In 1993, recording engineer and musician Steve Albini famously laid out an insider’s view of The Problem with Music. Albini criticised the label-dominated music industry’s exploitation of musicians. Musicians participated willingly in their own exploitation due to the difficulties of recording, self-promotion and the limited avenues available for reaching listeners.
Albini now thinks that the internet has fixed the problem with music by giving bands control over their own music and allowing them to cut through the crowd of middlemen that once stood between them and their audience. In a keynote speech at Melbourne’s Face the Music conference in November, he explained that the internet has allowed bands to record cheaply, organize their own tours, sell their own merchandise and control their own exposure.
In short, the internet has made it much easier to conduct the day-to-day business of being in a band.
Albini believes fans and artists have benefited from audience-driven music distribution. “There’s a lot of shade thrown by people in the music industry about how terrible the free sharing of music is, how it’s the equivalent of theft, etc. That’s all bullshit.” Fans have increased accessibility of music, can develop a direct relationship with bands they like and can curate and share their own “exotic playlists”, rather having their musical tastes driven by record labels and industry tastemakers. Musicians can build a fan base and penetrate previously isolated or remote markets and this in turn allows them to tour in these locations more. Albini argues the growth of active online communities has made fans “more ardent for this music… Gig prices have escalated as a result. And the merchandise tables at gigs are universally teeming with activity.”
Albini celebrates the direct relationship between bands and their audience facilitated by the internet, in sharp contrast to the pre-internet era where the audience and bands were barely considered by the rest of the music business. “The music industry has shrunk. In shrinking it has rung out the middle, leaving the bands and the audiences to work out their relationship from the ends. I see this as both healthy and exciting.”
The internet has facilitated the most direct and efficient, compact relationship ever between band and audience. And I do not mourn the loss of the offices of inefficiencies that died in the process. I suppose some people are out of work. But the same things happened when the automobile replaced the horse…
Albini ultimately draws the conclusion that copyright law too has become obsolete: “… Music has entered the environment as an atmospheric element, like the wind, and in that capacity should not be subject to control and compensation.”
The full speech is available on The Guardian’s site, or watch the keynote on YouTube: