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*The Problem With Music* by Steve Albini + Almost interview + free Shellac albums

qq049by Steve Albini ................. Whenever I talk to a band who are about to sign with a major label, I always end up thinking of them in a particular context. I imagine a trench, about four feet wide and five feet deep, maybe sixty yards long, filled with runny, decaying shit. I imagine these people, some of them good friends, some of them barely acquaintances, at one end of this trench. I also imagine a faceless industry lackey at the other end holding a fountain pen and a contract waiting to be signed. Nobody can see what's printed on the contract. It's too far away, and besides, the shit stench is making everybody's eyes water. The lackey shouts to everybody that the first one to swim the trench gets to sign the contract. Everybody dives in the trench and they struggle furiously to get to the other end.


Two people arrive simultaneously and begin wrestling furiously, clawing each other and dunking each other under the shit. Eventually, one of them capitulates, and there's only one contestant left. He reaches for the pen, but the Lackey says "Actually, I think you need a little more development. Swim again, please. Backstroke". And he does of course. Every major label involved in the hunt for new bands now has on staff a high-profile point man, an "A&R" rep who can present a comfortable face to any prospective band. The initials stand for "Artist and Repertoire" because historically, the A&R staff would select artists to record music that they had also selected, out of an available pool of each. This is still the case, though not openly. These guys are universally young (about the same age as the bands being wooed), and nowadays they always have some obvious underground rock credibility flag they can wave.

Lyle Preslar, former guitarist for Minor Threat, is one of them. Terry Tolkin, former NY independent booking agent and assistant manager at Touch and Go is one of them. Al Smith, former soundman at CBGB is one of them. Mike Gitter, former editor of XXX fanzine and contributor to Rip, Kerrang and other lowbrow rags is one of them. Many of the annoying turds who used to staff college radio stations are in their ranks as well. There are several reasons A&R scouts are always young. The explanation usually copped-to is that the scout will be "hip to the current musical "scene." A more important reason is that the bands will intuitively trust someone they think is a peer, and who speaks fondly of the same formative rock and roll experiences. The A&R person is the first person to make contact with the band, and as such is the first person to promise them the moon. Who better to promise them the moon than an idealistic young turk who expects to be calling the shots in a few years, and who has had no previous experience with a big record company. Hell, he's as naive as the band he's duping. When he tells them no one will interfere in their creative process, he probably even believes it. When he sits down with the band for the first time, over a plate of angel hair pasta, he can tell them with all sincerity that when they sign with company X, they're really signing with him and he's on their side. Remember that great gig I saw you at in '85? Didn't we have a blast. By now all rock bands are wise enough to be suspicious of music industry scum. There is a pervasive caricature in popular culture of a portly, middle aged ex-hipster talking a mile-a-minute, using outdated jargon and calling everybody "baby." After meeting "their" A&R guy, the band will say to themselves and everyone else, "He's not like a record company guy at all! He's like one of us." And they will be right. That's one of the reasons he was hired.

These A&R guys are not allowed to write contracts. What they do is present the band with a letter of intent, or "deal memo," which loosely states some terms, and affirms that the band will sign with the label once a contract has been agreed on. The spookiest thing about this harmless sounding little memo, is that it is, for all legal purposes, a binding document. That is, once the band signs it, they are under obligation to conclude a deal with the label. If the label presents them with a contract that the band don't want to sign, all the label has to do is wait. There are a hundred other bands willing to sign the exact same contract, so the label is in a position of strength. These letters never have any terms of expiration, so the band remain bound by the deal memo until a contract is signed, no matter how long that takes. The band cannot sign to another label or even put out its own material unless they are released from their agreement, which never happens. Make no mistake about it: once a band has signed a letter of intent, they will either eventually sign a contract that suits the label or they will be destroyed.

One of my favorite bands was held hostage for the better part of two years by a slick young "He's not like a label guy at all," A&R rep, on the basis of such a deal memo. He had failed to come through on any of his promises (something he did with similar effect to another well-known band), and so the band wanted out. Another label expressed interest, but when the A&R man was asked to release the band, he said he would need money or points, or possibly both, before he would consider it. The new label was afraid the price would be too dear, and they said no thanks. On the cusp of making their signature album, an excellent band, humiliated, broke up from the stress and the many months of inactivity.


There's this band...

