The Old Music Industry: ‘A System Specifically Engineered to Waste the Band’s Money’

Shellac, with Albini. Photo by goro_memo

During the 90s there was something of an arms race to see who could write the biggest deal. That is, the deal with the most money being spent on the band’s behalf. In a singularly painless contest the money would either be paid to the band as a royalty, which would take that money out of the system and put it into things like houses and groceries and college educations. Or it could be paid to other operators within the industry, increasing the clout and prestige of the person doing the spending. It’s as if your boss, instead of giving your paycheck to you, could pay that money to his friends and business associates, invoking your name as he did. Since his net cost was the same and his friends and associates could return the favour, why would he ever want to let any of that money end up in your hands? It was a system that ensured waste by rewarding the most profligate spendthrifts in a system specifically engineered to waste the band’s money.

Now 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. Promotion was usually down to flyers posted on poles, occasional mentions on college radio and fanzines. If you had booked a gig at a venue that didn’t advertise, then you faced a very real prospect of playing to an empty room. 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.

International exposure was extraordinarily expensive. In order for your records to make it into overseas hands you had to convince a distributor to export them. And that was difficult with no means for anyone to hear the record and decide to buy it. So you ended up shipping promotional copies overseas at a terrific expense, never sure if they would be listened to or not.

Music producer and Shellac frontman Steve Albini’s reminder about what the “good old days” of the music industry were really like for artists.

Read the story