Read Steve Albini's famous essay on the music industry's problems

Originally published at:


It has a pretty simple explanation: Musicians are focused on making music. Everyone else in the industry is focused on making money.


I don’t know if it’s quite that pat. I think lots of people get into the business end of the recording industry, not just out of greed, but because they do care about music. I mean, Albini himself was involved in the “business” end of the industry, right? I don’t think that we’d generally speaking accuse him of being a “corporate shill” despite the fact that he had a hand in creating albums that frankly became “radio friendly unit shifters” for the mainstream industry. He was still working with more purely “indie” artists, too. And of course, being “indie” doesn’t mean that exploitation can’t be involved. There were plenty of commercially oriented indie labels, especially in the 90s. Compare Epitaph with Dischord, for one. I’d argue that Epitaph was much more of a commercially oriented label, while Dischord was most certainly not.

I guess I’m sort of questioning that old punk binary of either being truly independent or being a poser sell-out? I like Pierre Bourdieu’s conceptualization of how the culture industries actually function, which is more of a field rather than a top-down binary of corporation vs. exploited artist. There is most certainly exploitation in the recording industry, but it operates on a kind of different level than just corporation drones being greedy exploiters.


Well, at heart it’s a more fundamental issue with the nature of publishers of creative works in general (music, books, movies, games): most don’t make money, but if you’re a publisher, you have to damn well make sure your expenses are being covered, or you won’t be a publisher for long. There’s a big structure with fixed costs that needs to be maintained to get the artists’ work out there. So publisher’s needs go first (and that means taking a bit extra to cover the artists that didn’t bring in enough money to pay for expenditures on their behalf, plus some profit), and whatever is left over in theory goes to the artist.

Unfortunately that structure allows for all manner of parasites and financial shenanigans and over-paying of certain people (management) on the publisher side, so the artist getting getting a fair share isn’t remotely a given. But even when it’s working in a reasonable manner, as fair as it can be to the artist, the fact that there’s a lot of money at play doesn’t mean the artist gets much of it.


creative industry

Well, that’s your problem, right there!

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Have long appreciated that essay (I remember encountering it shared in some fanzine or early webpage as “Some of your friends are probably already this f***ed.”). I think it’s most revealingly read within context to the time and circumstances it was written in. The latter part of the twentieth century being a certain zenith of the concentration and narrowing of cultural forms due largely to the ascendance of mass media and the paucity of channels available within it - particularly at the time of the typical 3-major-networks television markets. Access to mass-distribution channels (and to a lesser degree, access to tools) in that context was everything, highly coveted/controlled - and our sense of value and significance was distorted by that, to a degree to which I think is largely unacknowledged and still having major ripple effects.

But this whole concept of mass society was also a developing thing, largely by virtue of mass-media. The/a promise of the internet (and DiY before it) was always to side-step this bottleneck. (and it has succeeded gloriously in toppling the distribution part of the problem). And that’s according to Steve Albini: the internet has solved the problem with music | Steve Albini | The Guardian

Have adopted this pet-framing for a while that there are two ultimately really two types of music - industrial and folk. “Industrial” being (in that original sense that Throbbing Gristle/Psychic TV proposed) that mode of production that flows within modern business structures and frameworks. “Folk” of course being everything else - music that people make for themselves and their communities in organic and self-organizing contexts. Realistically of course this is always a spectrum, or a field - and how money is made or changes hands will be involved, but isn’t necessarily the main differentiator. But the point is that music doesn’t have to be big-business, and many of the best examples aren’t. Albini’s studio is a good example of how it’s possible to operate independently from those systems (to whatever degree possible).

Weighing Options Are You Sure GIF

Streaming has really just reinforced the primacy of the control of the mainstream culture industries over artists, in that it offers even less than the contracts he was describing at the time, far less than a penny per stream in many cases. Yes, you can certainly get shit to a broader audience, but if you’re not getting the streams to even make up a penny, then you’re making less than someone who is selling CDs and getting, say a quarter of the sales. And as Cory Doctorow has been pointing out with this enshittification thesis, that the bottlenecks being set up by the large corporations (like Amazon) have hurt both producers and consumers and has just a made a few companies dominant over the internet. It seems to me like the promise of the internet has come to be far less liberatory than we’ve been promised this whole time by techno-utopian-bros…

And when he wrote that article, there was a pretty wide-reaching set of alternatives to the mainstream distribution system that existed (indie distribution, college radio, the zine eco-system, etc). Seems like he would have been well aware of that, and was addressing the whole “sell-out” phenomenon and trying to convince more indie artists stick around in the underground infrastructure that had been built up over the 80s by the various post-punk scenes.



No, you are absolutely right of course - I was probably being too deadpan in my half ironic use of “glorious” there. (thinking of its historical hyperbolic uses). Streaming is a total disaster for artists and should not even be considered (as a viable option income for artists). An example of the disintermediation that I do think has been facilitated by the web though is that of Bandcamp (hopefully they remain intact post-aquisition) with their direct to artist merch linking and all the various other indie labels that can now exist with broader access.

Yes - of course, I was indeed referencing your words there.

eta - Did read the Wikipedia link to Bourdieu - I’m interested in learning more about that viewpoint. Where I feel like I’m diverging is that his view seems to focus only on the industrial and mass-cultural aspects - and feels like it could be a somewhat narrow take in terms of focusing on all creative activity in purely external/transactional terms.


Would be nice to get some credit in that case… :woman_shrugging:

I’m sure the wikipedia had his bibliography that’s in English… I read one of his books on this topic of cultural production (though he was looking at publishing), but am blanking on the name… But worth the time for thinking outside the binary of simply corporate vs. individual framework.

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I always come back to MacKaye’s discussion about friends who got record deals and mostly ended up being miserable from the whole thing. If you hear him tell it, Fugazi choosing to forgo their gigantic offer really ended up being as much practicality as anything. They didn’t trust the other folks to handle their business and didn’t want to give up control.

Naturally, other people will frame it entirely as some sort of principle-based sacrifice, but it’s worth considering that staying out of the shark-infested waters has its practical benefits.

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I don’t think it was a sacrifice (because of all the reasons those other bands or others in the industry have said - most artists on majors are not like Taylor Swift or whoever famous, after all), but it was certainly a choice from a principled position, I’d say. That doesn’t mean it can’t also be practical in nature as well, but it certainly is also within his own self-professed ethically values. It’s not an either-or, I don’t think…

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Related, I was shocked in that Albini essay to learn that Mackaye’s old Minor Threat bandmate, Lyle Preslar, went on to become a record executive at both Elektra and Sire Records.

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There was a lot more movement between the punk underground the mainstream music industry than people realize. Not everyone thought that it was selling out, after all…

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Cue Clash press conference in New York asking if they had sold out and what did selling out mean to them…

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