There's this band. They're pretty ordinary, but they're also pretty good, so they've attracted some attention. They're signed to a moderate-sized "independent" label owned by a distribution company, and they have another two albums owed to the label. They're a little ambitious. They'd like to get signed by a major label so they can have some security: you know, get some good equipment, tour in a proper tour bus -- nothing fancy, just a little reward for all the hard work. To that end, they got a manager. He knows some of the label guys, and he can shop their next project to all the right people. He takes his cut, sure, but it's only 15%, and if he can get them signed then it's money well spent. Anyways, it doesn't cost them anything if it doesn't work. 15% of nothing isn't much! One day an A&R scout calls them, says he's "been following them for a while now," and when their manager mentioned them to him, it just "clicked." Would they like to meet with him about the possibility of working out a deal with his label? Wow. Big Break time. They meet the guy, and y'know what -- he's not what they expected from a label guy. He's young and dresses pretty much like the band does. He knows all their favorite bands. He's like one of them. He tells them he wants to go to bat for them, to try to get them everything they want. He says anything is possible with the right attitude.

They conclude the evening by taking home a copy of a deal memo they wrote out and signed on the spot. The A&R guy was full of great ideas, even talked about using a name producer. Butch Vig is out of the question — he wants 100 Gs and three points, but they can get Don Fleming for $30,000 plus three points. Even that's a little steep, so maybe they'll go with that guy who used to be in David Letterman's band. He only wants three points. Or they can have just anybody record it (like Warton Tiers, maybe-- cost you 5 or 7 grand) and have Andy Wallace remix it for 4 grand a track plus 2 points. It was a lot to think about. Well, they like this guy and they trust him. Besides, they already signed the deal memo. He must have been serious about wanting them to sign. They break the news to their current label, and the label manager says he wants them to succeed, so they have his blessing. He will need to be compensated, of course, for the remaining albums left on their contract, but he'll work it out with the label himself.

Sub Pop made millions from selling off Nirvana, and Twin Tone hasn't done bad either: 50 grand for the Babes and 60 grand for the Poster Children -- without having to sell a single additional record. It'll be something modest. The new label doesn't mind, so long as it's recoupable out of royalties. Well, they get the final contract, and it's not quite what they expected. They figure it's better to be safe than sorry and they turn it over to a lawyer--one who says he's experienced in entertainment law and he hammers out a few bugs. They're still not sure about it, but the lawyer says he's seen a lot of contracts, and theirs is pretty good. They'll be great royalty: 13% [less a 10% packaging deduction]. Wasn't it Buffalo Tom that were only getting 12% less 10? Whatever. The old label only wants 50 grand, and no points. Hell, Sub Pop got 3 points when they let Nirvana go. They're signed for four years, with options on each year, for a total of over a million dollars! That's a lot of money in any man's English. The first year's advance alone is $250,000. Just think about it, a quarter million, just for being in a rock band! Their manager thinks it's a great deal, especially the large advance. Besides, he knows a publishing company that will take the band on if they get signed, and even give them an advance of 20 grand, so they'll be making that money too. The manager says publishing is pretty mysterious, and nobody really knows where all the money comes from, but the lawyer can look that contract over, too. Hell, it's free money. Their booking agent is excited about the band signing to a major. He says they can maybe average $1,000 or $2,000 a night from now on. That's enough to justify a five week tour, and with tour support, they can use a proper crew, buy some good equipment and even get a tour bus! Buses are pretty expensive, but if you figure in the price of a hotel room for everybody In the band and crew, they're actually about the same cost. Some bands like Therapy? and Sloan and Stereolab use buses on their tours even when they're getting paid only a couple hundred bucks a night, and this tour should earn at least a grand or two every night. It'll be worth it. The band will be more comfortable and will play better.

The agent says a band on a major label can get a merchandising company to pay them an advance on T-shirt sales! ridiculous! There's a gold mine here! The lawyer Should look over the merchandising contract, just to be safe. They get drunk at the signing party. Polaroids are taken and everybody looks thrilled. The label picked them up in a limo. They decided to go with the producer who used to be in Letterman's band. He had these technicians come in and tune the drums for them and tweak their amps and guitars. He had a guy bring in a slew of expensive old "vintage" microphones. Boy, were they "warm." He even had a guy come in and check the phase of all the equipment in the control room! Boy, was he professional. He used a bunch of equipment on them and by the end of it, they all agreed that it sounded very "punchy," yet "warm." All that hard work paid off. With the help of a video, the album went like hotcakes! They sold a quarter million copies!

