One of America's top music engineers and producers said hearing the pop-punk of the Ramones as a teen changed his life.
“It was my first clue an 'outsider culture' could be a sustainable, real-life experience,” said Steve Albini, a guest lecturer Friday afternoon at University Galleries in Uptown Normal.
As with many life-changing events, it seemingly came out of nowhere.
“A friend had been given a tape of a Ramones record by a friend whose brother had gone away to school. He then played it for his friends. My initial reaction was stark laughter. It sounded like people who were trying to play bubblegum music but were inept at it,” said Albini.
But the “absolute top of their lungs” intensity of the music invigorated him. The more he heard, the more he realized a statement was being made. At least to Albini’s ears.
“I suppose it could have been anything I latched onto but it happened to be the Ramones. They gave me the idea that you could have your own particular and perverse view of the world you could commit to fully, and you could get others to come along for the ride even,” explained Albini, who added the Ramones gave him the confidence to accept and take seriously other people’s eccentricities and quirks.
It’s been quite a ride for the native of the university town of Missoula, Montana. He moved to Chicago post-high school to study journalism at Northwestern University. He is on record saying a painting professor was one of the only people in college who actually taught him anything, though he put his journalism studies to use writing for local music ‘zines covering the Chicago punk scene. This while working a day job and playing in local bands, including Big Black, Rapeman (a name he has said he can’t defend today), and Shellac.
He is most known today as the guy who produced albums for Nirvana (In Utero), The Breeders (Pod) and the Pixies (Surfer Rosa). But for those who know of Albini, he’s also famous for disliking the word “producer” for what he does.
“It has a connotation of being responsible for the artistic direction of the record,” said Albini, who prefers the term “audio engineer” to describe his role in the recording studio.
“That is, the producer on a record in a historical sense is the person who made all the decisions about what was going to happen on the record. It also implies a degree of responsibility to the business interests involved in the records. So if the record label has a producer, then the producer is responsible to the record label for the content of the record.”
Neither sits well with Albini, who believes the artist or band should arrive with their own vision, then his job is to technically bring that vision to life.
“The ‘producer’ of every record I’ve ever worked on his been the band in question,” said Albini.
That’s not to say he has to like the music of the band he’s working with. Matter of fact, he considers “liking a band” he’s producing a breach of professional ethics.
“To a very real degree, I consider it irresponsible to form an opinion about the bands I’m working with,” said Albini. “I don’t want to misread one of my clients … misunderstand their aesthetic … misunderstand their intentions and try to correct them to suit my world view.”
And probably now because of his reputation, “I also don’t want anyone who comes into the studio to wonder if I like them or not … whether they’re passing the ‘cool test.’ I think that is an unreasonable amount of stress to put on someone in the studio,” said Albini.
1993 was the year Albini penned his now legendary essay in The Baffler that eviscerated record labels and the “music establishment.” “The Problem with Music” included the phrases “faceless industry lackey,” and “holding bands hostage with opaque contracts and unfair royalty splits” and opened with this now classic paragraph:
Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. 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.
It was a spot on critique at the time of how most musicians were being used by the professional music industry and likely would never recoup their royalties and other investments from the record labels.
Though spot-on at the time, Albini now says major record labels are almost irrelevant. Music fans now tend to discover new music online, as opposed to record stores and commercial radio as the model had been for over half a century. Spotify playlists and curated content from Apple and Pandora has become the discovery methods of choice.
“The whole of the industry has shifted away from this top-down mentality where certain ‘important’ industry figures decide who is going to have access to an audience,” said Albini. “Now an audience decides what it wants to listen to on its own accord, and if you want to create music, you can. There is nothing preventing you from going home tonight and recording a few songs on something as simple as your smartphone and then posting them on YouTube. If other people like those songs, then tomorrow morning you have a worldwide audience.”
At the same time, record and CD sales have plummeted in the age of digital, which has forced bands and musicians to find alternate revenue streams. Playing live still works, and more and more, even smaller artists are selling more merchandise such as T-shirts and other trinkets to offset dwindling CD sales. The money to record albums that may have come from record labels in the past can now be raised through crowd-funding. Matter of fact, some artists with a following who may not have previously received a recording contract may now access fan money to fund the next album.
For these reasons and more, Albini thinks this is a great time to be a musician.
“The previous industry, which was based on the scarcity model of the physical distribution of media has been supplanted by a whole range of interactive options where people can listen to and interact with people they like in a much more direct fashion,” said Albini.
Many have argued especially major record companies could have been more relevant today had they not fought Napster and other digital models tooth and nail and instead put their energy into adapting. Albini isn’t one of them.
“I think any business based on the scarcity model that is the only way you’re going to get this music is by buying it from us, was doomed to failure. And the record labels tried to preserve that operating method far past its expiration date,” said Albini.
Steve Albini will speak at 3 p.m. Friday at University Galleries in Uptown Normal. The lecture is presented by the Arts Technology Program at Illinois State Univesity.
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