Thursday, January 1, 2015

What, If Anything, Can David Lowery or Steve Albini Teach Us About The State of The Music (Industry) Today?

The arguments over free downloading and its effect on musicians and music lovers have, once again, flared up on social media. Judging by the clogged comment boxes on reposts of essays by veteran "indie" musicians Steve Albini and David Lowery, it’s clear that many are worried about the state of the music industry today. Clearly it has transformed in the last decade—for better or worse? And, if for worse, what can be done to make it better? Can independent (non corporate sponsored) musicians navigate this new technology to our benefit?  And, if so, how? Although the arguments tend to get reduced to click bait, the contrasting positions of these two musicians are a good place to start to consider this controversy that doesn’t seem to be going away any time soon.

On the one hand, Albini optimistically speaks in defense of fantastic new developments the internet affords both fans and musicians, while others dismiss his arguments as Randian. On the other hand, Lowery pessimistically criticizes these developments and is derisively dismissed as “an old fogey, or someone who won’t let go of the past.” (Culture Crash, 104). While both men appeal to the lesser-known musician and music appreciator, Albini supports today’s status quo, while Lowery searches for alternatives to it. In 1993, it was Lowery who embraced the status quo while Albini argued against it. Revisiting the “indie rock” world of that 1993, as well as the 80s underground music scene from which both these men emerged, may help illuminate today’s debates.

For many, the early 1990s period was/is seen as a golden age—and, in retrospect, perhaps the last golden age-- of grassroots independent American musical culture if compared to the developments of the subsequent two decades. It is during this era when Albini and Lowery achieved their biggest success in pop-culture. Perhaps Albini’s biggest success came with producing Nirvana’s In Utero, while Lowery’s had come as lead singer of “indie rock” band Cracker. These can serve as two contrasting examples of how independent musicians negotiated with the demands of a corporate dominated industry while still maintaining the alternative/street or “college rock” cred they achieved during the 80s (whether through Big Black or Camper Van Beethoven).

Albini, as a producer, could always keep at least one foot out of the coopting corporations (“one foot in the door, the other foot in the gutter/ the sweet smells that you adore, I think I’d rather smother!” as Paul Westerberg would put it). With his recording studio day job, Albini wasn’t dependent on the whims of the corporations. If the corporations turned away from indie rock as they largely did by 2000 (with a rare White Stripes exception here and there), Albini could remain grounded in punk’s low-fi jam-econo alternative economy and held onto aspects of the DIY aesthetic in a kind of recession proof field. I remember working with him in 1999 and applauding as he bragged that he could gouge the bands on the corporate labels, and then take that money and charge independent bands less—he represented a kind of heroic Robin Hood figure in this regard.

David Lowery, on the other hand, achieved more mainstream success in his own band’s name during the early 90s.  In Cracker, his persona as a musician did still partake in some of the quirky, smart-ass, yet cute California laid-back, cow-punk defiance that characterized his 80s band Camper Van Beethoven (whose most famous song, especially after Bowling For Columbine was “Take The Skinheads Bowling”).

In both cases, whether fronting Cracker or producing Nirvana, both Lowery and Albini had managed to make the transition from the smaller clubs and college radio scenes of the 1980s to the increasing Winner-Take-All (or All-Or-Nothing) corporate run music economy. The difference between the 80s and 90s, from this perspective, parallels the difference in rock music between the 60s and 70s; Cracker was to CVB what the arena rock band The Faces were to the Small Faces, or Led Zeppelin to The Yardbirds---both aesthetically and in the way they were distributed. Also, from this perspective Cracker, unlike Camper Van Beethoven, isn’t strictly speaking “indie rock,” but rather (as Wikipedia puts it) alternative rock.

If viewed from the perspective of mainstream culture, the early 90s seemed like a cultural opening (both Big Black and Camper Van Beethoven were non-entities in the era of Madonna/Michael Jackson and the Big Hair Bands), no wonder so many claimed that, in crossing over, WE (the underground, including hip hop) WON! As Scott Timberg puts it:

"The ‘90s saw the flowering of indie, or ‘alternative’ rock, and (commercial AOR) radio---which had been locked in a restrictive, repetitive ‘classic rock’ format enforced by unadventurous programmers for at least two decades—had the chance to open up.” (Culture Crash, 95). The corporations had finally seen the light, and now we could have Lollapalooza (just as the baby boomers had Woodstock, which was really just an advertisement for the more expensive, white suburbs and the bigger-is-better society of the spectacle the corporations benefit by).

Yet, for every one celebrating Nirvana’s cross over success and claiming WE WON, there was another one calling Cobain a sell out, or a victim of forces beyond his control. Amid the debates of this time, Steve Albini published his seminal essay “The Problem With Music” in 1993. In that essay, he urges fellow musicians to avoid signing with a major corporate label—not on any particular moral “sell-out” grounds, but because the label-industry of the time was inefficient, exploited musicians and led to sub par music. He was arguing out of enlightened self-interest.