Here is the math that will explain just how fucked they are: These figures are representative of amounts that appear in record contracts daily. There's no need to skew the figures to make the scenario look bad, since real-life examples more than abound. income is bold and underlined, expenses are not.

Advance: $250,000
Manager's cut: 37,500
Legal fees: 10,000
Recording Budget: 150,000
Producer's advance: 50,000
Studio fee: 52,500
Drum Amp, Mic and Phase "Doctors": 3,000
Recording tape: 8,000
Equipment rental: 5,000
Cartage and Transportation: 5,000
Lodgings while in studio: 10,000
Catering: 3,000
Mastering: 10,000
Tape copies, reference CDs, shipping tapes, misc. expenses: 2,000
Video budget: 30,000
Cameras: 8,000
Crew: 5,000
Processing and transfers: 3,000
Off-line: 2,000
On-line editing: 3,000
Catering: 1,000
Stage and construction: 3,000
Copies, couriers, transportation: 2,000
Director's fee: 3,000
Album Artwork: 5,000
Promotional photo shoot and duplication: 2,000
Band fund: 15,000
New fancy professional drum kit: 5,000
New fancy professional guitars [2]: 3,000
New fancy professional guitar amp rigs [2]: 4,000
New fancy potato-shaped bass guitar: 1,000
New fancy rack of lights bass amp: 1,000
Rehearsal space rental: 500
Big blowout party for their friends: 500
Tour expense [5 weeks]: 50,875
Bus: 25,000
Crew [3]: 7,500
Food and per diems: 7,875
Fuel: 3,000
Consumable supplies: 3,500
Wardrobe: 1,000
Promotion: 3,000
Tour gross income: 50,000
Agent's cut: 7,500
Manager's cut: 7,500
Merchandising advance: 20,000
Manager's cut: 3,000
Lawyer's fee: 1,000
Publishing advance: 20,000
Manager's cut: 3,000
Lawyer's fee: 1,000
Record sales: 250,000 @ $12 =
Gross retail revenue Royalty: [13% of 90% of retail]:
Less advance: 250,000
Producer's points: [3% less $50,000 advance]:
Promotional budget: 25,000
Recoupable buyout from previous label: 50,000
Net royalty: -14,000

Record company income:

Record wholesale price: $6.50 x 250,000 =
$1,625,000 gross income
Artist Royalties: 351,000
Deficit from royalties: 14,000
Manufacturing, packaging and distribution: @ $2.20 per record: 550,000
Gross profit: 710,000

The Balance Sheet: 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 ¼th 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 one third as much as they would working at a 7-11, but they got to ride in a tour bus for a month. The next album will be about the same, except that the record company will insist they spend more time and money on it. Since the previous one never "recouped," the band will have no leverage, and will oblige. The next tour will be about the same, except the merchandising advance will have already been paid, and the band, strangely enough, won't have earned any royalties from their T-shirts yet. Maybe the T-shirt guys have figured out how to count money like record company guys. Some of your friends are probably already this fucked.

Almost interview

Action Park: Questions I get asked every damn week, Steve, I'm looking to become a recording engineer. What should I do?

I am not Steve Albini.

Where can I write to the band? What's Steve's email address?

According to the Southern Records site:

Email     US Mail     UK Mail
This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.     Touch & Go Records
P.O. Box 25520
Chicago IL 60625     P.O. Box 59
N22 1AR

Steve, can I interview you for my zine?

I am not Steve Albini.

Where can I get a copy of the Japanese Shellac record?

No clue. See the page from the discography for all the info I know.

Steve, are you going to be touring out here in Bumfuck?

I am not Steve Albini.

Where can I get a copy of The Hammer Party (or Atomizer or whatever)? My record store can't get it and it's out of print!

I don't know diddly about what's in print or not. My first guess on those would be to contact Touch & Go directly. Their address is at the top of this page. They have no website.

What kinds of effects does Steve use?

As far as I know, Steve & Bob plug straight into their amps/heads. Now, Lord only knows what sort of electronic gizmos are in those big silver heads.



I was a fool. A short-sighted, crowd-hating fool. When I heard that Shellac was playing The Rave in Milwaukee on October 30th, the day before their Lounge Ax show, I figured I'd see 'em up in Cheeseland. Little did I know the night of tomfoolery they had in store: Shellac performing their set as the Sex Pistols, with David Yow of the Jesus Lizard as Johnny Rotten.
qq050Fortunately for you, gentle reader, a number of Chicago Shows List subscribers were kind enough to provide their recollections of that evening's activities.

