interviewed by Leeds Metropolitan University in 2010.

Steve Albini being interviewed by
Leeds Metropolitan University in 2010.

               That said, Nirvana were the biggest band in the world making a record that was following up one of the most important records of their generation, so the expectations on it were quite high. From a band standpoint, that’s exciting and that’s an opportunity and means what they do next will definitely have an audience. And they can now do whatever they want and be certain that it’s going to find a place and people are going to listen to it. From the administrative side, that’s a terrifying notion because then you’re looking at potentially having something be not as successful, and that just strikes fear into the hearts of people who measure success in sales. That was the core of the divide between the creative side and the administrative side of the band’s career at that point.
               Like I said, we’ve gone past that point now. No one buys records anymore unless they have a pretty strong reason to. Records like this deluxe edition are one way of providing a reason for people to buy records. The few record labels that have survived and seen their sales actually increase in the last few years have been those specialty labels making very specific product for a defined market that appreciates quality. Those labels have been investing quite heavily in making high-quality records — good packaging, good mastering, reverent or sympathetic and sensitive material to accompany the records. There have been a lot of really beautiful reissue sets done that were clearly labors of love, and that reflects all the way through the process and makes an audience eager to participate because they can tell that the people making the record have shared their enthusiasm for the band.

“I can’t say that there is a correlation between spending more time and more money and the record getting better. Generally speaking, a record is going to be as good as it can get in a very short period of time, and then after that you’re just fiddling around in the margins.”

Have you stayed in touch with Dave Grohl, Krist Novocelic and Pat Smear over the years?
We haven’t really stayed particularly in close contact. It was great to be reawaken our relationship and find that out they were just as cool as I thought they were at the time and that they still were the same people they were then. They have obviously been through a lot and been super successful through their various enterprises, and it would be easy for them to have been changed by it. It was great to see that fundamentally they haven’t been changed and were still awesome dudes.

It’s an interesting time because bands in some cases have more control of their careers. At the same time, I still think it’s good to have a producer or an engineer or someone who can help market you in a certain way. The expectations are lower now. There really isn’t even much of a market for managing new bands because many of them simply want to make a living rather than aspiring to bigger things.
As a working musician and as someone whose entire peer group is working musicians, I see that as a great thing in that bands are now earning their principle living by performing their music in front of an audience, and there’s less room for the parasitic part of the music industry — managers, lawyers and labels and people who are siphoning money out of that relationship between audience and the bands — and the lion’s share of the money is now going to the band. That obviously affects other secondary participants in the industry. Because my sympathies lie with the bands and the audience, both of which I identify with, I see all of these changes as being fundamentally good. They do make it harder on people who are office people or who worked otherwise in the sale of physical records, but I don’t have much interaction with those people. Like they say, you’re more sympathetic toward baby animals because they’re cuter. A dude in an office is not as cute as people I know and interact with and see express themselves creatively through their life’s work.

Do you think a lot of artists work better in a pressure cooker environment and when they have limitations on the time and resources allotted?
I have worked with some people who didn’t have limitations on their resources, and a great vast majority of the records that I’ve done have been done to a very specific budget. You have $3,000, come back with a record. I do know that I’ve worked on records that ended up being really great records that were made under those circumstances. I’ve made some records were there were no such constraints, where there was a bigger budget and a longer timescale and a lot more flexibility, and I can’t say that there is a correlation between spending more time and more money and the record getting better. Generally speaking, a record is going to be as good as it can get in a very short period of time, and then after that you’re just fiddling around in the margins. For some people, it’s a diversion to fiddle around in the margins, and they want to satisfy their curiosity about certain things, and I suppose there might be a couple of extra percentage points of awesome that they’re shooting for, and until they exhaust the possibilities of that they won’t fully accept or appreciate that they’ve gotten to where they wanted to go. [In terms of] the process, I can understand that and am happy to provide what anybody wants in the studio in order to do that, but there is no correlation between spending more money and making a better record. Records are either good or bad, and they’re either cheap or expensive, and there’s no correlation between one axis or the other.

The 20th Anniversary Edition of Nirvana's In Utero.

The 20th Anniversary Edition of Nirvana’s In Utero.