By contrast, Lowery was enjoying the most successful, biggest selling album of his career (both before and since) released on Richard Branson’s Virgin Records (which had been sold to Thorn EMI a year earlier). At the time, Lowery clearly was optimistic about the “free market” and appealed to the post-Nirvana wave of youthful optimism that characterized this time in the lyrics to one of Cracker’s biggest hits:


Yeah, we ain't got no government loans
And no one sends a check from home
And get this, we're just doin' what we wanna—
  Cracker, “Get Off This”

Albini and Lowery were both letting their own hedonistic freak flags fly (though Cracker was certainly tamer, and more in line with a conventional rock band formula than Camper Van Beethoven was, and Albini’s production of Nirvana was certainly no Rape Man!), and express a cockiness that could stick it to the man! The main difference being that Albini was mostly criticizing the large corporations, while Lowery, who was working for Virgin/EMI, mostly went after the government.

Meanwhile, the grassroots scenes that made both hip hop and punk (or ‘indie’) so vital in the 80s was being undercut; the ground was crumbling or eroding beneath the well-hyped success stories---thanks to the corporate co-opting and colonizing that narrowed out the range of options (marginalizing “conscious hip hop” as well as the quirkier white indie acts from the select choice cuts it put forth as commodity). While Cracker crossed over, the weirder Monks Of Doom, the other members of Lowery’s storied 80s band, Camper Van Beethoven, languished in obscurity; while Dean Wareham’s Luna crossed over to an extent, the other 2/3 of Galaxie 500 didn’t; while Albini made money off Nirvana and Robert Plant, that didn’t mean his own band Shellac crossed over (not that he needed it). The underground, indie, college radio culture, with its more eclectic and democratic playlists that had nourished both Albini and Lowery’s career, became decimated as “commercial alternative” stations sprung up. And by 1996, with the passage of the telecommunications act, which both consolidated corporate ownership of radio, and paved the way for iPOD culture, this window (of opportunity) was shut again, just like the coffins over the corpses of Kurt Cobain and Tupac Shakur.

After the corporations had succeeded in destroying, for many, the viable ‘jam econo’ strength in numbers scene that Azerrad and others justly mythologize, the Telecommunications Act of 1996, as Timberg puts it, was “a gift to corporate consolidation, and especially to Clear Channel Communications. ‘Radio’s Big Bully,’ as the journalist Eric Boehlert had dubbed the company, swallowed hundreds of stations and standardized their playlists; other consolidations followed suit….now any possibility of a fresh sound on the air was gone. If a song took too long for test audiences to recognize, it was eliminated---so the range of bands that listeners heard narrowed.” (95).

Cracker’s 1996 album, ironically called The Golden Age, and many others like it as a result bombed when corporate controlled pop came to dominate the late 90s (for instance, the corporations could borrow the image from the “chick rock” phenomena to transition people from Alanis to the Spice Girls to Brittney Spears thus making the pop music of 2000 very similar to the pop music of 1990 as if Nirvana or PJ Harvey, to say nothing of Public Enemy, had never happened).

In this sense, Albini’s 1993 essay proved to be all too true, and the optimistic sentiments expressed in Cracker’s “Get Off This” seem more and more na├»ve. Lowery may not have directly needed a government loan to do what he wants to, but he, and other indie and alternative rockers, did need government regulations. College radio, which had played a large part in developing his reputation during the 80s was created by government intervention. These stations, serving the public interest, were also run on a volunteer economy, often by students who themselves needed government loans to attend college. The corporations wanted control of the entire airwaves (and since the telecom act, with some insidious dealing, they have come closer to achieving this---see, for instance, the case of Entercom;’s crafty maneuvering to crush San Francisco’s KUSF in 2010).  And, once these corporations were deregulated in 1996, there was no room for bands like Cracker, to say nothing of the weirder Camper Van Beethoven.

Considering these lyrics to “Get Off This” in light of Lowery’s passionate activism 20 years later against the 21st Century Technopoly may very well reveal the tragic hubris many shared in the early 90s, especially if we contrast what has happened to Lowery to what has happened to Albini in the same two decade period. While Lowery, and many others like him, “have been hit especially hard by the meltdown of the record industry” (Timberg, 88) since 2001, Albini has not suffered---in large part because he didn’t put all—or even most—of his eggs in that corporate basket. Lowery’s career, by contrast, had already been on the decline before iTunes came along.

