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The Problem With Music
March 10, 2003 12:24 PM   Subscribe

The Problem With Music In a band? Thinking of signing to a major? Stop and read this. Recording engineer Steve Albini has a message for you. Get the independent music religion. Sure, you might not make money, but you would not have anyway. An interesting message to come from a guy whose vitae includes many major label projects, but in interviews, he defends his indie credibility ably by disclosing his practice of charging the client (majors and independents) what they can afford. All that being said, this guy is more technician than indie messiah, and though the guy can be a little outspoken, he is certainly one of my heroes. This essay is old, but not out-dated.
posted by tomharpel (41 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Nice post. I'm also a huge fan of Albini's work and read that article a long while ago. I wonder what the state of indie music would be like without people like Albini, Jim O'Rourke, Brian Paulson, and other great producers and engineers. Bleak, no doubt.
posted by dobbs at 12:30 PM on March 10, 2003


Called a "now-classic" rant. In thread number 1633. Not to mention the shitfest that resulted when Courtney Love borrowed from it. In thread number 2124. More Albini threads.
posted by dhartung at 12:40 PM on March 10, 2003


That is embarrassing. Sorry for the double, everyone.
posted by tomharpel at 12:42 PM on March 10, 2003


it was a nicely put together post, however, and i've not seen the albini onion interview before, which i quite enjoyed.

thanks.
posted by fishfucker at 12:52 PM on March 10, 2003


I love this article (the 1st time i read it i was actually in a band and it was very eye-opneing). Very cool. Thanks, tomharpel!
posted by magnificentsven at 12:54 PM on March 10, 2003


Double-post, shmouble-post. Thanks for reminding me of this (and for providing the extra dose of Albini). I'm about to head to Austin for the South by Southwest fest and the contents of these links will provide a soothing balm to all the hype sunburn.
thanks.
posted by chandy72 at 12:57 PM on March 10, 2003


Albini's great...

He managed to get Kim Deal to stop doing so many fucking drugs, and finally release an album after eight years.

Too bad Frank Black wont work with him any more. Maybe it has to do with Albini calling Surfer Rosa, which he produced, a "piece of shit" over and over again in interviews.
posted by SweetJesus at 1:01 PM on March 10, 2003


I thought the letter to the editor and response from "the guy can be a little outspoken" link more than made up for the posting of the rant. Also the critic mentioned in that article, Bill Wyman, was involved in another humorous bit of letter wriring recently.
posted by monkeyman at 1:01 PM on March 10, 2003


Maybe it has to do with Albini calling Surfer Rosa, which he produced, a "piece of shit" over and over again in interviews.

Hmm. Never heard that story. However, I've read multiple accounts of Albini saying that The Pixies were cows waiting to be led around by their nose rings. This news came out when Francis asked that Albini's credit be removed from the album on future pressings. The request was denied.

Also of note is that lately, on indie projects, Albini is denying himself any credits.
posted by dobbs at 1:12 PM on March 10, 2003


This thing has been posted to MeFi at least 3 or 4 times, and is years old.

but Albini doth rule.
posted by xmutex at 1:15 PM on March 10, 2003


Hmm. Never heard that story. However, I've read multiple accounts of Albini saying that The Pixies were cows waiting to be led around by their nose rings.

Around '92 or '93 Albini gave an interview (I can't find it online, but it was around the time the Pixies broke up) in which he called Surfer Rosa a piece of shit, and called the Pixies "blandly entertaining college rock", and a bunch of other not-so-nice things.

The closest thing I can find to this online, is a quote from Billy Corgan -
"The reality is that Steve Albini has a pathological necessity to ruin everything in his surroundings. It has gotten to the point where he laughs at all of the albums he has made and of the bands he has worked with. He thinks that "Surfer Rosa" that he produced for the Pixies is a piece of shit. What kind of person is that?"
posted by SweetJesus at 1:31 PM on March 10, 2003


yes, i almost accidentally re-posted it once myself....
:)
posted by Espoo2 at 1:34 PM on March 10, 2003


okay well I had never read the other links and am now enriched and enlightened so i take back the mean things i said about the quadruple or so post.
posted by xmutex at 1:34 PM on March 10, 2003


Oh, and I'd have to agree with him about the Pixies.
Very overhyped.
posted by Espoo2 at 1:36 PM on March 10, 2003


This post was good, and it brought some cream from the past up to the top, so I'm gonna double up and say

[this is good]
[this is good]

Thanks!
posted by WolfDaddy at 1:48 PM on March 10, 2003


Albini can be a bit arch and yields to hyperbole when it comes to his pet causes, but he’s a useful and talented person. While I’ve heard tell of that Pixies quote numerous times, I’ve never actually seen it documented anywhere except via Corgan. Somebody find the quote! Or is old Billy in fact responsible for it?

Besides, the Pixies were blandly entertaining college rock, and that is not the end of the world.
posted by sj at 1:49 PM on March 10, 2003


Albini is awesome. He produced Godspeed You Black Emperor's last album. (which despite criticisms, I love.)
posted by angry modem at 2:15 PM on March 10, 2003


One of my old bands got to record twice with Steve, first spending a frosty Chicago February weekend with him and then hosting him to a sweltering Alabama weekend. We spent a ridiculously low amount to record with him because we were total nobodies. He was impressive in his low key attitude and work ethic.

