That said, I take serious issue with Harvey's argument once he moves beyond historical summary. First is his contention that "there’s an actual Main Stream into which bands are able to steer their ships" is an "ill-founded idea." In the age of the internet, that may be true: the only extant "underground" is just the shit people aren't listening to, as opposed to a separate, self-contained culture. But this is only true within the past decade. Does Harvey honestly believe that people going to Einstürzende Neubauten or Nation of Ulysses gigs and people buying Avalon or Achtung Baby were operating within the same social context?
The fundamental difference between Harvey and Albini is that the former believes the whole point of making music is to be heard by the widest audience possible. To wit:
Distribution and promotion is the key here. Indie labels used to suck at it, but in 2010, they’re really amazingly good at it, and they’re not shy about partnering with corporations like Warner to gain access to their monopoly on big box stores. And thankfully, it seems, the vast majority of indie fans... don’t care.Anyone who praises "the usefulness of major corporations" sees music as little other than a commodity and is a foot soldier for cultural homogeneity. Albini, on the other hand, views music as a communicative mode, an expression of a localized cultural identity, a sonic individuation. What bothers Albini about corporate encroachment is not merely the crass desperation & hucksterism of marketing & promotion, but how it corrupts the very creative process. As he explained in a superb interview with Ian Svenonius:
Whenever [bands] start making decisions based on their anticipation of the future response from the outside world, then they're talking out their ass and they're making decisions based on a fear of a future reprisal or something...This returns us to Albini's very purposeful separation between his work (engineering) and his art. As everyone knows, Albini is rather mercenary in who he'll record: anyone. But Shellac is infuriatingly uncompromising as a group of artists. They refuse the record-release-tour-repeat hamster wheel, turn down more shows than they play, and rigorously limit their public exposure. To someone like Harvey, whose musical philosophy is a synthesis of populism & capitalism, of course Albini comes off as provincial and exclusive. It simply means that he and Harvey have essentially different understandings of music's purpose.
A lot of the music industry sees the record as the object, like the record is the thing. And if you have to fuck with the band a little bit to make the record good, that's okay, 'cuz that's what we're selling... But if you compromise the band for the sake of the shows, or the sake of the records, then you're fucking with the business. That's the franchise right there.
But personally, I think Albini is right and Harvey is wrong. The very benefit Sonic Youth won with their major label deal - "We’re able to work 24 hours a day at making music" - is impossible in the internet-oriented music industry, because it forces bands to operate first & foremost as a business concern with the music itself reduced to mere product. The ultimate evil of disintegrating the divide between underground & mainstream culture is that D.I.Y. becomes unworkable and collusion with corporate interests is forced. When any band with a Bandcamp page can reasonably entertain dreams of making fat mad stacks of a Honda TV ad license, musicians are attempting to realize Bowie-sized commercial ambitions on a Black Flag-sized budget. In the old-school punk paradigm, being in complete control of production/distribution/promotion, while not easy, was more manageable because winning over the world was not the point. No one was hoping to headline Madison Square Gardens. But now, every band hanging onto the long tail is baited by the corrupt conflation of making music with making a living. Ultimately, both these musicians and the music itself will suffer.