Yet, the Telecommunications Act didn’t simply kill old models of production, it also, at first, seemed to offer new possibilities that could make up for what was lost for  independent musicians. Both Albini and Lowery, in their different ways, embraced these new technological possibilities: “We thought we’d make more money through disintermediation and selling music directly to fans,” Lowery claims (Culture Crash, 114) Lowery, however soon found that cutting out the record-label as middle man just created a new, bigger, middleman. “We brought [Facebook] all our fans, and now they’re selling them back to us. That’s classic exploitative re-intermediation. But we should have seen this coming—the people with the biggest computer servers, the biggest marketing budget, will win.” (Timberg 115)

Thus, David Lowery, 20 years after “Get Off This” has changed his tune, and is one of the most vocal proponents of government regulation of the free market. In the process, he has aligned himself with the RIAA labels, those who Albini calls “the administrative parts of the old record business,” who seem like the little guy compared to the Telecom Monopolies that have been made possible by the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Albini, by contrast, sees the internet as an extension, a continuation, and even a culmination, of the “old underground” from the 80s in which he, as well as Lowery, cut their teeth. Albini thus maintains his optimism about the internet—in part because he’s not interested in making money through selling recordings as Lowery is, and assumes that music listeners have money for the more expensive technological gadgets.

Albini considers the RIAA labels “the framework of an exploitative system that I have been at odds with my whole life” (Face The Music), but neither does he argue for the government to regulate them. He can still brag he needs no government loan, and just does what he wants to. He believes the internet has both benefitted fans as well as musicians through the very cutting out of the record label’s middleman that Lowery had come to realize he was duped by. “The internet has facilitated the most direct and efficient, compact relationship ever between band and audience. And I do not mourn the loss of the offices of inefficiencies that died in the process.” (Face The Music)

By contrast, Lowery shows how the new model hurts both fans and bands. He likens filesharing and free downloading to “looting” and claims that “Verizon, AT&T, Charter, etc etc. are charging a toll….to get the free stuff…..you need to have a $1,000 dollar laptop, a $500 dollar iPhone or $400 Samsung tablet. It turns out the supposedly “free” stuff really isn’t free. In fact it’s an expensive way to get “free” music….and none of that money goes to the artists!”

Both Albini and Lowery make excellent points and both are right from their perspective, and even though they appear to be on opposite sides of the debate over the deregulated free file sharing culture of the internet today, it’s reductive to simply argue that Lowery prefers the “old system” while Albini prefers the “new system” especially if we consider the ways in which the pre-internet “indie” or underground world of the 1980s from which both came was opposed to what both refer to as the “old system” (the corporate system that dominated during the 80s and 90s, pre-internet era in which the CD dominated).

In his keynote address at the Face The Music symposium in Melbourne, Albini describes why this 80s underground/independent model was better than the old corporate model Lowery seems to want to defend. In the 1980s, “bands existed outside that label spectrum. The working bands of the type I’ve always been in, and for those bands everything was always smaller and simpler….”

This doesn’t mean that it was a bed of roses:

“Local media didn’t take bands seriously until there was a national headline about them so you could basically forget about press coverage. And commercial radio was absolutely locked up by the payola-driven system of the pluggers and program directors….So these independent bands had to be resourceful. They’d built their own infrastructure of independent clubs, promoters, fanzines and DJs. They had their own channels of promotion, including the beginnings of the internet culture that is so prevalent today – that being bulletin boards, and newsgroups. These independent bands even made their own record label. Some were collectives and those that weren’t were likely to operate on a profit-sharing basis that encouraged efficiency, rather than a recoupable patronage system that encouraged indulgence.

That’s where I cut my teeth, in that independent scene full of punks and noise freaks and drag queens and experimental composers and jabbering street poets. You can thank punk rock for all of that. That’s where most of us learned that it was possible to make your own records, to conduct your own business and keep control of your own career….And there was a healthy underground economy of bands making a reasonable income owing to the superior efficiencies of the independent methods. My band, as an example, was returned 50% of the net profit on every title that we released through our record label. I worked it out and that earned us a better per-piece royalty than Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Prince, Madonna or any other superstar operating concurrently. And we were only one of thousands of such bands.” (Face The Music)

Although both Albini and Lowery cut their teeth in this non-corporate pre-internet music economy, neither of them go so far as to use their voices or influences to argue for trying to recreate it, against both the RIAA and Tech profiteers. Albini thinks the internet is at least as good as what was lost, while Lowery seems more interested in reinstating the RIAA’s dominance and imposing regulations on tech companies to stop the bleeding. Both, in the differing ways, are fighting for the right of the individual rather than of the scene. Indeed, since they both “developed reputations during the label era,” they thus “don’t need the same kind off publicity support and investment some labels used to offer.” (Culture Crash, 111).

That’s the point that needs to be emphasized for the independent musician (of any genre, not just “indie rock”) who is trying to develop a reputation today, or for the fan of music who values being part of a contemporary independent music scene at least as vital and self-sustaining as the scene Lowery, Albini, and many others first emerged from. Can people unite today, and be as resourceful, as we were in the 1980s? If so, can Albini or Lowery bring their not inconsiderable clout to this larger cause that could benefit the music culture? Perhaps….but ultimately it’s probably more important to look at what they did (then), and not what they say (now)…and, put down our privatized iPod and try to bring the word “independent” back to the collective meaning it had back in the 80s if not the more individualistic one it has had since the corporate-dominated 90s.

Chris Stroffolino













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