Those of you old enough to remember when the word "grunge" described both a genre of music and an "alternative" lifestyle choice may remember an influential Baffler essay by rock producer Steve Albini, "The Problem With Music." You can read the whole thing online here, but the gist was a sort of punk-radical, anti-corporate argument that the entire music industry was set up to benefit everyone—the studios and the scouts, the image consultants and video makers, the lawyers and managers—except the fans and the musicians. Thanks to the complex structure of recording contracts, bands with huge deals could come out of the process making essentially nothing, or in some cases technically in debt.
This was an essay that people interested in the alternative music scene talked about for years afterwards—it was published in 1994, but I don't think I heard about it until the late 1990s—because it seemed to capture and diagram the slimy, stupid awfulness of the generic, corporate-captured music that dominated the era. Not only that, it came at an unusual time for the punk/alternative community. The big labels appeared to be handing out zillion-dollar record contracts to punk and indie-rock bands with roughly the same sort of attitude that one throws parade candy into a crowd. Garage bands with six songs and three shows under their belt were being shown big dollar signs, snapped up, and pushed through the corporate-music grinder, or at least that's what it felt like. There was a big debate within the scene about what constituted selling out, and whether it was a good thing or a bad thing. This was all informed by punk's longstanding suspicion of commercially successful art and corporate culture. It was a scene where the most common stage move for a frontman was to turn his back on the audience and look at this shoes. It was all very angsty and introspective. People wore a lot of flannel.
Albini's essay made such a big impact in part because was arguing that you could sell out—and still manage to not get paid. Which was about as strong an argument against selling out and going mainstream as one could imagine. And, of course, Albini's credibility on the subject was more or less unimpeachable, because, as we used to say, he'd been there and done that. Albini was Kurt Cobain's choice to produce Nirvana's final studio album, In Utero, which was made to sound dirtier, noisier, and, well, grungier than the slick rock sound Butch Vig had given the band's breakout record, Nevermind.
I note all this because Albini recently returned to the ideas of his famous essay in a brief interview with the online magazine Quartz. Somewhat surprisingly, Albini, who was typically pretty consistent for his music-business pessimism, is now rather upbeat, even as many in the music industry have become increasingly pessimistic.
"The single best thing that has happened in my lifetime in music, after punk rock, is being able to share music, globally for free," he told Quartz. Here's a bit from the piece:
"Record labels, which used to have complete control, are essentially irrelevant ," he says. "The process of a band exposing itself to the world is extremely democratic and there are no barriers. Music is no longer a commodity, it's an environment, or atmospheric element. Consumers have much more choice and you see people indulging in the specificity of their tastes dramatically more. They only bother with music they like."
In the physical music era, company executives and the music press were the arbiters of taste—a band needed to convince a label to sign it, fund it, and often get critics to like it, to have a realistic shot at success. These days, it's a much more meritocratic process: people can make music in their garage and reach their audiences through YouTube, BandCamp and any number of internet avenues. "You can literally have a worldwide audience for your music….with no corporate participation, which is tremendous," Albini says.
I think Albini's right that the Internet has positively changed music culture, and allowed for strange niches to develop and individuals to explore and connect with what they like. I used to spend weeks or months hunting down certain albums, hoping for a chance to hear some obscure band from across the country that I'd heard about at a show. Touring bands would travel with bins full of tapes, and eventually blank CDs, copying and trading interesting new music from local artists at every tour stop. When a new band would come into town, suddenly you'd find new music being passed around. But the process of diffusion was pretty slow. It could be weeks before anything new or interesting popped up again.
That doesn't really happen anymore, because everyone has heard everything already. Practically anything anyone wants to hear is already there, on the Internet. The concept of "alternative" music basically doesn't exist anymore. There's just the music that people like.
The Internet killed corporate music. But it also killed the corporate music business model. The downside, then, is that the old revenue mechanisms are gone (or at least significantly diminished) too.
It's hard for even fairly successful rock artists to support themselves these days. At best, selling music ends up being a loss leader for live shows and other revenue streams. But that only works in a limited number of cases. Concert tickets, even at higher prices, don't make up for nearly as much revenue as the overall industry has lost.
What keeps me hopeful, though, is that there's still a lot of great new music being made. And it's easier for fans to access, and artists to break out, than ever. Nor is it as if it were ever easy to make big bucks playing rock-n-roll. As Albini's original essay made clear, it's always been hard for artists to succeed financially, even with the old money-making mechanisms in place. It still is. But the Internet (along with cheap, high-quality home recording technology) has changed the focus of the industry from discovery and distribution to the music itself. Overall, that's a good thing.
This post has been updated for clarity.