Read Steve Albini's famous essay on the music industry's problems

Like a lot of people who were reared on the underground and alternative rock sounds of the late 80s and 90s, I was heartbroken to hear about the unexpected death of Steve Albini earlier this week. When I'm not getting notifications about an algorithmically sponsored Instagram posts of a screenshot of a tweet I made about one of the last thing Albini posted on Bluesky (the kind of recursive human centipede of "content" that would absolutely make the man hurl), I've been thinking a lot about his infamous essay 1993 essay, "The Problem with Music," originally published by The Baffler.

If you haven't read the essay before, I'd suggest you go take a look at it now. It's a great summation of Albini's work ethic and (non-edgelord) perspective — the way that, as Sam Adams so succinctly put it in Slate, Albini stubbornly insisted on "a material description of his labor to the vague idea that he had somehow 'produced' something." And there are so many choice quotes in "The Problem with Music" that really capture and articulate that almost Marxist approach to the music industry.

But I think the part that's really been haunting me was the way that Albini breaks down, in fine detail, the accounting of a $250,000 record deal in the early '90s. He goes through all the money spent on gear, studio time, tour expenses, legal fees, and so on — very reasonable, realistic estimates for the time — before ultimately looking at the payouts:

This is how much each player got paid at the end of the game.
Record company: $710,000
Producer: $90,000
Manager: $51,000
Studio: $52,500
Previous label: $50,000
Agent: $7,500
Lawyer: $12,000

Band member net income each: $4,031.25

The band is now 1/4 of the way through its contract, has made the music industry more than 3 million dollars richer, but is in the hole $14,000 on royalties. The band members have each earned about 1/3 as much as they would working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month.

What a gut punch, right? And that's back when the music industry was throwing out money left and right (instead of hoarding it all in the c-suite while they look for ways to exploit TikTok stars with built-in fanbases). I certainly understand the idea that "you need to spend money to make money," but the idea of spending $250,000 in order to twelve times as much wealth based almost entirely on the labor of 4 people who made a fraction of a percent of that money—that's absolutely wild.

And ya know? It's a depressingly realistic look at how every creative industry works. The exact might change, but if you do the accounting for book publishing, or mainstream journalism, or most TV/film productions—at the end of the day, the ratios are essentially the same. Someone makes a thing; someone fronts the money to turn that thing into a "product"; and a bunch of rich people make a ton more money without actually doing (let alone creating) much of anything.

The Problem with Music [Steve Albini / The Baffler]