We were looking in his vinyl and found a gold CD certification for In Utero behind a pile of stuff. He made us feel at home sleeping on his floor even though we had never met him. He was recording us just a few months after publishing TPWM and he filled us in on a lot more ugly details. That was a wakeup call. In fact, I got a real job just a few months later.

My favorite collectible from his house: Neal Diamond's Visa card from the early 80s.
posted by spartacusroosevelt at 2:26 PM on March 10, 2003


Look at this (incomplete) list of the people he's recorded

No one is going to work with such a large and diverse crowd without ruffling feathers and finding the people that rub each other the wrong way, I've only heard good things about the guy, but with artist-types, everyone is never gonna get along...

spartacusroosevelt: I saw bert play once in tiny Enterprise, AL a few years back
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 2:33 PM on March 10, 2003


how to procure a nursing home gig --
im sure kerosene would go down real well.
and if anyone uses that idea, you owe me quarter of a million pounds.
posted by sgt.serenity at 2:56 PM on March 10, 2003


While I’ve heard tell of that Pixies quote numerous times, I’ve never actually seen it documented anywhere except via Corgan.

I remember the quote well. It was at least ten years ago, and I want to say it was in Maximum Rocknroll, but that's just a guess. In the interview, he also claimed to have gone through Surfer Rosa with a fine-toothed comb and removed everything 'pussy.' If he could charge bands based solely on the experience in the studio, he said he'd do every Slint album for free but wouldn't work with the Pixies again for all the money in the world.

On the other hand, I've heard fair criticism that his producing engineering makes all drummers sound like the Big Black drum machine. So...
posted by uhnyuftz at 3:00 PM on March 10, 2003


You know what I'd like to do? Take the Billboard Top 20 singles list -- any old week will do -- and find out how each artist on that list got their big break. How did they get signed? What was the key to that one moment where the A&R person said "yes; sign here please"? My cynical side says that they were all corporate inventions from the start...but I'm genuinely curious. How do you make it?
posted by drinkcoffee at 3:02 PM on March 10, 2003


In the interview, he also claimed to have gone through Surfer Rosa with a fine-toothed comb and removed everything 'pussy.' If he could charge bands based solely on the experience in the studio, he said he'd do every Slint album for free but wouldn't work with the Pixies again for all the money in the world.

Yup, that's the interview I'm referring to. It's sort of ironic that he just released a Kim Deal CD, considering he said he'd never work with them again.
posted by SweetJesus at 3:05 PM on March 10, 2003


I said it was a classic rant then, I'll say it's a classic rant now. While some Googling reveals an interview with Albini in MRR #112, he slags the Pixies in his reviews of albums he produced. Relevant bit:
A patchwork pinch loaf from a band who a their top dollar best are blandly entertaining college rock. Their willingness to be "guided" by their manager, their record company and their producers is unparalleled. Never have I seen four cows more anxious to be led around by their nose rings. Except that I got to rewrite their songs with a razorblade, thought the drums sounded nice, and managed to get Nate the Impaler on the LP as a cameo, I remember nothing about this album, although I thought it was pretty good at the time...
posted by snarkout at 3:31 PM on March 10, 2003


You know what I'd like to do? Take the Billboard Top 20 singles list -- any old week will do -- and find out how each artist on that list got their big break. How did they get signed? What was the key to that one moment where the A&R person said "yes; sign here please"? My cynical side says that they were all corporate inventions from the start...but I'm genuinely curious. How do you make it?

While I'm sure there's no shortage of corporate inventions... U2? John Mayer? Recently highly charted...

But your project sounds like a brilliant idea for a web site....
posted by namespan at 3:35 PM on March 10, 2003



posted by boost ventilator at 4:46 PM on March 10, 2003


Snarkiness! Note that the article that Steve was outspoken against contained what is the earliest use of the words "snarky" that I know of.

Or maybe not....
posted by namespan at 5:25 PM on March 10, 2003


I don't know much about the music industry, what are "points"?
posted by rhyax at 6:15 PM on March 10, 2003


I'm totally guessing from context, but I think "points" are some kind of industry-speak for percentage points of royalties. 3% of gross sales would be "3 points." I've never heard this term used either and it struck me as kinda snottish everytime Albini refered to it.

Oh, and thanks for the link, Big Black was one of my favorite bands while I was in high school.
posted by elwoodwiles at 6:41 PM on March 10, 2003


THis page says: "Points are percentages that artists get off CD sales. For example, if an artist is supposed to get 10 points off every sale, an artist will have 10 percent off the sales. In short, points equal percent price"
posted by tomharpel at 6:41 PM on March 10, 2003


jinx
posted by elwoodwiles at 7:27 PM on March 10, 2003


Points are also used in real estate deals.
posted by nyxxxx at 7:51 PM on March 10, 2003


The OED on "snarky":

Snarky, a.
colloq.

