Photo by Jayden Ostwald
Ladies and gentleman! In this corner, from Chicago, we have Electrical Audio’s chief recording engineer extraordinaire, Shellac/Rapeman/Big Black underground rock overlord, outspoken scribe, diehard outsider and a dude who is so DIY hard-fuckin’-core, he turned down gazillions in royalties to Nirvana’s In Utero….Steve Albini!
And please welcome, in the other corner, the challenger, downtown NYC jazz luminary, leader of avant-jazz schizoids Ceramic Dog, ace guitarist (cred, you ask? he’s shredded for Tom Waits, Robert Plant, Elvis Costello, John Zorn, John Lurie, et. al.) tireless activist (check his criminal record. dude’s been arrested. he means biz) and co-founder of artists rights group Content Creators Coalition, “a membership based, artist-run non-profit advocacy based group representing creators in the digital landscape”, Marc Ribot!
All hyperbole aside, let’s do a quick rundown of what this so-called beef is all about. Follow me here because its origins go way back—to 1993. That year, Albini penned an essay entitled “The Problem With Music”, an infamous screed that picked apart, in excruciating detail, the crooked and corrupt dealings of the music industry.
Fast forward twenty two years. Albini, in Australia to give the keynote address at Melbourne’s Face the Music conference, danced on the grave of copyright calling it an “expired concept,” defended streaming services (e.g. Spotify, Pandora, Tidal, etc.) as the future of music listening (so long, record labels) and the kicker to end all kickers, proclaimed piracy ain’t that bad (read the full transcript here).
Enter Ribot, heroic defender of all things copyright and hardcore believer in Content Creators Coalition’s ethos: “dedicated to economic justice in the digital domain.” In other words, musicians best be paid. Naturally, a war of words ensued between Ribot and Albini. First, the man responsible for heartfelt ditty “Kim Gordon’s Panties,” blabbed some more in this Billboard article thus fueling Ribot’s ire here. Then, Albini addressed it again in Barcelona at the Primavera Festival, prompting this interview with Ribot plus a letter posted on CCC’s Facebook page.
Photo by Barbara Rigon
Got all that? Don’t worry, I’m a bit lost myself. But we’re not done yet! Just recently, Albini (as “Scooter McKeaver”) hit back with a response to Ribot’s letter on the FB page of CCC (which you can read here in this thread) and…whew!.. here we are. Ribot has now penned a lengthy letter, which we are happy to share, but we’d love for these two kids to get together and hug it out, maybe over delicious wraps in Istanbul. Or better yet, Ribot can lead Shellac on a cover of Ceramic Dog’s bruising, piss ‘n’ vinegar–dripping anthem “Masters of the Internet,” a glorious middle finger and fuck you rant to music piracy.
Read on for Ribot’s latest VERBATIM diatribe (we’ve intentionally left it unedited because we don’t want to piss him off) he calls “Copyright, Hypocrisy and Steve Albini." Here it is below in full:
I like Steve Albini’s production values and guitar playing. Friends in Chicago tell me he’s been generous with local musicians by keeping his studio costs low.
Albini has been a fierce partisan of the ‘indie label movement’. I support his DIY idealism; it has helped a lot of creative people make music.
But when an admirable desire for independence morphs into an ideological fantasy of omnipotence; when problems demanding a public/collective (rather than private/individual) solution can’t even be acknowledged; then DIY ceases to be a tool for the empowerment of musicians, and becomes an instrument of our corporate enslavement.
We (recording artists) have a problem. Our industry has crashed by over 60%, and is likely to fall further as streaming displaces legal downloads and cd sales.
Our rights are under attack by a powerful corporate coalition.
It’s clear that if we don’t act together, and soon, we’ll lose our rights, with our livelihoods soon to follow.
Steve Albini has chosen this moment to speak out in opposition to the copyrights that are basic to our ability to get paid for our work…indeed, to even be able to call our work ‘ours’:
“… the intellectual construct of copyright and intellectual property ownership is not realistic…That old copyright model of the person who wrote something down owns it and anyone else who wants to use it or see it has to pay him, I think that model has expired."
"Ideas, once expressed), become part of the common mentality. And music, once expressed, becomes part of the common environment…"
I felt this was wrong. If an artist doesn’t like copyright: they can opt out. Creative Commons provides easy to use forms. Love it, or leave it, dude.
So I posed the question online: “are you willing to sign a Creative Commons license placing your entire catalogue in the public domain? Or are you just another… hypocrite…?”
"Your challenge that I put everything in the public domain is of course a needle I'm not going to indulge.”
Well, now we know the answer. Steve Albini believes “copyright has expired”: just not HIS copyright.
My favorite part of his response was the “of course”.
Its worth unpacking: ‘Of course I wouldn’t really give up copyright. Any working recording artist would have to be insane to do that…because copyright is how we get paid. Its how we prevent major labels, Hollywood studies, and Madison Avenue ad agencies from making fortunes off us without paying us, or from using our work in ways we hate. Of course.’
Albini’s response to my post continues,
“In principle, I don't have a gripe with a limited copyright for people who make original work…”
In fact, “a limited copyright for people who make original work” is the only kind that exists. So Albini supports copyright after all.
That should have settled the matter. However, Albini continues:
"I think the insistence that I (anyone) is owed something because someone discovered your work on the internet is preposterous. There are infinite things…on the internet; Do all of those things warrant compensation? If not, why is music special?"
