Last year, Talking Heads singer David Byrne provided one of the most memorable and provocative diagnoses of the music industry to come from the punk and classic rock elite. He wrote, “The internet will suck the creative content out of the whole world until nothing is left.” That’s about as apocalyptic as it gets.
But in an interview at Quartz, we get another vastly different assessment from one of the godfathers of post-punk: Steve Albini, who led the influential punk band Big Black and as a producer conjured unforgettable maelstroms of noise on albums for the Pixies and Nirvana. Albini told the outlet, “The single best thing that has happened in my lifetime in music, after punk rock, is being able to share music, globally for free.”
The proliferation of free music on the Web would seem to pose a contradiction for those who live by punk rock’s ethos. On one hand, punk rock isn’t supposed to be about getting rich. Fugazi was famously unyielding when it came to ticket and album sales, charging $5 for shows and $10 for CDs. But punk is also anti-corporate, and it’s the YouTubes, Apples, Pandoras, and Spotifys of the world that stand to gain the most from music’s digital revolution. Granted, the verdict is still out on whether Pandora or Spotify will be able to sustain (or in Spotify’s case, even achieve) long-term profits, but it would appear that some large streaming network stands to make a killing here.
Albini’s statements are the latest shots fired over whether Spotify and Pandora are good or bad for musicians. Some musicians, like Thom Yorke and Cracker’s David Lowery view putting your songs on Spotify and Pandora as a devil’s bargain. Sure, musicians get the benefits of a massive platform where any fan can listen to their music with minimal financial or technological friction. But they’re also constraining themselves into a model that may severely limit their ability to profit off their music. For Albini’s part, though, he thinks the deck has always been stacked against artists and that at least now they have a way to deliver their music instantly to anybody around the world. Artists may still not make as much as money as they believe they’re earned, but in return they get so much more through these technological advancements.
“I actually think the compensation is not as preposterous as anyone else,” Albini told Quartz. “It’s like complaining that cars are going faster than horses.”
Jack Comte, one-half of the indie pop duo Pomplamoose and founder of the music patronage platform Patreon, comes somewhere in-between the Albinis and the Yorkes of the world. He told me last February: “As an artist I loathe Spotify. My payments from Spotify amount to nothing. But as a consumer I love it. I can get any song in the world, it’s such a great piece of software.”
He adds, “My fans ask me to put my stuff on Spotify. They listen by platform, not by artist, and if you’re not on their platform then they won’t listen to you.”
Comte is quick to note that the physical product of music has only been around for 80 years — a drop in the bucket in the history of music. So it’s a relatively recent notion that a piece of art must have a physical form for it to have value. In Albini’s view, having physical album copies didn’t serve musicians, it served the music publishing industry which he calls a “racket.”
“It never operated for the benefit of songwriters,” Albini tells Quartz. “Of all of the things that have collapsed in the music paradigm, the one I am most pleased to see collapse is the publishing racket.”
But is Albini too idealistic? Sure, an artist with an established fan base can afford to forgo big record companies to reach fans. But record companies, with their connections to the increasingly consolidated world of radio, not to mention connections to physical retailers, can still be crucial to catapult bands into the limelight. The narrative of 2013’s out-of-nowhere success story Macklemore was that he succeeded without the help of major labels, but that’s not entirely true. “You really cannot get a radio hit at this point without major label backing,” Billboard’s Gary Trust told NPR.
Then again, terrestrial radio and physical retail stores don’t exactly have a bright future ahead of them. And last year’s other biggest breakout star, Lorde, rose to prominence more organically when Sean Parker placed her on his popular “Hipster International” Spotify playlist. By achieving popularity by currying favor with influential music critics and listeners, artists may not need the boost offered by record labels. This practice began with influential music blogs like Pitchfork and Gorilla Vs. Bear, but if Spotify can do a better job unearthing and curating its playlists then it can more consistently operate as a publicity vehicle.
To be sure, making a living as a musician in the digital age is a slog. And the mathematics behind Spotify and Pandora royalty payments don’t make it any easier. But the takeaway from Albini’s interview and other defenses of the new digital economics of the music industry is that the system has always been rigged against artists. At least now musicians don’t have to get the attention of a record label and possibly sell their souls to make their songs available to potentially billions of listeners around the world.