A couple of weeks back, Tom Campbell pointed me to a fantastic piece in the Guardian, a full transcript of the key note Steve Albini gave at the Face the Music conference in Melbourne back in November. I mentioned it here briefly, and said I’d return to it, so here we are.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Albini’s work, it’s fair to say he’s a “veteran” of the underground music scene. Since the late 70s he’s worked as a musician, producer (he prefers “recording engineer”), studio owner, DJ, promoter… and on and on. What binds all his creative work is its fiercely uncompromising nature.

And Albini isn’t just artistically uncompromising either. Throughout his career he’s stood defiantly outside the mainstream record industry. For sure, he’s produced work on major labels (think Nirvana’s In Utero) but he’s conducted his affairs strictly independently. In doing so he’s built up a unique perspective on the industry – and a pretty jaundiced one at that. His position previously was probably best stated in his early 1990s talk, The Problem with Music, in which he cogently argued the case that the music industry was set up in such a way that it delivered maximum profit to itself, while delivering little in the way of reward for bands and little in the way of value for fans.

This talk returns to the theme, but with a twist: Albini thinks that the digital age has brought about some significant solutions to music’s “problems”. Now this is a long piece, with a carefully constructed and tightly argued case, so I urge you to read the thing in full, or at least stick the youtube clip on while you’re making dinner tonight. Albini is not only a clear thinker, he’s a fine, polemical writer and an engaging speaker. But at the risk of boiling it down rather too crudely, Albini’s argument could be summarised thus:

• For music fans, there is now unfettered and effectively unlimited access to all music.
• Bands have unprecedented access to cheap recording means and access to potential fans through a plethora of free or cheap distribution services.
• A network of bloggers and online zines has replaced the old behemoth media gatekeepers.
• There are vastly more opportunities to play live than ever before, and distributing music freely makes it much easier to establish a rep and get people to your shows, buy your merch etc.
• Intellectual property needs to be rethought completely, and very possibly simply dropped by musician as a means to make money.

Now, I have to say, that I broadly agree with every word (and again, please read his, rather than my summary), although in a moment I’ll talk about a slight nag. Where Albini is most convincing, however, is in debunking the notion of a “golden age” of music.

I think, depending on their age, if you asked most people when the golden age of rock or pop was, they’d variously reply the 60s or 70s. The 80s at a pinch. But in brute economic terms it was the 90s – by a very long way. The revenues steadily climbed in that decade and topped out around 2000. The reasons are various, from the massive impact of MTV (difficult to imagine now) to the reinvention of the Hollywood blockbuster as an extended promo video. But chief among the reasons was surely the rise of the CD, which allowed the industry to re-sell to its customers their entire record collection without reissuing artist contracts or advances. And, despite the fact that CDs were vastly cheaper to manufacture than vinyl, they somehow sold for considerably more.

So: boom time for the industry, but for artists? Albini argues here that, no, it wasn’t. In truth, for bands that did get signed to a label, almost all would spend their entire advance on making a record and would never see a penny in royalties. Essentially, Albini argues, every penny that the industry spent was the artists’ un-recouped advance money. As for those that didn’t get signed, making a decent living from a career in music was all but impossible.

With all of that I concur. One of the more historically inaccurate pictures that have built up of late is of a time when thousands of bands were making healthy careers out of selling music. It’s a scenario that’s been summoned up by artists and industry vets since the rise of Napster and continues to be now with the railing against both free and paid-for streaming services. But it is, to be clear, a lie. Only a very small number of musicians has ever made what might be characterised as a half-decent middle class career from playing in bands, and that’s why almost no one does it very seriously much past the age of 35.

Or put it this way: the current situation might not be a utopia, but nor was the past. The only people hanging on to that myth have hugely vested interests: they’re either a rarely successful artist or an industry professional.

Here’s where my nagging thought comes in though. Unsurprisingly, the most insightful, and certainly most heretical book written about digital culture in the last year is Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future? Like Lanier’s previous book, You Are Not a Gadget, Future is wide-ranging, hugely discursive and at times somewhat serpentine. It certainly has many themes, and the lack of opportunities to build a meaningful career though creative practice is only one of these.

Nonetheless, at its heart the book contains a dire warning about what the rise of “siren servers”, ultra-powerful repositories of data running equally powerful algorithms, owned by just a handful of huge conglomerates, largely based on the west coast of the USA. Lanier envisions a future in which the middle class in entirely hollowed out, with an insanely rich elite lording over the rest of us who, if we’re lucky, will make minimum wage. For him, that’s what technology’s current trajectory will head.

I think that one reason Albini and Lanier have different positions is that they have different perceptions of what music is. Read Albini’s piece and you’ll see a world of “bands”, “gigs”, “merch”, “fans” etc. Now that’s a little unfair of me as Albini’s output has been massively eclectic and in this talk he references drone music and Cincinnati soul. Nonetheless, I think his view of the business differs from that of Lanier who sees an industry beyond the rock world: a landscape of session musicians, composers and professional songwriters, jazz and classical players, jobbing club musicians… in short a world in which is was possible for a musician to make a middle class living from plying their trade. Indeed, “trade” may be they keyword here, for Lanier sees artisanship being wiped out by digital technology; Albini, I suspect, couldn’t care less about artisanship.

Only this morning, preparing to get these thoughts down, I ran across a piece in the music and tech blog hypebot that pointed to the collapse of the session music world in LA – and in Nashville too; the reasons are various and tech isn’t the only driver, but it is surely in the mix. In effect, players’ fees have dropped 68% in the last 15 years. This surely plays to Lanier’s vision of an eviscerated creative middle class.

So here’s my problem: I instinctively agree with much in both Lanier’s and Albini’s positions, and yet they seem diametrically opposed. I certainly agree with Albini that a rose-tinted view of the past is unhelpful, even deliberately deceptive. But I can’t deny Lanier’s position either.

What I will say however, that music here is not an outlier. By virtue of file size, music was always the canary in the coal mine when it came to the creative content industries. (Actually poetry was but no one seemed to notice that; I’m guessing the revenues might have something to say about that.) The Albini/Lanier dichotomy, if you like, is playing out elsewhere with self-publishing authors pitted against Amazon-bashing Booker winners, vloggers against paywall-building news organisations… well, you get the picture. Ultimately, I want Albini to be right, but are we throwing the baby out with the bathwater?

Simon

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