In fact, musicians aren’t asking for any ‘special’ status: we want the same rights as anyone else: the right to own what we make until we decide to sell it or give it away, the right to say no to a deal that isn’t fair.
The issue isn’t who “discovers” a work, online or off. Its whether the business in which that ‘discovery’ takes place permits people to place material on their premises without the consent of its creators…or not.
If you “discover” an item at a flea market, that’s wonderful. If the item was stolen, that’s a problem. If all the items that vendor is selling are illegal, and if the owner of that flea market permits vendors of hot goods to return week after week, they can be arrested, because normally, the owners of a business are responsible for illegal behavior on their premises.
That is, unless the flea market is online, and the people who own it are corporations worth 395 billion (Google’s latest net worth.).
The Safe Harbor clause of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1997, exempts ISP’s from prosecution for their complicity in copyright infringement.
This clause is being misused by corporations which have the clear capability to abide by the law, and are instead choosing not to.
And those corporations are now powerful enough to convince the US government to look the other way.
Vinyl, cd, mp3, etc. are commercial formats. If we master our recordings for a commercial format…even if it’s a bunch of noise with anti-corporate lyrics, then we deserve a fair share of the profit our work generates.
Not because we’re ‘special’: but because we have the same rights as every other producer in a free society.
Albini attempts to trivialize the issue: ‘well, maybe rights are ok (“in principle”) but it doesn’t really matter if we lose them because we can make up for these losses:
"I have made a living in music my entire professional life…I can tell when the change has been a net benefit to the community of musicians I work with. I have seen first-hand that the free exchange of music over the internet has enabled and reinvigorated careers…"
This is quite an impressive claim. I’m also a working, musician. My experience, and common sense, suggest the opposite. One doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist, or even the son of one, to know that it’s hard to sell what people can readily get for free. So how does Steve Albini support such counterintuitive claims?
“It's what filled the club my band played at in Istanbul two nights ago, and the one we played in Thessaloniki tonight. Those people like our band now, and over time they will find ways to support us, by going to our gigs, buying our records and generally making what we do worth something.”
Aha. Touring is going to save us.
There was a lot of hype about this ‘long tail’ effect of the internet helping niche market artists like those in the scenes Albini and I both work a few years back. To my great regret, it just didn’t work out that way.
A European booking agent friend, long experienced with Jazz, Indie, Punk, New Music, Hip Hop, and mainstream writes:
“ …there are more bands then ever before on Tour, trying to make a living… [but] They are mostly paid less money…
Some “super bands” who had in fact their glory years or even decades ago, are touring again (to make up for the income loss from sales and rights) and are indeed attracting more people then ever before. This extra money from the live performances is going to the major bands and their environment…and does not have a real positive influence on the diversity of the music programs or the incomes of the majority of the artists.”
“… instead of having a more diverse program, musical venues are getting more uniform”.
I played Istanbul last month, and have been playing similar European touring circuits since several decades before Napster. The internet didn’t create those circuits: we played the same or similar rooms in the 80’s and 90’s. They’re no more ‘filled’ today, nor, on the whole, paying better.
Glad Steve’s band Shellac is having a comeback, but “net benefit to the community of musicians…”???
It's also interesting that Albini has appointed himself spokesman for a larger community of indie artists:
“I can tell when the change has been a net benefit to the community of musicians I work with.”
Whoa! I never presume to speak for my colleagues:
But I’ve helped found an organization, the Content Creators Coalition (c3), to allow them to speak for themselves. And they have. In emails, at meetings, benefit concerts, rallies, and on picket lines over the last 2 years… in NYC, SF, LA, and other cities, including Chicago.
And what they’ve said, loud and clear, is that they’re tired of seeing their livelihoods destroyed and rights trampled for the benefit of Big Tech corporate profit.
(Btw: more than one person on our list-serves has commented that they’re tired of seeing privileged artists (celebritynetworth.com puts Albini’s net worth at 10 million) who established their careers when it was still possible to make money selling records talking trash about the copyright that funded their freedom to create and the publicity budgets that gave them whatever public status they enjoy.)
Albini’s final gambit is to hide the human agency of those attacking our rights behind a myth of ‘nature’ and inevitability (“not much you can do about it”):
"My point was (is) that the audience will naturally share music once it's been released, that there's not much you can do about it, and that it is generally a good thing."
1. This isn’t about “the audience”, or the fans, or the consumers: its about corporate business models designed to profit from commercial, ad based infringement at the expense of artists. There’s nothing ‘natural’ about it, and there’s PLENTY that can be done. http://www.c3action.org
The digital revolution is inevitable: the destruction of musicians’ livelihoods isn’t.
2. Ad based commercial copyright infringement is most definitely NOT a good thing. The existence of the black market has distorted the whole market, allowing even legal streaming sites like Spotify to get away with paying unsustainably low rates.
Endless hype and misinformation has been circulated on this subject. Those interested in peer reviewed research, see here.
3. It isn’t “sharing” if you don’t own it.
It all comes down to this, Steve: if you think posting or allowing others to post your material for free download or streaming is helping you get gigs in Istanbul, you go for it: we all respect your right to choose. The question is: do you respect our right to choose differently? If you do, then cool: you respect copyright. Copyright = An Artist’s Right To Choose. If you don’t…well: its like labor, sex, or governance: consent makes ALL the difference.
PS: next time you’re in Istanbul, check out the wraps at Ferraye Fish, near the Galata bridge. Amazing!