6 February 2013
Articles | Interviews

Interview: Steve Albini

"Bitch please!" A ding-dong with the Shellac musician and grumpy old man

Words Alex Denney

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One of the more interesting quibbles to arise from Steve Albini’s recent backtracking over comments about Amanda Palmer’s business operating methods was a now-familiar gripe about internet ‘churnalism’.

In a preamble to a forum post in which the Chicago musician and engineer apologised for calling Palmer an “idiot”, Albini wrote: “Since the new journalism is just re-posting what other people have lifted from message boards and twitter, there are probably going to be a hundred or so stories on the web with headlines like ‘Steve Albini calls Amanda Palmer an Idiot’, so I’d better make my position on that clear.”

Getting round to his apology, Albini wrote: “I’m sorry Amanda Palmer, the internet is going to tell you that I think you’re an idiot, and while that’s not true, it’s my fault.”

To return to the original forum post, Albini surmised that Palmer’s recruitment of unpaid musicians for a forthcoming tour after netting $1.2 million from a fan-funded, Kickstarter campaign in support of her new album amounted to “publicly admitting you are an idiot”.

“Pretty much everybody on earth has a threshold for how much to indulge an idiot who doesn’t know how to conduct herself,” he added, “and I think Ms Palmer has found her audience’s threshold.”

So… we’re confused. As a general point of principle, Albini is right to identify the unchecked recycling of pre-packaged news stories as a problem with online reporting. But isn’t calling someone an idiot — twice! — on a message board forum for your own studio fair game for a news story? Isn’t blaming the ‘internetz’ just as lazy and disregarding of the facts as the journalistic practices he describes?

Standard etiquette dictates that, when a public figure makes comments like these, we should approach the subject of these comments for a quote. However, since Amanda had already responded to the criticism levelled at her — albeit without addressing Steve directly — we already had the makings of a perfectly legitimate news story. What else are we to do, ask Albini to comment on his comments? Isn’t that a bit ‘meta’ for a straightforward piece of news reporting? (Incidentally, when we did ask him for clarification on some of his original comments in the exchange below, we’re met with a snippy “I [already] said as much” for our troubles — damned if you do, etc.)

Anyway, the only thing to do was ask him, and props to Albini, at least, for taking time out to respond to these questions. Unfortunately, owing in part to our misattribution of his comments to a “blog post” — Albini points out they were posted to a message board forum — we got a good deal more than we bargained for. Let Steve “break it down for you like a lesson” below.

***

Hello Steve, I wonder if you’d mind taking time out to answer a few questions regarding your latest blog post about Amanda Palmer?

To be complete I need to address several assumptions in your questions, so answering this email is going to take me a lot longer than it took you to write it, and will require some attention to read. Please pardon the unavoidable wordiness.

The forum I posted in is not a blog. It’s a message board forum with an active international community numbering in the thousands. You can tell the difference because the forum I posted in is one of several, there are hundreds of active topics and each original post has a separate author. Calling the Electrical Audio Forums a blog is like calling Stool Pigeon your daily diary, and makes me instantly suspicious of your intent, research and reporting. If it was just a slip of the pen (or iPhone) then it suggests several other problems, but I wish you luck in that regard either way.

Do you think websites running stories with headlines like ‘Steve Albini calls Amanda Palmer an idiot’ are somehow unfair when you have, in fact, taken to your blog to call Amanda Palmer an idiot?

It should be apparent that my complaint is with this style of reporting-free copy/paste “journalism,” not any perceived unfairness. It is exceptionally lazy, whether it involves me or anybody else, and it feeds the gossip-and-fluff-content bonfire that is burning the entire framework of public discourse.

Since you appear to think the point of my first post on the topic was to call Amanda Palmer an idiot, I’ll break it down for you like a lesson.

In the first paragraph I made a parallel between several different forms of audience participation in a band’s business, some of which have been used by Amanda Palmer and others, one of which was a reference to the Gathering of the Juggalos. In the first sentence I said I have no problem with any of them, meaning that there is nothing inherently ugly about any of them, and they are all of a type. I then explained why I don’t do any of them myself or with regard to my band. I don’t because I value self-sufficiency and its implied efficiency and economy very highly. This personality trait has enabled my bands to turn a profit on literally every tour we’ve ever undertaken, from the first road trip to Minneapolis in 1982 to the tour of Australia we’ll be starting a couple of weeks from now. It has also kept my business afloat while most other studios are failing, despite the relatively low rates we charge. It’s a sound and productive way to see the world, it has served me well and I don’t apologize for it. It’s also not unique to me. There is a whole culture of people who do things independently and efficiently, and it isn’t an accident that they have been at the vanguard of culture for decades.

I then said that admitting that one can’t fathom how to make things pay for themselves, when so many other people seem to do it, is a tacit admission of ineptness, for which I used the poorly-considered word “idiot.” I implied that Amanda Palmer was an idiot by describing this idiot behavior which the reader would then ascribe to Ms Palmer, making the inference that she is an idiot. It was rude and poorly served my argument, but then again I was speaking informally to a familiar audience of peers on the forum, not the world at large. When it became obvious other people would be reading it I felt compelled to clarify my thinking. In the future, if you or another member of the press is concerned with whether or not I think someone is an idiot you can call and ask. The phone number is on the same page where you would look to sift messages for gossip.

If you know everyone’s going to repost the story, why do it in the first place?

