albini.

I mentioned in a previous entry that I had an email dialogue with Steve Albini about Dromedary, and about our relative opinions about “success.”

On one hand, he was absolutely correct – putting out a record that sold a hundred copies, but doing it on my own terms, my own way, was an amazing accomplishment.  The idea that someone, somewhere – even if it was just one person – made some sort of memory that they cherished, and a Dromedary song was the soundtrack of that memory, thrilled me to the point where I still can’t articulate it properly.

On the other hand, he was telling me this after he had already achieved some degree of financial success.  Granted, he did it while remaining true to his roots and all that, but he still did it, having played in several influential bands and engineered a ton of well-known records.  If Steve Albini can tell me that it’s a tremendous achievement to put out a record that sells 100 copies, it must be a hell of a lot easier to say that when you’re sitting in your recording studio, making a living doing music.

From my vantage point, selling 100 records was simply not enough.

It was around this time that Rich presented me with a “zine” that consisted solely of posts that Steve Albini had made on various message boards and mailing lists.  I recognized a bunch of them as posts to a private mailing list of which I was a member; it was one of those lists where if you leak information from it, and get discovered, you get booted off the list.

I’m still on that list, fifteen years later, so I can’t tell you a whole lot about it.  🙂

But I did reach out to Albini and tell him about the zine, and that’s how we made contact for the first time.  He was pissed, as you’d expect.  I’m not sure if the perpetrators were ever discovered and booted from the list, but I was glad to be the guy to expose it.

You know, to make sure you understand that I wasn’t buddies with Steve Albini or anything; I just told him about the stalker guys and then asked him a couple questions.

The thing that I don’t think Albini understood was that when you’re producing Nirvana records and playing guitar in Shellac, the prospect of selling a hundred records is pretty foreign.  I’m well aware that he probably engineered thousands of records from bands he really liked, and that many of those records probably didn’t sell more than a hundred copies or so.  I’m also well aware of the fact that sales figures are not any kind of barometer of artistic merit.  But I’m fairly sure that there was a point in his career where he was striving for something more than just 100 records sold.  I don’t think you get to the point where you produce Nirvana records by accident – there’s got to be some level of ambition for you to get to the point where you’re known well enough to get that opportunity.  There are certainly cool guys – and good musicians – in every town in the United States, who work in recording studios nobody’s ever heard of, play in bands nobody knows, and on Monday, go to their job at the Post Office.

What sales figures are, or at least were to me in 1995, were the gauge by which I could increase the number of times I could tell someone “Check out this new band.”

If I sold a hundred records, and spent $2,000 for the privilege, I wasn’t going to last very long.  And what I was doing might have been incredible noble and artistically valid, but the economics were going to pound me into the ground until I could no longer afford to do it.

I also understood that some of my dilemma was a result of lifestyle choices.  Certainly, I knew guys who were toiling away in unsigned bands, playing empty dive clubs on the weekends and working at Wendy’s during the day.  Those guys lived in studio apartments in rough neighborhoods, ate ketchup sandwiches twice a day, and had no financial obligations of which to speak.  Either that, or they lived on trust fund money.

On the other hand, I was a new homeowner, a new father, and a relatively new husband.  I had five figures in college loans to pay off, two car payments, and a rapidly growing baby food bill.  I spent more money on gas for my car in a month than 100 record sales would generate in profit.  Steve Albini’s pep talk was nice, and inspiring, but unrealistic for me.

Steve Albini has done a world of good for independent artists.  His “Some of your friends are already this fucked” article is, in my opinion, the single most important thing that anyone should read before signing a major label contract.  But in my case, with a goal of doing this for a living, he was pretty far off from where my head was.

I couldn’t help but sarcastically wonder what would happen if I called Cargo or Touch and Go, and told them that they should be happy to press and distribute my records, because 100 units sold was an outstanding achievement.  And that was the rub – when you were a guy who could guarantee a certain amount of sales just by tagging your name on a project, it was easy to comment on a dismally low sales figure like 100 copies.

I didn’t want to do the indie label thing by night.  I didn’t want to go to my dayjob at the post office.  I wanted to run Dromedary Records full time.  I wanted to create an environment where bands I liked could get paid a decent royalty to put out records, where I could toss them some money to help out with their tour, and where I could offer them health insurance so that they wouldn’t have to go to their dayjobs at the post office.

100 records sold were not going to make those things happen.

So on one hand, what he was suggesting was absolutely correct.  Every time someone bought a record and liked it, every time we made an impact on somebody’s life, it was an achievement.

On the other hand, when your goal is to do it on such a bigger scale, and you can’t seem to get there, it’s awfully discouraging.

~ by Al on October 1, 2009.

One Response to “albini.”

  1. It’s the difference between a labor of love and a real business, Al. I don’t think anyone would blame you for wanting to make Dromedary a full-time gig. At the time all this was going on, to be able to quit your job working for the cell phone accessory tyrants and do something you actually wouldn’t have considered work… Man, that would have been something.

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