These days, I think a lot of people are confusing production quality with artistic quality.
That’s always been the case. Going back as far as the ’40s and ’50s, people would just slap strings on something and call it done. There are a lot of different ways now that you can gussy something up and make it momentarily stimulating by having some sort of external fairy dust and magic applied to it. In fact, you could say that the principal problem with music now is that it’s principally fairy dust and there isn’t much actual music underneath. I do know that that’s not necessarily any worse than having a team of professional songwriters writing songs and assigning them to vocalists and then hiring a pit orchestra to play the backing as was done in the ’50s and ’60s. There are different ways of mechanizing the process and different ways of automating and trying to squeeze out the distinctive nature of normal human expression. There are different approaches to solving the same non-problem. Records being made today sound terrible of course, but there have always been terrible records. There’s never been a shortage of bad records.

“Bands are now earning their principle living by performing their music in front of an audience, and there’s less room for the parasitic part of the music industry — managers, lawyers and labels and people who are siphoning money out of that relationship between audience and the bands.”

The listening rituals have certainly changed. People are listening to things that work on their iPods or in the car, even people our age, so I don’t think kids are often doing what we did. We sat down with a new album and listened to it intently. Besides, MP3s don’t sound that good.
There are people for whom music is important and they will buy the record, take it home and listen to it. I know because I do that. I know that there are other people like me because I see them in record stores standing next to me looking at records. So I know there are people out there like me to do that, and I assume every now and again a record will be heard in an environment that allows you to hear how good it is. In those circumstances, I feel like not having a record sound good is a bigger loss than occasionally having it sound bad on somebody’s iPod because a lot of things are going to sound bad on the iPod, and a person who is listening to his music on an iPod clearly doesn’t particularly care that things sound bad. So let that person have his iPod experience. That’s how he interfaces with music and his life, and I think that’s fine. It’s an enormously convenient and really beautiful way for people to bring music into every facet of their lives, so I’m 100% fine with that. But I don’t think that the master, the thing that sits on the shelf for all eternity to represent the life’s work of an artist, should be compromised for the sake of somebody’s iPhone.

Albini sharing the stage with Ani DiFranco and RZA at the 2005 New Yorker Festival.(Photo credit: Jordan Davis.)

Albini sharing the stage with Ani DiFranco
and RZA at the 2005 New Yorker Festival.
(Photo credit: Jordan Davis.)

The Internet has created this conundrum. On one hand, people are being exposed to more bands and artists than ever before, and artists are more easily reaching new fans. At the same time, it’s become harder for some people to make a living. It’s definitely forced a lot of people to step up the live game in order to bring in revenue.
You say that people are finding it harder to make a living. I deal with independent bands all day every day. That is my business, dealing with independent bands. They have a better time now than they have ever had. Gig prices have escalated. Gig fees are an order of magnitude higher than they were at the beginning of the ’90s. Ten times. You can go see shows now for $20 there were literally $2. The great vast majority of that money is going to the bands. It’s an unfiltered economy now. In the ’90s, you had bands touring to promote a record presumably because the sales of those records would earn them some money. The sales of those records of course didn’t earn them any money, so they were touring to promote the record that was making money for the rest of the industry, not for them. Now a band is on tour and is making money for themselves, and the entire music scene has evolved to accommodate the notion that when you pay for a gig you should pay for the gig rather than pay for the administration and the careers of all the people other than the people performing on stage. It’s actually been an absolutely beautiful development in terms of the independent music scene. Bands are making much more money now playing shows. It’s viable for bands to make a comfortable living with literally no [CD] sales. Niche artists, especially people whose music would never be played on the radio back when there was radio, now through the magic of the Internet can have a following who can find them, and they can promote themselves to people who generally like them as opposed to trying to promote themselves to a mass-market audience, which would then presumably filter down to the people who really like them.

What has been the most important life lesson that you’ve learned after all these years?
The most important thing is the same thing that your parents would tell you when you were a kid — be square with everybody, don’t bullshit anybody. If your interaction with somebody is not 100% genuine, if you’re not being completely straight with somebody, then the only real excuse for that is if you’re going to go to jail otherwise. If you’re not in bodily danger, then you really do owe it to everybody you interact with to be above board with them and be straight with them. I know in business terms it’s kind of seen as clever or laudable or proper business etiquette to try to screw somebody as bad as you possibly can when you’re dealing with them in business. I come from the perspective that business is just another part of regular life, and taking advantage of somebody, whether it’s in business or in the supermarket, is just as wrong. I just feel like everybody needs to be square with everybody. Don’t bullshit people. If you’re not good at something, admit you’re not good at it. You can try it after having admitted that you’re not good at it, and maybe through that process will become good at it, but don’t tell people that you’re good at stuff that you’re bad at. Don’t tell people you can handle something that you can’t handle. Don’t tell people that they should expect something that they’re not going to get. That’s what it boils down to.

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