Steve Albini Takes On ‘Parasitic’ Record Labels And Copyright’s ‘Outdated’ Illusion Of Control

Musician and producer Steve Albini has never been a fan of the recording industry. He posted the definitive essay on how labels screw artists over 20 years ago, and it’s just as relevant today as it was then. The internet (read: file sharing) has been public enemy #1 for the recording industry (and now the motion picture industry), despite offering a host of benefits to artists and labels. Those at the top see its decentralized distribution as a threat, with any accompanying gains in marketing power and reach deemed a net loss after totalling up the “lost sales.”

Albini — similarly affected by these same “negatives” — doesn’t see it this way. While acknowledging the fact that infringement occurs in amounts previously unseen (but that it’s not in any way a new thing — just far more efficient and not necessarily a bad thing), he continues to point out that the problems the music industry suffers from are mostly self-inflicted.

Speaking to an audience in Barcelona, Albini elaborated on his “updated” rant against the industry. Now expanded to include the massive increase of internet usage, the points still remain largely the same. There’s a problem in the recording industry — one virtually identical to the one pointed out by Albini in 1993. And that problem is… the recording industry.

“I don’t feel like I’m part of the music industry, the music industry meaning the corporatised business structures where you have people who are in the lower level, people in the upper level, people in administration, and people making legal relationships between all those people. […]

This administrative business structure that’s syphoning money out of that whole scene has always seemed artificial and unnecessary and I’ve spent my life trying to remove its influence.”

While the industry frets about “lost sales,” it has done very little to evolve from the bloated form it took on during the 40+ year run where multiple format shifts resulted in unprecedented sales figures. It’s not just the corporate structure that’s a problem. And this isn’t to say labels haven’t shed personnel over the years. It’s just that they’ve been forced to make cuts due to falling revenue, rather than actively working to streamline their operations to fit the expectations of the internet age. Frontline staff and low-level employees have lost jobs but there are still many layers of employees distancing artists from those who own them.

Then there’s the lawyers. Some are there to ensure every last bit of revenue can be wrung out of an artist before any royalty checks are cut. Some are there to explore every possible legal angle that might be used to combat piracy The first sort have always been present. The latter still exist only because industry heads still hold out hope that file sharing can somehow be defeated with court orders and legislation.

Albini says the first set are roughly as useless as the last.

“The idea that you have to have contracts to do [business] agreements, that you have to have formal understanding between people in order to have a long relationship, is a complete fallacy.

If you enjoy working with someone and both feel the relationship is working out, you naturally carry on indefinitely.

That’s the way I’ve approached essentially all of my business, you don’t need contracts.”

But you do need a contract if the “relationship” is actually just exploitation. This is why contracts are of utmost importance to the recording industry. Artists may initially show enthusiasm when offered a recording contract, but a few years down the road, they often find they’re cranking out recordings just to avoid going deeper in debt. An equitable agreement — like those used by Albini (who prefers a flat-rate fee for his production work, rather than seeking a cut of every sale or stream in perpetuity) — doesn’t need a multi-page contract or a team of lawyers. Honesty and openness up front can trim a lot of pages from an agreement… as well as the jobs of lawyers whose entire purpose is to ensure “agreements” are as long and inscrutable as possible.

Lastly, Albini goes after copyright — itself a legacy business model.

“The old copyright model – the person who creates something owns it and anyone else that wants to use it or see it has to pay them – has expired in the same way that around the world you’re seeing structures and social norms [lapse] that were standard for many years.

It’s going to take a lot for the business to catch up to where the audience is, in the same way it takes a while for the church and the laws to catch up to where the people are.

But there is no longer the possibility to exclusively control music through copyright.”

Those arguing that stronger copyright protections will somehow “control” social sharing aren’t grasping the reality of the situation. As it stands now, any copyright holder can demand $150,000 per infringement in statutory damages, and yet, that has had no appreciable effect on infringement. Just ask Rightscorp, which offers $20/infringement “settlements” while waving threats of $150,000 “fines” over internet subscribers’ heads. It’s in the business of spending money to lose money.

The idea that lifetime+ copyright terms will put creators’ grandkids through college is likewise suspect. Grandkids are going to college thanks to these terms, but they’re the descendants of label execs and studio heads.

The “control” offered by copyright is an illusion. The continued belief in this misconception allows labels to take advantage of artists. An artist may feel (incorrectly) that an individual can never hope to fully exploit his or her creations without the assistance of the marketing and legal teams of major labels, but they almost invariably have to give up full control of their creations to make use of these services. What good is their copyright then? It’s not even theirs. And the assistance they’re receiving is charged up front at full retail and paid off with royalties — a tiny percentage of actual sales and profit.

As Albini points out, the way people enjoy music continues to change, and attempts to offer iterations of existing platforms and services is missing the point. People, for the most part, don’t care about the quality of streaming music. They only care about the convenience. Albini notes that people carried around transistor radios to enjoy music on the go, something that offered truly terrible sound quality, but was no less popular for doing so. The way people consume and distribute creations will continue to change, but trying to harness that potential using contracts, outdated business models and delusions of control will never work.

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