Irritable, short-tempered, ‘narky’.

1906 E. NESBIT Railway Children ii. 49 Don't be snarky, Peter. It isn't our fault. 1913 J. VAIZEY College Girl xxiv. 326 ‘Why should you think I am “snarky”?’ ‘Because you are! You're not a bit sociable and friendly.’ 1953 E. COXHEAD Midlanders x. 247 I've known you were the soul of kindness, under that snarky way. a1974 R. CROSSMAN Diaries (1976) II. 627 We also have to overcome something elsethe stream of anti-government propaganda, smearing, snarky, derisive, which comes out of Fleet Street.
posted by redfoxtail at 7:58 PM on March 10, 2003 [1 favorite]


It happens that you can hear three songs from Surfer Rosa (Broken Face, Break My Body, and Vamos) on their earlier "purple tape" recording (Released on CD as Come on Pilgrim and Pixies) engineered by Paul Kolderie (who is co-producer on just about every Morphine album). Based on these three songs (I don't know who produced the version of River Euphrates on the Gigantic single), I have to say I think Albini's contribution is, well, dubious at best. There's some great songs on Surfer Rosa (Gigantic, Cactus, Brick is Red) but when I compare the sound of their different albums and particularly the aforementioned test songs, Surfer Rosa compares pretty badly. It just sounds sort of muddy. This might not be Albini's fault, but I find it curious.

Albini produced the astoundingly crisp and clear sound of Man or Astroman's Experiment Zero as well as some standout tracks on their Project Infinity. It happens that Project Infinity also has a non-Albini engineered cover of the Pixie's Manta Ray which is better than the original (which was not engineered by Albini either but by Kolderie). (Note: Man or Astroman usually produce themselves and consequently sound terrible—but in a good way. At least I find it charming).

I can believe what Albini says about the Pixies' obedience. If you read the liner notes of Complete 'B' Sides Frank Black unapologetically says they basically did whatever 4AD told them to do. I can't say I blame them, really, it doesn't seem like they did badly by it. I've also been more than blandly entertained by them so I'm probably biased.
posted by wobh at 11:00 PM on March 10, 2003 [1 favorite]


Ironic. I bought Surfer Rosa only two days ago. I liked a track on one of the MeFi swap disks I got a while back.
posted by salmacis at 1:13 AM on March 11, 2003


wobh-- Man or Astroman first began recording themselves with a gentleman(?) named Jim Marrer in lovely Millbrook Alabama. The original Zero Return studios was a magic place to record. You would drive to the middle of nowhere on the Highway 14, then drive on a side road until it turned dirt and keep going until you saw this deserted looking 1880s farm house. The house was totally given over to the studio and adopted cats. Albini loved to record there, recording MorA? several times and us once there. Marrer went in on a Studio in Atlanta with some of the guys from MorA? and have a pretty nice studio. But nothing replaces the charm of being attacked by bees during load in or watching the Wild Kingdom in the backyard between takes.

yeahyeahyeahwhoo: Enterprise may have been tiny, but the Wiregrass was our main fan base. No wonder we were nobodies.
posted by spartacusroosevelt at 5:12 AM on March 11, 2003 [1 favorite]


Well I'm not here to dis anyone really, in fact I completely take back what I said about Man or Astroman usually sounding terrible—definitely a hasty generalization on my part. The whole point was to be able to mention three of my favorite bands in one post!
posted by wobh at 7:00 AM on March 11, 2003


I saw Steve Albini at the grocery store last summer. I didn't say anything to him though. I'm sure he would have been mean to me.
posted by elvissinatra at 9:11 AM on March 11, 2003


Yup, that's the interview I'm referring to. It's sort of ironic that he just released a Kim Deal CD, considering he said he'd never work with them again.

He never did work with the Pixies again. Kim Deal is his friend, I do not see what the disconnect is. I Adam going to take for granted that you mispoke when you said he released her record.

I didn't say anything to him though. I'm sure he would have been mean to me.
The first part is good advice when dealing with people you do not know in any situation. The second part seems like a self fulfilling prophecy. He does not have a reputation for lashing out at strangers (as indeed I myself do), but he is not known for tolerating idiots either. I am not calling you an idiot, but you are dealing with a preconcieved notion of a stranger.
posted by thirteen at 9:55 AM on March 11, 2003


The Adam should be "am". I do not know how I slipped that in.
posted by thirteen at 10:10 AM on March 11, 2003


(Sorry to digress from the Albini/Pixies discussion, but I thought this was interesting). From the Official U2 FAQ:

Dave Fanning has been a very popular radio DJ and TV presenter in Ireland for many years. In 1979, U2 took their first three officially recorded tracks to Fanning's popular pirate radio program. Fanning aired all three tracks each night for a week, and encouraged listeners to call in and vote for which song should be the "A-side" of the band's first single.

Sorry, but this could never happen today, in the age of ClearChannel. My point being: you can't just start a band and get signed to a major record label. Maybe twenty years ago, but not now.
posted by drinkcoffee at 10:14 AM on March 11, 2003


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