Nirvana producer Steve Albini discussed refusing In Utero royalty payments in a new Cobras and Fire podcast interview.
You took a flat fee for the record, not a royalty? That’s pretty much your standard path?
“Yeah, I mean, I’ve talked about this at length, but the way people like me are compensated in records at the time was structured in the way that benefited corporate players.
“Like if you’re an administrator at a record label and you can hand out money to other people, then you become a bigger player, you become more important in the industry.
“And if you make a deal with somebody that grants them a lot of money, if it’s the company’s money, you can get in trouble, but you can spend the band’s money without getting in trouble.
“That’s how that form of compensation developed – people started making deals with other players in the music business in order to make themselves more influential and more important.
“Those deals kind of inflated and escalated, and the deals involved spending other people’s money, and if I were being paid a royalty on those records, my royalty, my portion of the royalty would have come out of the share that would otherwise have gone to the band.
“So literally every dollar that I was paid in royalties would be another dollar that the band would not get, and they were already in a position where they had a lot of people siphoning their income.
“So just from an ethical standpoint, I just cannot be involved in a scheme like that – it just sounds like a racket, and I just won’t do it.
“I never have, and I can’t imagine doing it in the future. I’ll point out that everyone does behave that way in everything except record production. Like in every other thing in your life, if you hire somebody to do something for you, you pay them once.”
Is it pointless to ask you what are your thoughts on streaming? I’m curious about that…
“Well, I have divergent thoughts on streaming. In one sense, I think the convenience of streams is undeniable.
“At the moment, it’s very easy for people to hear music all day without having to spend very much energy selecting the music.
“They can just sort of guide these streaming algorithms to play their music, and they will hear music, it functions the way that radio did previously when someone else was making decisions and playing music for you.
“But your choices, your preferences can shape what you’re listening to now to a much, much finer degree, whereas previously you’d either listen to this radio station or that radio station and that was it.
“Now you can search out playlists of the most arcane thing with minute specificity.
“You can listen to very specific things that suit you uniquely, and you can spend all day listening to a very specifically crafted playlist that caters to your tastes, which is kind of incredible, that was never really possible before.
“You can also go down the rabbit hole, you can look for associated artists or you’ll find things that have been recommended by other people who are into the same things that you’re into.
“So you’ll find somebody who lives in a small town in Indiana who’s deep into early Jamaican bluebeat music or whatever, a kind of music they may have never been exposed to during the physical media era, during the record era.
“Just because there isn’t likely to be a dub reggae specialty store in there, in a small town in Indiana, so they would have never come across that kind of music.
“Whereas now, in a few seconds, you can get lost in an entire world of music you’d never have been exposed to otherwise, so that’s amazing.
“The way that the economics of those streams are set up now is that it caters to the rightsholders – that is, a big corporation that holds the majority of the intellectual property that’s being streamed.
“And those former record companies, which are now media companies, the former record companies get the lion’s share of the benefits of streaming income.
“So small and independent bands are once again not benefiting from that as an income stream, but that’s not really very different from when small and independent bands were not being played on the radio.
“They weren’t being paid radio royalties, their records weren’t being promoted by MTV or whatever, so they had to settle for being a niche artist and they had to find their fans one at a time.
“Thankfully, that’s now much easier to discover those fans one at a time than it has ever been, and bands can create a kind of a self-sustaining network with their audience where they’re being directly supported by their audience.
“Sometimes through things like Patreon and Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sources, and sometimes just by the fact that they’ve developed an audience.
“And the audience is now faithfully buying every single thing you make, and every time they appear in public they know that they’re going to sell out.
“Those kinds of relationships are where most of the money changes hands for the independent band, whereas previously there was some record income and some touring income, a small amount of licensing income and that sort of stuff.
“That’s why it’s inequitable, is that you have big players and independent players, and the big players strike deals early on where they’re making significantly more money for the same service.
“And that’s one of the reasons why it’s going to collapse – because independent things that are operable on a more equitable basis are going to eventually be preferred.
“The internet treats this kind of limitation of access as a kind of a fault and works to breach it. If you can only hear a piece of music through one platform, the internet will eventually provide a way around that where you can hear it on all platforms.
“And you can consider that clandestine if you want to because that’s the mindset of the people who prefer the ‘gatekeeper’ mentality.
“It’s just the natural product of the evolution of the internet – that’s how the internet gets better, it provides more access to more things for more people.”