Steve Albini
Photo: Freekorps at en.wikipedia, CC BY 3.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

Why Steve Albini Mattered So Much to Music

The death of artist and recording engineer Steve Albini leaves popular music bereft of one of its staunchest defenders against corporatized greed and conformity.

On 7 May 2024, Apple Inc. released a one-minute video advertising the newest version of its tablet computer, the iPad Pro. Titled “Crush”, the ad begins with close-ups of a ticking metronome, a turntable playing a red vinyl record, and a trumpet perched on top of a vintage arcade game console. Sonny and Cher’s “All I Ever Need Is You”, plays on the soundtrack – warm nostalgic sounds against chilling visuals.

Shifting camera angles reveal an upright piano with cans of colored paint on top, books piled on shelves, a set of loudspeakers, a classical bust, a wooden mannequin, a television, a typewriter, some old plastic toys, and an acoustic guitar. They are the creative implements of an analogue world – piled like artifacts in a museum no one visits.

The camera zooms in as a hydraulic platform, like the kind used to crush dead automobiles, descends menacingly. It crumples the trumpet against the arcade game and squeezes the paint cans all over the piano. Then, it crushes the piano, the metronome, the bust, the mannequin, and the guitar. Everything implodes or explodes outward as wood crumbles, glass shatters, plastic eyes bulge, and the toys utter pathetic dying squeaks.

The platform hits bottom with a spray of debris and then retracts, revealing the black, glistening new iPad. A hint of the rainbow, in colors identical to the crushed paint cans, wafts over the device’s immaculate screen. A youthful female voice with a touch of vocal fry announces that this new iPad is the most powerful ever—the thinnest ever.

I first watched the Apple ad, posted proudly on Apple CEO Tim Cook’s X account, within hours of learning of the death of American musician and recording engineer Steve Albini. Caught off guard by the news, I’d locked myself in my office at work, crying Tom Petty tears and hoping none of my students would drop by. Just 61, Albini died suddenly of a heart attack on 7 May – the same day the Apple ad dropped.

The coincidence is chilling. Albini, a devoted, often cantankerous defender of analogue technology and human creativity, lived his life as the antithesis of the crushing coldness seen in the Apple ad. Apple implies that the new iPad replaces every implement the world once used to make or play music, create art, absorb knowledge, or have fun. Steve Albini, I’m certain, would have scoffed at the cynicism and arrogance of Tim Cook’s corporatized vision.

Steve Albini was a lover of all things analogue. During the late 1980s, as digital sampling and simulation became dominant in recorded music, Albini stuck resolutely to the vintage tube microphones and analogue tape recorders he collected in his Chicago home studio. His warts-and-all recording style coincided with the rise of alternative rock in mainstream music. Albini’s sonic trademarks – booming drums in an ambient room, thick bass pushed way up in the mix, distorted guitars through old tube amps, live takes full of human error – dominated cutting-edge rock music in the 1980s and 1990s.

Albini disliked the term “producer”, seeing himself as a recording technician in the service of the artists he worked with. Among thousands of albums he recorded, many by upstart underground artists on tiny record labels, were some of the defining albums of the era: PixiesSurfer Rosa, the BreedersPod, PJ Harvey‘s Rid of Me, Nirvana‘s In Utero, and Palace Music’s Viva Last Blues. He helmed multiple releases by important cult bands – the Jesus Lizard, Superchunk, Urge Overkill, Mule, Low, the Sadies, the Auteurs, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, and many others.

Steve Albini was no indie rock snob and would occasionally work with mainstream acts. In 1998, he recorded Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s Walking into Clarksdale. The same year, Albini re-recorded Cheap Trick‘s In Color for the band (a brilliant reimagining of the 1977 original, although sadly still unreleased). In the 2000s, he recorded new albums for Rockford, Illinois’ finest during Cheap Trick’s late-career comeback.

In an era when record producers typically collected “points” – perennial royalties – from the artists they produced, Albini insisted on a flat fee for his work. That meant that artists owed no financial obligation to Albini once the work was done. The principle applied whether the artist was an independent band just starting out or a major label act with a corporate budget. “I would like to be paid like a plumber,” Albini wrote to Nirvana in a lengthy missive, since published online. “I do the job, and you pay me what it’s worth.”

Steve Albini’s letter to Nirvana, sent in November 1992 as the Seattle grunge trio topped the alternative rock food chain, was typical of the manifestos Albini hurled at the corporatized music industry.

Another appeared in The Baffler in December 1993. Titled “The Problem with Music”, Albini lambasted the record company A&R representatives, record producers, managers, and promoters for their exploitative or incompetent treatment of musical artists. Not one to mince words, Albini gives his impression of the lot facing new record company signees: “I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe 60 yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit.” His stark rundown of typical recording budgets, which often left artists broke and indebted to industry stakeholders, quantified his complaints.

Having been a member of several indie rock bands, Steve Albini understood the artist’s plight firsthand. Between 1982 and 1987, he fronted Big Black, a punk-influenced band whose 1987 album Songs About Fucking on Touch and Go Records was a critical factor in the Chicago underground scene. Albini later formed Rapeman, a short-lived group whose name he later disowned for its misogynist implications. In October 2021, he wrote on Twitter: “A lot of things I said and did from an ignorant position of comfort and privilege are clearly awful, and I regret them.”

More musically enduring was Shellac, a trio formed in 1992 with bassist Bob Weston and drummer Todd Trainer. Combining hardcore and noise-rock influences, they were a progenitor of the emerging math-rock and post-rock scenes. Six studio albums appeared gradually over the next few decades, including the soon-to-be-released To All Trains – sadly now to become Albini’s first posthumous work.

Steve Albini mattered because he was a consummate music professional who consistently put artistic principles before profit. In 1997, he founded Electrical Audio, moving his recording enterprise from his home to a studio complex in Chicago. Albini still insisted on being paid “like a plumber”, often allowing artists to use his facilities free of charge if budgetary restraints warranted it. His collection of vintage audio equipment was one of the world’s best, allowing independent artists the chance to work with premium gear.

Much as he championed analogue technology, Albini was also a pragmatist. In the 2000s, he applauded some aspects of the digital revolution for the freedom it afforded artists to produce and distribute music independently. Albini was generous in sharing his knowledge of recording and delivering speeches at international music events. In 2018, he joined Scottish indie band Spare Snare at the Audio Engineer’s Workshop in Blantyre, Scotland.  

With the passing of Steve Albini, I can’t help but feel that musical artists are a little more vulnerable to the machinations of an industry indifferent to artistic integrity and longevity. The recording and promotion budgets Albini ridiculed back in 1993 have all but disappeared, leaving artists subject to fickle stakeholders for whom music is merely “content” to be streamed or buffered for a pittance. Apple’s new iPad video – the annihilation of everything tactile and methodical in favor of the slick digital apparatus – is a symbol of our fading heritage.

Steve Albini cared about artists, angrily defending their interests while metaphorically spitting in the faces of the corporate overseers who would exploit them. Without people like him to speak out, music is more likely to succumb to those who care little about the creative process, leaving artists ever more defenseless amid the digital crush.