Legendary Album Engineer Steve Albini Touts Community Through Campus Lecture
November 25, 2019
Despite it being a point of dissention with both the moderator and some members of the audience, Steve Albini — a legendary Chicago-based musician and audio engineer who kicked off the Drexel University Music Industry Program’s new Visiting Lecture Series on Nov. 14— ran an experiment to showcase how the advent of the internet has been a good thing for music and those who make it.
“I’d like to name a few bands that I know from personal experience have sold records in the quantities of say 100 to 500 copies, and I want to see if anyone in the audience is familiar with any of these bands,” Albini explained
He started with a band of high school students from Deerfield, Illinois called The Mentally Ill who pressed only 200 copies of a 7-inch single, and then distributed those by slipping them onto record store shelves in the Chicago area, essentially giving them away for free.
“It was a kind of reverse shoplifting,” Albini said, eliciting one of the many moments of laughter from the audience throughout the evening.
Despite this unorthodox and seemingly ineffective way of getting their music out there, two people in the audience at the URBN Annex’s screening room had heard of the band before.
“Up until the advent of the internet, I’m fairly certain that I could have polled not just this room, not just this building, not just this University, not just this city, perhaps this state, and not been able to find a single person who is familiar with The Mentally Ill,” Albini said. “But now, in this room, there are two people familiar with The Mentally Ill. I find that a staggering accomplishment.”
Comparably, many more people are familiar with the bands Albini has been in and made records for over the course of his decades-long career in the music industry. After forming bands like Big Black and Shellac in his formative years, the latter of which is he is still active with, Albini made a name for himself as a record producer and engineer starting in the early ‘90s, and working with such household names as Nirvana, Pixies, Joanna Newsom, Superchunk, Cheap Trick and the Stooges.
Despite this, Albini explained to the room packed to the brim with fellow music industry professionals and hopefuls why he doesn’t take credit or producer royalties on the records he works on, and why he generally prefers not to be a cog in the wheel of what he called the corrupt system that many record labels and engineers operate under.
“I don’t gauge success by maximizing profit,” Albini explained. “I’m fundamentally not a capitalist. I’m not a transactional person. I think the profit motive is a cancer. I view success as the ability to continue. If what I’m doing is valuable for its own sake, then if I get to do it again tomorrow, I have just won today.”
Although their views on the internet’s effect on music clashed, Albini shared these views on the importance of a DIY ethos with his interviewer at the event, Westphal College of Media Arts & Design Assistant Teaching Professor Joe Steinhardt, PhD, who co-founded his record label, Don Giovanni Records, when he was still in his teens.
“You mean you really managed to merge the hippie, free-love mentality with the raging dickhead mentality?” he joked with Albini when they were discussing his business practices.
And it’s clear that these practices still seem to be working. Albini has engineered several thousands of records over the last nearly 30 years, and said he tries to say “yes” to nearly any artist who expresses interest in working with him, despite the fact that his reputation could afford him much more selectivity. He navigates all of these relationships and arrangements without anyone having to sign a contract or sign away a portion of the album’s future sales to him.
“I feel like the way that I do things is more sustainable,” he said. “Part of the way I know that is a lot of the record producers who were getting paid on the royalty arrangements, a lot of them are selling real estate or whatever, and I’m still making records every day.”
The fact that he’s been doing this for a while successfully, along with his journalism training in college, has also bolstered Albini’s reputation as a music writer, critic and opinionist. Steinhardt brought up Albini’s most famous piece of writing, an essay called “The Problem with Music” that was first published in 1993, along with a keynote speech he delivered at a music conference in 2014 where he discussed how these same problems have been affected by the internet.
“In the pre-Internet era, most people’s music experience was fairly common, meaning that in a town that had several radio stations, everyone would be familiar with those radio stations and everyone would be exposed by the same playlists. In a town that has a small number of record stores, everybody would have the same records to choose from, so tastes in locales tended to be sort of homogenous,” Albini explained of his views.
As another example, Albini talked about how streaming has provided instant access for not only exposure to a variety of music, but also the ability to quickly formulate opinions based on tastes.
“Let’s say you had in your mind that you wanted to buy a particular record by a particular band in the pre-Internet era. It might take a you a very long time to find it, and when you finally found someplace that had it, you would have to either order it from them or physically go to the place and buy it and then bring it home and hook up the hi-fi and drop the needle on it, and then discover that it sucked,” he said, which was followed by another uproar of laughter from the audience.
All of this led to the aforementioned experiment on whether or not those in the room had heard about obscure bands and releases. Steinhardt ended the moderated portion of the event before taking audience questions by asking Albini a more light-hearted question about his first experiences on the internet. Albini described how he used it to expand his network of like-minded audiophiles and music listeners by signing up for listservs, conducting peer-to-peer audio equipment buying and selling, and conducting international business of ease.
It’s this theme of connectedness, of community, that seems to run through and propel everything Albini has done, and continues to do, in his career.
“I still think that any resource of mine is a resource of the community’s, and anything I can do is not just for my benefit — it’s available as a resource to everybody else,” Albini said. “That was a guiding principle behind building the studio. That’s the guiding principal behind the way I operate in business as an engineer, freelance working for other people. It’s formed me as a person. Being involved in that community of musicians formed my way of thinking about the world.”