Craig Hutler <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>, of opening band Sixto:

Yep - I was there trying to bring the rock to the kids and I'll be telling my gradkids about this one some day. During sound check for the evening our bass player looked at me and asked how Steve got John Lydon to play with them to which I replied, "don'tcha know a David Yow when ya sees one?!"

So there ya go - Yow was looking and sounding more like Rotten than the man himself. It was great. The good reverend Weston was wearing his shiny plastic trousers, mesh shirt and a bloody arm bandage. Steve sported a white Les Paul (using a guitar strap as most God fearin' American's do), mesh shirt and red bandana on his head. Damn funniest thing I ever saw - watching Steve consult the chords to the songs on a legal pad in front of him while Yow taunted the crowd in a faux Brit accent. Where they good? Well hell yeah! They were so much fun I thought about clocking the kid who was walking around polling people as to whether or not they felt they'd been cheated. Idiot could see a regular Shellac show six or seven times a
year and he complains about getting somthing a little special for the holiday.

I feel I should also mention the wonderful Ms.Fits who also put on quite a show. Damn the John Forbes is something else...I don't know if I was jumping around more on stage or off. I know I sang along more off stage.

All in all it was a happening evening of rock.

Zachary <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

What a show it was, too.

I mean, I would have been perfectly happy seeing Shellac proper play (I've only seen them one other time, and that was at a strip club in Atlanta, GA). But I knew something was up about fifteen minutes before the show, when the stage crew set up three microphone stands onstage. That's when the rumors started floating around the crowd; all sorts of speculation on guest appearances, even talk of a Big Black reunion. But I don't know if even that could have topped what happened next.
qq048 David Yow stalked onto the stage, in full 1970's-era Johnny Rotten attire to the letter. Bleached and spiked hair, psychotically glaring at the audience, the whole nine yards. He'd done his homework on this one. He was followed by the three Shellacs, with Steve Albini doing his best Steve Jones in vinyl pants (!) and a red doo-rag on his head. Bob Weston *was* Sid Vicious, in spiked black hair, mesh shirt (with scratches and scars visible underneath), glassy-eyed, and an impressively bloody IV bandage on his arm. Only Todd Trainer seemed to buck the whole Pistols image. I mean, he could have found one of those big sweaters or something. Paul Cook had style too.

Anyway, they ripped into "Holidays in the Sun", and that set the tone for the evening. Yow had Rotten's nasal Brit accent down pat, even in song. He pulled the whole thing off so well, I tell ya. Weston kept coughing up "blood" and running into things. Steve's guitar sounded kind of sloppy, but I don't think Jones could have done it any better. Between songs the band taunted the audience in mock cockney accents, Steve asking if there were "any PAA-ties about". The audience responded by throwing chunks of a dismembered jack-o-lantern at the band.

The setlist was confined to material from Never Mind the Bollocks, including "Bodies", "Submission", "Anarchy in the U.K.", and closing with "God Save the Queen". Yow seemed to remember the words to them better than he remembers the words to Jesus Lizard songs.

Yow ended the evening by asking, "Ever get the feeling you've been cheated?" and the band walked offstage, barely an hour after they started. For a long time, nobody left. The house lights came up and nobody left. Todd Trainer started taking his drum set apart and people booed. It finally registered that that was the evening, that they weren't going to get anymore, and they weren't getting any Shellac songs.

Anyway, that's what I got from the evening. That and hypothermia, since the temperature inside the Lounge Ax was a good 40 degrees warmer than outside.

Tim Kane <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Shellac started setting up their equipment and it was strange that they didn't have the big Shellac Silver Amps or the Shellac Green Travis Bean Guitars but other than that there was nothing suspicious. A few minutes later they took the stage with Steve in a punk rawk leather jacket and red bandana and Bob in a see thru mesh shirt, (Todd Trainer didn't appear to be dressed up for the occasion), then came the big surprise: an orange spiked hair skinny tie wearin' David Yow appeared as Johhny Rotten.

They played all the Sex Pistols favorites ("God Save The Queen", "Anarchy in the U.K.", etc.) and sounded remarkably like the originals. Yow taunted the crownd in a British accent ("So this is what its like in the U.S.A.?") and when the crowd started throwing pumpkins he told them to throw money. When they started throwing change he said he wanted paper money or cameras. Steve, also in accent, asked "Are there any parties about?" and called the audience a "bunch of closet cases" Bob did his best Sid Vicious knocking over his mic stand and kissing David Yow/Johhny Rotten.

