RIP Steve Albini

He died yesterday at age 61.

Since Steve Albini isn’t necessarily the most famous person around, I guess I need to explain a little.

So, the list of albums he has audio engineered is just stupendous. He was behind much of the music from my youth, including Nirvana, Pixies, PJ Harvey, The Breeders, Low, The Jesus Lizard, Helmet, Slint, Pigface, Brainiac and various Will Oldham projects. Later on he engineered for Sunn O)), Black Midi and… fuck, I had some other band in mind, but forgot. And this is just the beginning of the list. Actually, he would often prefer not to be credited, so we don’t actually even know. Then there was his own bands Big Black, Rapeman and Shellac. Their music isn’t on streaming services, so these aren’t readily available, but there’s plenty of good stuff there as well. He was also a pretty good poker player, if that’s what you are into, winning a couple of pretty big tournaments.

But what’s really interesting is his approach to his work. There’s a letter to Nirvana about his approach. He wants to keep things simple. And he doesn’t want your money.

I would like to be paid like a plumber: I do the job and you pay me what it’s worth. The record company will expect me to ask for a point or a point and a half. If we assume three million sales, that works out to 400,000 dollars or so. There’s no fucking way I would ever take that much money. I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

This is to Nirvana and we are talking about an album that went on to sell five times that much. He could have been rich just based on that one project, but no. He just wanted to help others make good music. There was a long article on his website back in the day, but I can’t find it anymore. In that he talked about his rates (among many other things). While now he had pretty set rates (which are available on his website), he was still pretty cheap at $900 a day (or $1300 when travelling), he actually said in the article that he base his rates on multiple things. Like sometimes he would just work for free and make some other band pay more so that he could justify the thing.

In some ways this was just a job for him (“like a plumber”), but in other ways he believed that the industry needed to change and he wasn’t afraid to be the change he wanted to see. That previously mentioned article on his website included an explanation on why bands should remain independent based on financials. He wasn’t just against selling out on, but he would also explain why it was a bad idea on multiple levels. He was very much into the rawness of live situations and tried not to clean the music up too much and he disliked the executives expecting exactly the things he felt made music less interesting.

He advocated for the musicians and the experience of music. He would try to just set up the studio to capture everything as well as possible and not twiddle with it too much. Let the band shine through.

Honestly, his death hit pretty hard on multiple levels. He was an interesting and important cultural figure, with an actual well-defined and thought-out worldview he actually followed. That’s rare.

On the other hand, he was a major figure from my youth, so this is also a sign of me getting older. The people I followed in my youth are beginning to die off. That’s not good. I don’t mean to make this personal either, but I would encourage people to check him out. You already have heard the music he birthed, but there was so much more to him. So, pour one out for ol’ Steve. He is going to be missed.

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