requiem for a parasite: the u.s. recession and the music industry
column originally published in A2 Cultural Weekly, Czech Republic, 2009
"It's the inefficient, parasitic parts of the music industry that are all dying off": some un-minced words
from Steve Albini (at left) with Santiago Durango in the heyday of Big Black
When, in early December, the American recession was officially announced to have been a reality since 2007, it merely confirmed a reality that people in the music business had been coping with for years. After all, I had been receiving catalogs from DiscMakers –a popular CD duplication / printing / mastering service geared towards independent musicians- offering cut-rate CD duplication packages with simultaneously alluring and disheartening titles like “Recession Buster” months in advance of the dreaded “official” announcement. Musicians –especially those who toil away thanklessly on the U.S. ‘indie’ circuit- are well aware of their expendable role in American society, and the fact that their already insecure jobs will be among the first to disappear in the wake of a full-blown depression. If such musicians, and all the ancillary workers which enable them, seem embittered today, one can hardly blame them: the vivacity and eclecticism inherent in American recorded music is often touted as proof of the nation’s “shining fortress on a hill” uniqueness in the world, a claim which issues forth from the mouths of neo-conservative interventionist hawks and leftist activists alike. Yet, for all their supposed usefulness as American ambassadors to the world, said usefulness can be swiftly and dramatically curtailed as economic crisis deepens. Victims of a Spartan kind of ‘essential-ism’, musicians will be left out in the cold while such “essential” items as armaments for multiple foreign occupations continue to be manufactured at a breakneck pace (the $1 trillion price tag for these military actions, I might add, is rarely brought up as one of the root causes for the current recession.)
The music business has weathered its own self-contained recession periods before, though, for reasons that had little to do with global economic crisis en toto: on the cusp of the 1980s, for example, the industry reported an 11% drop in profits owing to the inability to successfully market a plethora of new musical approaches, all haphazardly grouped together under the glowing neon banner of “new wave.” For all intents and purposes, the industry has also had a head start on the current recession since the year 2000: sales of its flagship product, compact discs, have declined over 36 percent since the coming of the millennium. If the reasons for this sales plummet aren’t already obvious, we’ll get to them a moment- suffice it to say the post-2000 scenario was also a case of the industry’s gatekeepers being caught napping.
Any nightmare scenario for the industry also has to involve the supply chain which shuttles recorded music from its producers to its consumers, consisting of much more than just a rag-tag collective of starving artists: we have to also figure instrument manufacturers, music software designers, recording studio staff, merchandising (band t-shirts, etc.) people, CD pressing plant employees, record label employees, concert promoters, booking agencies and still more into the myriad of professions comprising the modern music industry. Like any other well-entrenched industry, its failure could possibly spread out in ever-widening circles to other commercial sectors. Yet unlike most other industries (take the beleaguered U.S. auto industry, for example) the ability for consumers to receive the end product for free, without a definite risk of legal repercussions, is an ominous Sword of Damocles swaying perpetually over its day-to-day proceedings. Or so the industry’s major lobbying group, the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America], would have you believe. Combine this with the fact that any musician with a capable internet connection can digitally distribute and market her own music (while keeping at least half of the net royalties for herself), and many elements of the aforementioned supply chain seem to be approaching obsolescence as well.
Given the recent scandals involving the would-be sale of president-elect Obama’s former Senate seat to the highest bidder, the words “incorruptibility” and “Chicago” are not going to be used together in the same sentence anytime soon. Yet, in Chicago recording engineer Steve Albini, we have at least one man who seems not to succumb to profit motives: a plucky champion of the ‘indie’ way of life, Albini disdains the traditional role of the music producer as a parasitic “guru” seeking to claim authorship of a music group’s hard work, and he tends to charge the clients at his Electrical Audio studios on a sliding scale, based on their ability to pay (and whether or not he enjoys good personal relations with them before or during the recording process.) Perhaps his experience with the sliding scale has also influenced his views on how the music business will evolve in the midst of economic turmoil: although the mega-selling alt-rock band Radiohead would seem to be an unlikely ally for Albini on the basis of their aesthetics alone, he applauds the business model they employed for their 2007 album In Rainbows, which allowed fans to download the work and pay whatever they felt it was truly worth- admittedly a radical move for a band of their stature. Since his early days as a fanzine writer, Albini has warned against the tendency of major record companies to meddle with musicians’ creative vision based on faulty assumptions about market demographics. Perhaps because he can distinguish between the survival of music, full stop, and the survival of the music industry, Albini sees the decline of the latter to be no big deal at all:
“My perspective on the current climate is that the big institutional record labels, and pretty much the whole infrastructure of the professional mainstream music business is collapsing…music is proliferating in a million different ‘free exposure’ markets, and it’s becoming easier and easier for bands to access those audiences on their own, with no administrative interference from anybody. […] I think it’s actually a terrific development that the music industry is collapsing. It’s the inefficient, parasitic parts of the industry that are all dying off, where the part that matters –the fundamental relationship between the bands and their audience- that’s becoming more direct and more convenient.”
When asked how anyone could possibly expect to make money if the industry’s machinery falters, Albini’s short answer is that money should never have really been a concern when making music of quality: very few have the ability to play music professionally, and not everyone should strive for professional status as the sole aim of their music making. But, perhaps more comforting for musicians who still want to make some sort of income doing what they love, Albini suggests that now
“there’s a bunch of different avenues in which you can develop a relationship with a band, and all of those have some commercial potential to them. Instead of it being focused on this crazy single transaction of selling a ‘thing,’ it’s going to be about bands developing a natural audience that’s unique to them, which will participate in the band’s career for the duration of that career…in the same way that they support churches and social organizations. Because [the bands] mean something to [their audience], they will probably support musicians and art groups.”
There is plenty of extant proof backing Albini’s assertion that people will begin buying into music more as a manifestation of ideology than as a mere ‘entertainment’ product. Numerous independent ‘cult’ bands have supporters who view each successive release as part of an ongoing psycho-spiritual edification process, and eagerly buy out the limited “objet d’art” editions of their recordings soon after their release is announced. Audiences for successful independent acts may be significantly smaller than the ones that major labels hope to accumulate, yet –as Albini says- these audiences will likely stay with an artist for the long term once their hearts and minds have been won, especially when their recorded work articulates beliefs and attitudes that are not replicated elsewhere. So when the epitath for the mainstream music industry is written, it should not merely note that the industry was weakened by widespread internet piracy and by shrinking mid-recession purses: the business also helped to engineer its own obsolescence by placing an army of middlemen between artists and their fans, creating an artist/audience gulf that frustrated the development of deeper and more meaningful relationships.