I had the pleasure of listening to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast last week. His guest on the show was musician/music producer Steve Albini. Albini was the founding member of one of the most sarcastic aggressive bands to come out of Chicago’s punk scene, Big Black (abrasive might be a bit of understatement in describing their sound). He then went on to produce albums such as Nirvana’s In Utero, and The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, as well as working with artists like The Breeders, Superchunk, PJ Harvey, Mogwai, Cheap Trick, The Cribs, Iggy Pop, The Foo Fighters, Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin fame (I’ve made a brief spotify playlist of some his work that I’ve thrown in below). But the thing that stuck me about the interview was Albini’s discussion of working in the creative industries. Besides talking about the challenges for artists, Albini discussed his own struggles getting into working on records. Even while he was producing bands like the Pixies, he was still working altering photos in a lab (photoshop before photoshop) in order to live comfortably.
Albini also has been known to criticize the music industry for being blatantly explosive to musicians, this seemed to fit in with the sentiments expressed in Andrew Ross’ book, Nice Work If You Can Get It about the creative industries. Early on Ross states that, “If the creative industries become the ones to follow, all kinds of jobs, in short, may well look more and more like musicians’ gigs: nice work if you can get it” (17). When I read that line, it really reminded me of an article that Albini wrote in 1993 called “The Problem with Music“. You should definitely read through that article but in case, you don’t here’s the tl;dr version of things: the music industry will absolutely screw you over at every turn. To illustrate this, just look at Albini’s projected revenue chart at the end of the article. Long story short, getting a gig, or even being signed to a record label is not exactly “nice” work. It’s more like work where the only thing nice about it is that you can theoretically do what you love, but for the most part only under very severe circumstances.
Another thing that both Albini and Ross touch on is the idea of independence. Both discuss the facade of independence in both the creative industries and specifically in the music industry. One of the things to look at here is the idea of musicians can organically and independently create buzz through the internet. According to Ross, “the Web-enabled “liberation” of individual creators [is not] an easy escape from corporate capture. Self-generated Internet buzz has been hailed as a viable avenue for artists looking to market their work independently of the entertainment majors. The most well-known examples include the musical careers of Sandi Thom, Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen, and Gorillaz; films like The Blair Witch Project and Snakes on a Plane; and a variety of Chinese Internet celebrities” (23). Ross, I think, misses an opportunity here when he choses not to mention that two of his examples really we’re set up to succeed, internet or not. The Gorillaz we’re at least going to be a big hit in Britain considering that the musical lead of the Gorillaz is Damon Albarn, the lead singer of Blur, who were, at one point, the biggest band in Britain. Lilly Allen, herself, came from a musical/entertainment family, her father is an actor and musician, who opened for the Clash and her mother Allison Owen is a film producer, recently producing such films as The Other Boleyn Girl and Saving Mr. Banks. If anything this actually strengthens his entire argument, in that Only Sandi Thom and the Arctic Monkeys stand as artists who we’re able to use internet buzz with “no strings attached”. Even then both used this route as a way to sign with record labels. And while the Arctic Monkeys ended up signing with independent label, Domino. These artists all used the internet in order to get signed, rather than using it as a new outlet in order to truly be independent. In the creative industries outside of music there’s the same problem, independent outlets aren’t used as a way to break from the system, they’re used to break into the system.
To sum things up, if we’ve learned anything this year in seminar it’s that the creative industries aren’t all glitz and glamor, if anything it’s a struggle to do what you love. The idea that creative labor is easier or that the system is “more welcoming” just isn’t true. If it’s anything it’s harder, and frankly a stupid thing to get yourself into unless you absolutely love it.
But saying all this, We’re also in a time where there’s real opportunity to make an impact, it just can’t be through the traditional system. In the Guardian, there was a fantastic write up from a couple years ago regarding Albini’s thoughts on the music industry today. In particular, Albini was excited about how bands could use the internet to distance themselves further from the label system: “I see [bands] continuing as a constellation of enterprises: some big, some small, most small but all of them with a more immediate response from their audience and a greater chance to succeed. It is genuinely exciting.” Now, this isn’t saying that it is easy to work in the music industry or the creative industries, but there’s opportunity to represent yourself as an artist, It’s just that it’s hard work, and requires more creativity that just producing art, you have to creatively market yourself as well.
If you guys haven’t noticed by now, I have a bit of a hang up where I like to end articles with songs, I think it’s a thing from back when I used to blog about music so, check out Dave Brubeck’s ‘Fujiyama’ (which has nothing to do with Steve Albini in any way), I’ve been on a total jazz kick recently and it’s super amazing.