A tribute to Steve Albini

Azmyl Yunor

Steve Albini is dead at 61. – Wikimedia commons pic, May 17, 2024.

ONE the first day of my Taipei Tour 2024 last Tuesday, I read the news that legendary American musician and audio engineer Steve Albini had died.

In the bustle of settling into a new town and country (and also recovering from sore throat after a gig over the weekend), I barely had time to process the news and was focused on the series of lecture-performances in the following days after my first gig on the said Tuesday night.

I needed to give the man a proper tribute, so I saved this piece for this week.

While most of you would ask “Steve who?”, Steve Albini’s name would be familiar to most of us musicians and fans in the underground and indie music circles, particularly Generation Xers and some millennials.

Based in Chicago, Illinois and a member of influential post-hardcore and noise rock bands such as Big Black in the 1980s and Shellac in the 1990s, Albini was the founder, owner and chief engineer of the recording studio Electrical Audio.

While his own band’s output was abrasive and at times sonically confrontational, he engineered artists as diverse from seminal grunge band Nirvana to rock legends Jimmy Page and Robert Plant to alternative country band Songs: Ohia.

He most famously penned a letter to Nirvana stating that he wanted to be “paid like a plumber” and not take any percentage or cut from the album (which was the norm of most album producers), after the band asked him to record with them for their 1993 (and final) album “In Utero” -

This is a fitting anecdote of an artist who synthesised his artistic philosophy with his methodology – something many aspire to but oftentimes fall short of achieving.

He insisted on being “paid like a plumber” because, in his own words, ““Paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible…I do the job and you pay me what it’s worth.”

In an industry that is known for unethical and corrupt, shady practices, Albini was a pied piper who called out and articulated the industry’s moral compass with such conviction and clarity while also walking the talk and delivering the goods.

Production-wise, the records he engineered (he never regarded himself as a producer) also embodied the clarity of his ethical voice.

During a period when compression was becoming a norm – an audio mixing technique which forcibly maintains a consistent level of loudness in a recording that effectively flattens out all the instrumental dynamics in a recording (a common practice now) – he detested such practices which could be seen as a form of homogenisation of the sonic qualities of music recordings, taking out any character unique of the performer.

Like most auteurs, you knew it was a Steve Albini engineered recording the moment you heard it regardless of the genre.

His distinctive technical artistry aside, it was his artistic philosophy that left an impression on many young wannabe musicians and songwriters like myself who grew up in the 1990s.

Industry narratives permeate our popular culture and in turn most of us falsely believe the narratives drilled in popular media about what it means, for example, to be a musician or artist.

Most of the time, these industry narratives reduce the concept of “talent” into a quantifiable tangible object that needs to be moulded for the industry’s own benefits alone, discarding ethics aside.

This takes the form in lopsided recording contracts and industrial practices that most of the time leave musicians and artists disadvantaged.

We’ve heard the same old story in Malaysia all the time - “...once popular singer found to be destitute/ homeless/sick.”

The music industry is utterly corrupt and Albini articulated it in interviews and as well as in writing from the vantage point of an artist who had and held on to his principles.

One of his well-known pieces was an article titled “The Problem with Music”, originally published in the magazine The Baffler in 1993.

The article was subsequently reprinted as a chapter in an book titled “The Rock History Reader” (Routledge, 2019) which attests to the importance of his ideas even among scholars outside of the music subculture.

In the article, he lays out in detail the finances of a band that had signed a major label recording deal and the costs incurred from recording, management, music video budget, album artwork, tour expenses, merchandising, publishing, record sales, royalty, record company income, and finally, the band members’ net income after all of the above had been deducted.

It was a miniscule amount.

Albini shaped the ethics that guide how I operate, not only an artist but as a human being.

Great artists leave that sort of impression on you. Rest in power, legend. – May 17, 2024.

* Azmyl Yunor is a touring underground recording artiste, and an academic in media and cultural studies. He has published articles on pop culture, subcultures and Malaysian cultural politics. He adheres to the three-chords-and-the-truth school of songwriting, and Woody Guthrie’s maxim “All you can write is what you see”. He is @azmyl on Twitter.

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