Corporate Rock Does Still Suck, Right Stevie?

Last weekend, producer engineer, musician and self-appointed conscience for the spirit of rock Steve Albini spoke at the the annual Face the Music conference in Melbourne, where he argued that digital distribution has given musicians the power to control and market their own music. Ever a champion of the DIY aesthetic, his viewpoint is limited but isn't wrong. Musicians who were making money are making less thanks to online streaming and lagging record sales. But more musicians can record their music at home and make it possible for people around the world to hear it. Whether or not that's better for the industry, that much is true, And it's at least a better lot than that of centuries of musicians (right up until the last one) whose music is lost forever. When people say musicians are making less money from their music, they time and time again don't figure in the musicians that used to make nothing and now might make enough for a case of beer - or build enough support to venture a regional tour. 

Those are the artists Albini is speaking for, and he's right. For struggling musicians (who aren't guaranteed a record contract to begin with) things certainly aren't worse anyway than they were in teh heyday of the record industry. Albini likes to talk about the industry and in general he's pretty good at it. But speaking at Melbourne he chose a strange target to represent the dying dinosaur of the big record label. 

“If your little daughter does a kooky dance to a Prince song don’t bother putting it on YouTube for her grandparents to see or a purple dwarf in assless chaps will put an injunction on you," he said. "Did I offend the little guy? Fuck it. His music is poison.”

Prince has notoriously fought against his music being posted on YouTube. I'm not sure why that resulted in so much derision being cast his way because posting songs or albums to YouTube is essentially bootlegging and with crap sound quality to boot, but there you go. He became the source of a lot of jokes for not wanting his work distributed for free and without his permission. I don't know that he ever went after someone for posting a video of their child dancing to one of his songs, however. The Recording Industry Association of America threatened to as a general principle, but I don't know that Prince did.

[EDIT: A reader reminded me of the 2007 case Lenz v Universal Music Corp., in which the US District Court for the Northern District of California ruled that copyright holders must consider fair use when issuing take-down notices for videos posted on the Internet. The case concerned a video of a young girl dancing to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy" and was filed by the Universal Music Corporation at a time when Prince wasn't under contract with the label, although he did issue a statement at the time saying he intended to "reclaim his art on the internet." This is no doubt what Albini was referring to, but doesn't affect my larger argument here.]

The RIAA, according to its website, "supports and promotes the creative and financial vitality of the major music companies." Not individual artists but companies. Now this is going to get a bit cloudy (as things often do with Prince) but let's think about what a company is. Most people who aren't Mitt Romney don't think that corporations and people are the same thing. The RIAA represents the industry - corporations - and, by extension, artists who are a part of that industry. 

In 1994, Prince declared himself dead, taking a symbol as his name because his record label, Warner Brothers, wouldn't let him release what he wanted. In essence, he said, he didn't own his name. The two parties went through five years of hostile (and sometimes hilarious) negotiations before Prince was finally freed from his contract and took back his given name. 

From 1999 until 2014, Prince acted as the biggest DIY artist on the planet. He recorded and produced his own albums. He paid for the compact discs to be manufactured and he hired record labels (EMI and then Universal) to distribute them. The labels didn't get a share of profits, they were paid for a service. 

And what was Steve Albini doing in 1994? He was producing a record by Bush for Interscope Records that debuted at #1 on the Billboard album charts. At the time 53% of the Interscope's stock was owned by Atlantic Records. The following year it was bought out by MCA Inc. Today it is a part of the Universal Music Group. So who's industry here?

OK, so I'm stacking the deck a bit. Albini has by and large not only championed independent artists but worked in his own studio with punk/indie artists and labels. But what's his beef with Prince? The assless chaps were decades ago and "purple dwarf"? Potentially offensive but more than that, Prince had a better line anyway with "from the heart of Minnesota, here comes the purple Yoda."

"Did I offend the little guy?" Albini carried on. "Fuck it. His music is poison." What, Mr. Albini, does that have to do with anything. Prince should be a champion to DIY artists. He spent 15 years exploring how huge artists might survive without record labels. Sure, being a millionaire doesn't sound very punk, but faulting someone for their success is pretty petty. And unless all the contestants on American Idol have given up fantasies of dizzying wealth and popularity, living at the top of the heap without relying on record labels is a relevant part of the equation - and something I don't see Paul McCartney, Madonna or Taylor Swift risking to venture. I'm sure Albini doesn't like them either, but perhaps he should think again about what Prince has accomplished. Whether or not he likes the music, Prince is hardly corporate rock. And corporate rock still sucks. 

SST gif stolen from WFMU Station Manager Ken.

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