All in all it was an excellent Halloween show, Shellac is an excellent bunch of blokes who never fail to surprise in one way or another.

{jb_support}Doug Arnold <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>{jb_support}

Halloween with Shellac and The Jesus Lizard's David Yow as the Sex Pistols, at Chicago's Lounge Ax, was one of those Triumphant Rock Moments for fans, the kind they talk about for years and gather the memories of dropped-jaws and raised eyebrows of friends who thought they had better things to do that night. Perfect fodder for that guy you know who says things like, "Oh, Jon Spencer. I saw him in 1972 on Saturn's northernmost moon." Hipster value aside, the show was as entertaining as any Shellac set I have seen.

I don't think anyone could have expected the band to portray a picture perfect Pistols, or would have wanted them to. Todd Trainer, whose drum kit was at the rear of the stage instead of up front with Weston and Albini for possibly the first time, was simply a less frenetic version of himself. Bob was a chubby and cuddly looking Sid, while Steve donned a bandana and safety pin through the ear, offering comments like, "Oi Hite Pink Floyd," between songs.

Yow's performance is what made the show great, the deciding factor between cute novelty and something-to-remember status. He was a hilariously nasty Rotten, from the hateful wide-eyed glare that never left his face to the flawless English accent he upheld while threatening and berating the audience throughout the set. He even had the physical features down, sporting a spikey hair cut and reddish-blonde dye job.

The crowd was noticably baffled when the band took stage, probably wondering who the hell that fourth guy was and where the Lomo gear was, but they caught on quickly. Soon beer and middle-fingers were flying across the room the way Yow does at a Jesus Lizard show. It was great to see the audience go into character, becoming a Sex Pistols crowd, but also a little scary. Some of the flying containers were indeed bottles. By the time the band got to the set closers, "Anarchy in the U.K." and "God Save The Queen," Yow had a dribble of blood on his lower lip. Fortunately he is not a stranger performance injuries, so probably wasn't offended.

A notable aspect of the evening that you could notice at almost any Shellac show was watching Steve Albini interact with the crowd, the bands, and the music and contradict those in the Chicago rock media that portray him as a tiresome crank with a stone personality and no respect for nostalgia. He wouldn't have learned those songs and dressed up as Steve Jones if he didn't find use of or humor in the past, and certainly wouldn't have stood in the middle of the audience to loudly support the Misfits cover band that opened to a tough crowd if he was the indie rock Hitler that he is often described as.
It was high time for Shellac to do something surprising live. They have been playing the same set list for about three years. We can only hope now that maybe this lit a creative spark and they will put recording projects on hold for a month or so and write some new material.

Shellac at Lounge Ax photos

Braving the cold and snow, Action Park reporter Ron Carr set out from his homeland in Indiana, to the wild frozen tundra of North Lincoln Avenue, in the great city of Chicago. There, he captured photos of the mighty Shellac singing and playing their hits, before a backdrop of cherubs, recalling the joy of Valentine's Day. Join us, won't you, on a photographic tour of that magical evening? Please remember that all photos are the photos of Ron Carr, and have been given to Action Park exclusively. If you put them up elsewhere on the web, he'll be hurt and lose all faith in the basic goodness of Man.


"A Turkey Trot to the Sound of Tuna"

Big Black Final Tour Diary
By Steve Albini

Album download

Split 7" with Caesar
Shellac Record #12

This is limited to 1200 to 1250 copies. It comes in a comic book called "Sex, Drugs, & Strips," by Barbara Stok. This was released in the Netherlands. The Shellac song is "Agostino".

"The Rude Gesture, A Pictoral History" 1993
EP (Touch & Go Records) TG127
(Shellac Record #1)

"Uranus" 1993
EP (Touch & Go Records) TG128
(Shellac Record #2)

"The Bird is the Most Popular Finger" 1994
EP Drag City Records DC34
(Shellac Record #3)

"Billiardspielerlied" / "Mantel" 7-inch single
(Shellac Record #6) 1995

at action park 1994

The Futurist
(Shellac Record #9) 1997
a/k/a the "Friends Of Shellac" record

An album of instrumental music for a dance troupe, given out to 779 of Shellac's closest friends. See The Futurist page for details.

Shellac Record #10 1998

1000 Hurts
Shellac Record #11 2000

excellent italian greyhound 2007







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