I make up to a dozen posts a day on the EA forums, and I don’t presume that they will be “reported” in the “press.” It’s only happened a couple of times and it has caught me off guard. I noticed very little coverage on the post I wrote regarding the use of a Urei 1178 peak limiter on the overhead mics of a drum kit for example, though that post was probably more significant to its audience than this sort of micro-celebrity troll bait. My natural expectation is that there are more important things to report than what happens on a goddamn recording studio message board.

So no, I don’t know everyone’s going to repost things until they do. Then sometimes it’s a face-palm moment, sometimes not.

Part of Amanda’s defence of her scheme seems to be that, simply, many fans would jump at the chance to play with their favourite musicians for no money — does this argument seem fair?

On the part of the fans, I totally understand and sympathize with this impulse. That’s starkly different from a millionaire asking people to do things for free, under the guise that she is giving them something by indulging them. It’s cheapness repainted as generosity and it’s gross. Using people in this way, exploiting their good nature for one’s own benefit, is a cancer that taints many enterprises and it always reflects poorly on the exploiter. It’s one of the things I hated most about the old-school record business, the practice of fucking with people who loved music so much they would put up with endless greed and abuse just to be a part of it. A new music business paradigm, if it is worth anything, should strive to be free of exploitation and be honest about its motives.

You take issue with Palmer paying people to take care of the Kickstarter fund as inefficient, does this not seem like a reasonable expense for such a large amount of money?

No it doesn’t, and I said as much. Paying someone to spend your money for you is pretty ridiculous. That there is a lot of it is all the more reason to keep tabs on it yourself.

What other aspects of Palmer’s scheme strike you as ‘absurdly inefficient’?

Given that the typical budget for albums I work on is less than $10,000, you can take your pick of line-items in her budget, divide by ten and still have an order of magnitude worth of waste from my perspective. I haven’t looked at the breakdown since I first saw it so don’t quote me on it (haha, “don’t quote me,” I just said something funny), but I recall that she skimmed a couple hundred grand off the top for her pleasure prior to beginning to make the record. That alone is enough to make the record of your dreams a couple times over and seems like a straight-up “fuck you” to everybody who pledged money to the project.

It’s crazy that I have to explain to you how ridiculous it is to blow a million dollars. More than a million dollars. Just say it out loud and think about how much fucking money a million dollars is. That’s several really nice houses with a Jaguar in each garage. A lifetime’s wages. It’s just an incredible sum, enough to make a hundred records. Palmer had more than that at her disposal and now claims not to have enough left to pay musicians. To pay them for gigs she is also being paid to play. This coming from someone who already had a successful career before she had her audience begin paying all her expenses in advance. A millionaire pleading poverty and asking for additional charity. It’s fucking ridiculous and it mocks all the bands who genuinely need their audience to help them conduct their business.

So that’s what I think. Nobody’s an idiot, some ways of conducting business are just uglier and more exploitative than others.

***

Letter from Steve Albini to Alex Denney after this interview was published:

Alex, am curious why you published your follow-up questions rhetorically rather than ask them of me, and why you’d publish something with the disclaimer, “So…we’re confused”, rather than have your confusion resolved. I suspect you are concentrating on nit-picking me because you can’t get through to Amanda Palmer, but regardless, the dissonance of her position, that she can get all her expenses paid in advance yet claim not to have enough money to pay her musicians, seems at least as important as whether or not somebody called her an idiot.

“But isn’t calling someone an idiot — twice! — on a message board forum for your own studio fair game for a news story?”

— That’s a ridiculous notion of what constitutes news, whether you punctuate it with an exclamation point or not. I probably call a dozen people a week geniuses or idiots, enough to fill a pull-out special supplement.

“Isn’t blaming the ‘internetz’ just as lazy and disregarding of the facts as the journalistic practices he describes?”

— I didn’t blame the internet, I explicitly blame lazy, superficial typists like you. You, Alex Denney, I blame your lazy writing and lack of reporting on you. “Internetz,” bitch, please.

“What else are we to do, ask Albini to comment on his comments?”

— Yes of course, that’s precisely what a journalist should do before he republishes something he finds elsewhere. Verifying information is the fundamental task of a journalist.

“Isn’t that a bit ‘meta’ for a straightforward piece of news reporting?”

— You suggest that re-posting someone else’s unverified copy + paste job is “straightforward news reporting”. That’s precisely the fucking problem. Without a blush, you equate that sort lazy, chain-email shit with “reporting”. Straightforward news reporting ought to include finding primary sources, interviewing them, doing research and verifying the information prior to submitting your work to an editor.

“Isn’t that a bit ‘meta’ for a straightforward piece of news reporting? (Incidentally, when we did ask him for clarification on some of his original comments in the exchange below, we’re met with a snippy “I [already] said as much” for our troubles — damned if you do, etc.)”

— Well, that was a trivial question, so I gave it a simple answer. I was concerned enough about being complete in the answers to your other questions that I felt compelled to apologize for my wordiness. To pretend that I was less than forthcoming when presented with a direct question is not just disingenuous, it’s insane given how much space you had to devote to the responses. “Meta,” again, bitch, please. Doing your job isn’t meta-anything. Me writing about you not doing your job, as I am doing here, that could be called meta-journalism, but I refrain because using terms like that and ‘internetz’ would make me feel like a twat.

Steve Albini

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