Steve Albini


I have pretty much zero interest in the kind of music Steve Albini plays but whenever I come across an interview or something with him, he always strikes me as remarkably clear-headed about the realities of making money as an artist.

Take this profile in Psychology Today (what?) by Michael Friedman:

“There are kind of two perspectives on business. One of them is that a business exists to make money for the investor class that has a stake in that business. That’s one perspective. So, from a stock-market perspective, from a shareholder perspective, from an investor perspective, that from any publicly held company’s perspective, the company’s reason to exist is to make money for those people,” he explained. “And if you’re not making money, you’re a failing company. If its share price doesn’t go up, then the company’s failing, whether you’re making a profit or not. The idea is that the fundamental reason for that company to be there is to make money.”

Albini contrasts this approach to how he runs his business. “From an entrepreneurial standpoint, from someone like me — someone who builds a business for a reason — the reason my company exists is to make recordings of music. And in so doing, every now and again we’ll turn a profit. But that’s not why we’re in business. We’re not in business so that we can make money. And there’s a pretty strong argument that most businesses that are not part of the public sphere, not part of the investment transaction or equity management or whatever, most businesses operate on that level,” he said.

“Like a bakery opens because a guy wants to make bread. A tavern opens because a guy wants to serve beer to people. That’s why people start businesses. It’s because they want to do something with their time. They want that enterprise to be how they spend their days. But from an academic standpoint or from an analytical standpoint or from the standpoint of publicly held companies and investment class and everything, the reason the company started is meaningless. All they want to know is the share price going up. And for people like me that seems insane.”

“It’s like defining a marriage by the size of the house it occupies as opposed to defining the marriage by the love between two people and the life they build for themselves and the experience they share as part of the marriage. That’s the difference between the people who don’t get it (that you’re talking about), business people who can’t seem to buy into the greater culture of their business, and entrepreneurs, who started the business because the business itself means a lot to them.

“And there’s literally no way you can turn the second type of businessman into the first type. If somebody is hired to run a company and that company has investors who have expectations, then it is already impossible for that company to mean more to the employees as a concept than a paycheck. Because the value of the company has already been defined by the investor class. Now it is possible for somebody to start as an entrepreneur and then eventually sell off his company into the publicly held market and then he’s transformed from an entrepreneur into that second type of businessman. But it’s literally impossible to go the other way.”

I am a little baffled as to how this guy is, as he says, broke.  More:

“Selfishness and greed are among the first things that we are instructed against as children. Like, ‘Don’t be selfish; share with your sister’ or whatever. And I feel like abandoning that principle when it’s money rather than gummy bears involved is fucking ridiculous.”

Albini takes heart that he is not alone: Other artists who have followed in a similar path. He explains: “There’s a Dutch band called The Ex who are an absolute inspiration. They’ve been going for 30 years now. And they originally started as sort of a squatter punk band in the squats in Amsterdam. And they have since built a sustainable, durable career, extraordinary body of work. They’ve been all over the world. They’ve made records with pop musicians and traditional musicians from Ethiopia. They’ve toured every flat spot on the globe. And they’ve all bought homes and raised families and all that sort of stuff — and all of it done in a very natural, very sustainable, very ethical way. They’re not a household name.”

That’s the difference. If you want to be a household name, you kind of have to participate in the rock-star world of things where you’re either going to be a superstar or you’re going to be nobody. If you just want to play music for the rest of your life, that’s a completely attainable goal,” he said.


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