Albini: the unlikely paragon of principles

What can we learn from the hater engineer

Whether you are a superfan of a certain strain of 90s rock music or not, you likely encountered the news of Steve Albini’s passing in the past 72 hours. A prolific engineer, he was behind the sound profile of wide variety of iconic albums, most notably Nirvana’s last album In Utero, The Pixies’ Surfer Rosa, and, to his estimate, over 1,000 more. 

I will quickly cut to the chase that he was an edgelord in his early years, saying unacceptable things for shock value. He took a sober appraisal of these earlier days later in life, brilliantly captured in this 2023 Guardian article. He is not a man without sin, and certainly many have a case to never forgive him for his past transgressions.

Albini has been called a hater, which is absolutely true. He hated a lot of things, including capitalism, corporate record labels, Steely Dan, bike lanes, the solar eclipse, and - I’m not joking, the sound of bands that literally hired him to “produce” his album.

Yes, that is a band that hired him to produce their album thanking him for his honesty despite openly being hostile to them.

So, why is it that an avowed hater of a man who said some terrible things and was outwardly meanspirited to the bands that hired him so beloved? In a word: integrity. In his 61 years of life, he seemingly never compromised and never went against his hard-earned principles. 

Steve Albini’s perspective on recording albums was to try to capture the rawness and integrity of the band - effectively documenting how the band actually sounds in the room. He wanted warts and all, and did not look to add a sheen to make it sound “more professional.” If there’s a spectrum where Vocal Tuner is on the right, Albini falls off the line on the left. It was said that bands went to Albini to return to their roots. Like a defense attorney defending horrible criminals, Albini believed every band had the right to great production, no matter how distasteful he found their sound. 

If he is famous for something specific beyond his literal contribution to music, it was his insistence on being paid a flat fee for his work in a world where many engineers (especially with his stature) were paid a percentage of the album sales in perpetuity. 

The gap in income from both approaches is especially stark when you consider Nirvana. Coming off considerably the biggest album in America, they had to beg him to record their album, which he only agreed to with conditions he set. One condition is that he refused to take points on their album, a move that cost him literally millions of dollars.

The quotes, which you surely encountered sometime recently, are thus:

Dough. I explained this to Kurt but I thought I'd better reiterate it here. I do not want and will not take a royalty on any record I record. No points. Period. I think paying a royalty to a producer or engineer is ethically indefensible. The band write the songs. The band play the music. It's the band's fans who buy the records. The band is responsible for whether it's a great record or a horrible record. Royalties belong to the band. 

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. 

I have to be comfortable with the amount of money you pay me, but it's your money, and I insist that you be comfortable with it as well. Kurt suggested paying me a chunk which I would consider full payment, and then if you really thought I deserved more, paying me another chunk after you'd had a chance to live with the album for a while. That would be fine, but probably more organizational trouble than it's worth. 

Steve Albini to Nirvana

In Utero sold five times that estimated figure. When Albini passed, he was still producing in his studio at a $900 daily rate, fractional to what he could charge even the most cash-strapped band. Ironically, Albini made his riches in poker, a game many believe he excelled at because he detested phonies and therefore could tell when people were lying.

Watching wave after wave of glowing remembrances of Steve floated across social media this past week, I thought of how often we compromise, seemingly daily, because it’s the easiest thing to do. To shift with the wind because holding our position, especially if it contravenes society.

Albini was right, in a way. If I told a majority of people with varying interests in music that Butch Vig produced Nevermind, and the band hated the glossy sound, so they went to Albini. And if I told you that Nirvana’s label hated the sound, so the compromise was that the two singles: All Apologies and Heart Shaped Box, were remixed. And if I asked you to listen to them back to back, you may notice those nuisances. But they’re both still Nirvana. 

One of the most “Albini” album’s is “Rid of Me,” by PJ Harvey. The sound feels deadened and sparse and downright distorted at times. It is raw and amazing and it sounds like what it would be like to be in that studio with PJ. But then I listen to her 2001 album “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea,” which feels slick and sheen. They’re both great; they’re both PJ Harvey.

Albin’s contention was not that producers should not get paid, it was that they shouldn’t be taking money from bands in perpetuity because the music they made resonated with a large audience. Nirvana, The Pixies, Low, PJ Harvey- these bands are reaching audiences regardless of their sound engineer because of their swagger, sound, appeal.

We often think of ourselves in the context of the ask. The largest band in the world is demanding his services. And, to be clear, he claims he was not familiar with much of their work, and did not love Nevermind. So he was in a position to name his price to a colossus, whose work he did not consider especially brilliant.* He could have easily exercised a corporate label, a “biggest band in the world,” or a “this-will-set-me-up-for-life” tax. He chose none of the above. He put the same amount of effort into Nirvana as he did some no-name punk band three years later. 

Now, perhaps it’s easier to remain principles when you’re dealing with music and you, at your heart, love it. But principled people get corrupted every day. And nearly all of us fall victim.

Now, given how anti-capitalist Albini was, he would for sure, hate the line of work many of us are in. And I’m sure he wouldn’t blink an eye at those of us charging clients whatever we could, as his esteem of those entities would be even worse. 

But even with that all in mind, I can’t escape joining the chorus to marvel at a person who lived his values and even made up for the ways he fell short as a young man. He hated a lot of things, it seems, but none more than the idea of not following his code. 


*Albini was an artist himself, in bands like Big Black and Shellac. His sound was incredibly raw, unpolished, and cacophonous; downright hard to listen to at times. He gravitated to other bands like that. He viewed the Nirvanas of the world - the grunge scene - as adulterating the ethos or spirit of those underground bands through pop sensibilities.