contempt cloaked as liberatory ideology

PL sent along a link to an interview with Steve Albini–well, “interview”…an “ask me anything between 3 and 6 pm” thing, and here’s one of the bits:


I reject the term “piracy.” It’s people listening to music and sharing it with other people, and it’s good for musicians because it widens the audience for music. The record industry doesn’t like trading music because they see it as lost sales, but that’s nonsense. Sales have declined because physical discs are no longer the distribution medium for mass-appeal pop music, and expecting people to treat files as physical objects to be inventoried and bought individually is absurd.

The downtrend in sales has hurt the recording business, obviously, but not us specifically because we never relied on the mainstream record industry for our clientele. Bands are always going to want to record themselves, and there will always be a market among serious music fans for well-made record albums. I’ll point to the success of the Chicago label Numero Group as an example.

There won’t ever be a mass-market record industry again, and that’s fine with me because that industry didn’t operate for the benefit of the musicians or the audience, the only classes of people I care about.

Free distribution of music has created a huge growth in the audience for live music performance, where most bands spend most of their time and energy anyway. Ticket prices have risen to the point that even club-level touring bands can earn a middle-class income if they keep their shit together, and every band now has access to a world-wide audience at no cost of acquisition. That’s fantastic.

Additionally, places poorly-served by the old-school record business (small or isolate towns, third-world and non-english-speaking countries) now have access to everything instead of a small sampling of music controlled by a hidebound local industry. When my band toured Eastern Europe a couple of years ago we had full houses despite having sold literally no records in most of those countries. Thank you internets.


Here’s my alternative opinion: Of course, it is a bit of a shell game to say that digital piracy hasn’t hurt the music industry–yes, there are sales lost to people who now have easier and faster access to free versions of the same music. But the “benefits” of internet distribution are hard to measure, however confident Albini seems to be about them. There’s simply no way of establishing the size of the potential audience for some music that doesn’t exist for them. And there’s certainly no way of knowing if the distribution of music via the internet helped them to actualize their intrinsic interest in said music, or if it just produces the kind of consumers that Albini seems to disdain–people who like stuff that lots of other people around them like.

And this is my main complaint about arguments like this: the music industry manifestly DOES operate for the benefit of both musicians and audience members. In fact, a HUGE audience. Holding them in contempt and stripping them of the mantle of being audience members simply because they like pop music is an idiotic way to frame a pro-music argument.



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5 responses to “contempt cloaked as liberatory ideology

  1. So, I’m not so sure why this rubbed you so much the wrong way. I agree that Albini may disdain people who were either a) created by the now-dying system of music production; or b) were catered to by the now-dying system of music production – that is, people who like pop music. Doesn’t everyone outside music labels and Justin Bieber disdain them/us? I just take this as part of the presentation of self in his world.

    I thought reading through the Reddit thread, which is long, and fun, was interesting as an exercise in my own lack of music-cred-cool-whatever. I don’t know 90% of the bands that people asked about or loved. But I also found Albini really interesting, and a craftsperson at engineering. There’s a comment about how he sets up drums which I found great and technical and obscure in the way that people who know what they’re talking about are great and technical and obscure.

    And in the end, I am I guess encouraged by producers who were benefiting from the existing system, who are also embracing the tech changes that are obviously happening but who is looking at upside possibilities rather than ‘oh shit our rent-seeking behavior is threatened let’s sue copyright’ kind of vibe you often seem to get from insiders..

  2. Jenn Lena

    I deliberately excerpted the part that focused on the thing that bothers me: this special snobbery for the mainstream that can only be sustained (by most of us) by imagining our record shelves/iTunes/computer files look different than they really do. There are lots of reasons to hate snobs, and in this case, one of them is that they are using outdated notions of artistic credibility to discourage status aspirants from seeking the only achievement that provides artists with a reasonably middle class career (or better). So, it isn’t that his comments were unusual or surprising; I was bothered by the fact that I find them immoral.*
    On the rest of it: Albini is a genius. I think the “technical and obscure” stuff is uninteresting, maybe because I’m someone who was often shut out of conversations about music (regardless of whether I had the requisite knowledge to participate) that became technical and obscure.
    *This is hyperbolic, but in the ballpark of what I think.

  3. Jenn Lena

    Oh, and you excerpted it first! It isn’t like you forwarded that thread about working with Nirvana!

  4. Anonymous

    Although I may be a little late to the party here, I think you’re ignoring a fairly important aspect of Albini’s history as a musician and perhaps the histories of musicians like himself (e.g. “snobs”). Your main problem, as I see it, is that he’s symbolically excluding pop fans (and pop music). Immediately I wonder what fans of pop music (and pop musicians) might have thought of Big Black during their early-to-mid 1980s heyday. Would Michael Jackson have considered this to be legitimate artistic practice? And yet of course this group was cited as an influence by famous artists from the 90s (NIN, Nirvana), arguably responsible for later adopted innovations. At that point in time would the line between moral/immoral attitudes towards different varieties of sonic arrangement be so easy to draw? What does Justin Bieber and his fans think of say Wolf Eyes and the noise trend from 4-5 years back? I’m not arguing for snobbery, I’m just attempting to say that your comment ignores the processes that give rise to the sorts of distinctions that Albini makes (and of course Albini has a certain personal brand of being a loudmouth jerk, so there’s that too).

    Here some links for you in case you’re unfamiliar with some of the admittedly obscure references I’ve made:
    Big Black – Cables

    Wolf Eyes /Anthony Braxton

  5. Jenn Lena

    @Anonymous: First, thanks for the links–the more music here, the better. And to your comment: It isn’t fair to say I’ve ignored Albini’s history, or the social process that leads Albini to make these moral distinctions (and, for that matter, the pop artists who might abjure the musical contributions of non-pop), although it is fair to say that I haven’t written a post *about* that topic. I recently published a book (Banding Together) in which I devote a significant amount of the text to revealing the boundary-making processes that lead members of genre communities to dispute the contributions of those in other communities.

    Your critique is more correctly directed toward Albini, because he is the one who draws a line between “well-made record albums” like his band’s, and other “mass appeal” music, which is not “well-made.” In making this distinction, Albini fails to realize the “processes that give rise to the distinctions” he’s so comfortable making. He is the one failing to be reflexive here, IMHO.

    My purpose here was to point out that snobbish arguments of this sort are not an effective way of framing a pro-music argument. It is precisely my knowledge that boundary-making processes are constant and constitutive of status positions that gives me the perspective to claim that all music has audiences that are equivalent with respect to the degree to which they enjoy “good” music.

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