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Let's Buy Steve a House!

Chicago's most famous recording engineer responds to his fans' campaign to pay his mortgage.



Now that even serious fans consider actually paying for their music optional, what other tactics might work to turn love into money? I wondered about this at length in last week's column, "You Can't Eat a Tweet." But since then current events have provided an answer that hadn't occurred to me: build up a devoted fan base, give them an Internet forum to play in, wait years until it evolves into a substantial online and offline community, and see if its members spontaneously decide to give you a huge pile of money.

Tim Midgett, formerly of Silkworm and now of Bottomless Pit, has been recording with Steve Albini since the early 90s and at Albini's Belmont Avenue studio, Electrical Audio, since not long after it opened in 1997. He also spends a lot of time on the free message boards the studio maintains. On Tuesday, September 28, he launched a campaign, hosted at the group-action and fund-raising site, to pay off the roughly $230,000 remaining on the mortgage of the building that houses Electrical (as well as Albini's apartment).

The Electrical Audio boards are basically a place where music lovers brought together by an affinity for Albini's bands or recording style trade technical tips and personal advice and shit-talk about other musicians (not to mention music critics). But many regulars have a depth of loyalty to this community that could make college football jealous, and it's only in light of that loyalty that Midgett's scheme seems anything but bonkers. "It's a place where a bunch of like-minded people from all over the world can go to jabber at each other about stuff they all like," he says. "Give each other advice and so on. I'm sure there are other places like that, but that is the one I'm fond of. It's morphed from an online thing into real people meeting each other and doing all the stuff real people do in the real world. It's neat."

Those real-world activities have included meet-ups and an annual weekend-long barbecue and concert series called the PRF BBQ Rockfest, organized on the Electrical boards and populated by bands who share at least some of the aggressive, unpretentious Albini aesthetic. ("PRF" stands for "Premier Rock Forum.") People fly in from overseas to attend, and for this year's Rockfest, denizens of the boards volunteered their labor and expertise to help the owner of one of the venues repair and renovate the building in time for the shows.

Even considering that impressive effort, though, Midgett's fund-raising project is easily the most ambitious thing to come out of the Electrical forums. And it did come from the forums, in more ways than one: was founded by former Electrical intern Andrew Mason, who would go on to launch Groupon.

I appreciate the way the Internet can unite people into such strong communities—common interests often bond people more tightly than accidents of geography. But if you're feeling charitable and have an extra $115—the donation Midgett suggests, based on his guess that 2,000 people might be willing to part with that amount—it could surely be put to better use than helping a for-profit business. The last time I checked, neither Pakistan nor Haiti were in tip-top shape.

Midgett understands that view. "I wouldn't expect the average person to think it's even a reasonable thing to do," he says. "The studio is successful. It's been around for 12 or 13 years. It'll pay itself off eventually. But running an analog recording studio is going to be a labor of love, always."

Studio manager Stephen Sowley would like to emphasize that Electrical is doing fine financially. "We have a debt just like any small business," he says, "but I don't want anyone to feel like this is some sort of clarion call to 'save our company.' What Tim is doing is of Tim's creation, and he didn't run this by us or seek our endorsement. None of us at the studio knew about this until after he posted the campaign on the Electrical Audio forum." Albini, who's on tour in Europe with Shellac, was slow to get the news, but he seconds Sowley. "I have gone broke several times in service of this studio and I have no fear of going broke again if need be," he says. "But we're not there now, and we're not going to start acting like assholes simply to avoid going broke."

Digital recording is now the norm, both in professional studios and in home-recording setups, which makes Electrical something of a holdout—to musicians and engineers who love analog technology, it's practically a holy site. You can sort of see why they wouldn't want its survival left to the whims of the marketplace. Recording studios in general were suffering from a downturn in bookings even before the economy tanked—amateur gear just keeps getting cheaper and better, tempting musicians to go it alone—and for analog studios this situation is aggravated by the increasing expense of professional-grade magnetic tape. As the market for such tape dries up and the companies making it cease operations—there are two major manufacturers left, one in the U.S. and one in Europe—the average cost per reel continues to climb. It's doubled over the past ten years to around $300, forcing even dedicated analog devotees to consider switching to Pro Tools.

Electrical does have a leg up in that it's helmed by a celebrity engineer, but in many ways Albini has declined to take advantage of that. His rate at Electrical is $700 a day, which is a bit steep for a struggling local band but peanuts compared to the kind of fee he can command—for his two weeks of work on Nirvana's In Utero, for instance, he got $100,000. He also refuses to take "points," or percentage royalties, on his projects. "It has always been a point of pride that a studio like ours can have reasonable rates and high technical standards while treating people decently and still pay its bills," he says. "I think a lot of poor behavior has historically been excused by business pressures, and I'm proud that we've proven those excuses phony."

This approach has earned Albini a reputation as a staunchly virtuous contrarian in a music industry full of exploitative creeps (at least in the eyes of his more slavish fans), but it's also cost him an alarming amount of money. If Albini had taken points—three is standard—on In Utero, the Pixies' Surfer Rosa, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant's Walking Into Clarksdale, it's a safe bet that his building would be paid off by now.

Of course it's Albini's ideology as much as his work that's earned him fans devoted enough to make a total of nearly $40,000 in pledges within the fund-raiser's first week. It's hard to imagine a similar outpouring on behalf of, say, Nigel Godrich or Butch Vig. But then, neither of them has nurtured an online community attached to a studio he designed and lives in himself—or drops in on that community, like a messiah walking among his disciples, to shoot the shit or answer questions.

Albini won't say whether Electrical will accept the money in the event that the fund-raiser meets its goal, and he doesn't think it's too likely the question will come up—unless total pledges reach $230,000, none of them will be collected, and after an initial flurry of activity the inflow seems to be slowing down. But he's definitely flattered. "It is humbling to see so many people willing to fork over real money for no better reason than that they like the studio and what we do," he says. "People are just really goddamn nice."

Midgett thinks about the project in a wait-and-see kind of way. Unlike in similar campaigns on, there's no expiration date or deadline for meeting the pledge goal. "I can't say I expect the campaign to succeed," he says, "but I don't really expect it to fail, either."   

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