Letter to Nirvana: On Creating an Environment for Innovation and High Performance…

Just over 20 years ago, Nirvana's final album (In Utero) was released, recorded by Steve Albini, outspoken music engineer extraordinaire. In 1992, shortly before they formally agreed on his involvement, Albini wrote to the band and laid bare his philosophy in a pitch letter that is fascinating from start to end and worth every minute of your time.

There's some great tidbits from Albini to Nirvana in the letter relatd to creating an environment where innovation and high performance can happen.  More Albini via from Letters of Note: Nirvana2

"I think the very best thing you could do at this point is exactly what you are talking about doing: bang a record out in a couple of days, with high quality but minimal "production" and no interference from the front office bulletheads. If that is indeed what you want to do, I would love to be involved. 

If, instead, you might find yourselves in the position of being temporarily indulged by the record company, only to have them yank the chain at some point (hassling you to rework songs/sequences/production, calling-in hired guns to "sweeten" your record, turning the whole thing over to some remix jockey, whatever...) then you're in for a bummer and I want no part of it. 

I'm only interested in working on records that legitimately reflect the band's own perception of their music and existance. If you will commit yourselves to that as a tenet of the recording methodology, then I will bust my ass for you. I'll work circles around you. I'll rap your head with a ratchet..."

Translation: You're the talent. If you're going to bring in non-talented people who constrain your creativity, you can't work with me.  

Albini continues with notes on who he is and his approach at producing with artists like Nirvana:

#1: Most contemporary engineers and producers see a record as a "project," and the band as only one element of the project. Further, they consider the recordings to be a controlled layering of specific sounds, each of which is under complete control from the moment the note is conceived through the final six. If the band gets pushed around in the process of making a record, so be it; as long as the "project" meets with the approval of the fellow in control. 

My approach is exactly the opposite. 

I like to leave room for accidents or chaos. Making a seamless record, where every note and syllable is in place and every bass drum is identical, is no trick. Any idiot with the patience and the budget to allow such foolishness can do it. I prefer to work on records that aspire to greater things, like originality, personality and enthusiasm. If every element of the music and dynamics of a band is controlled by click tracks, computers, automated mixes, gates, samplers and sequencers, then the record may not be incompetent, but it certainly won't be exceptional. It will also bear very little relationship to the live band, which is what all this hooey is supposed to be about. 

What I learned form this letter related to managing talent in companies like yours and mine:

1. There's a lot of constraints that get put upon rare talent in organizations.  Those constraints are a barrier to great work.  The constraints are in place to limit risk, not create great work.

2. There remains a hunger for agents like Albini to protect the ability for talent to truly innovate in every organization and industry.

3. Talent will want to work with you if a) you're the best at what you do, and b) you speak the truth to said talent and protect them against all forms of BS.  

4. Of course you have to deliver results once the talent signs on with you.

Look closely at points #1-#4.  It's stuff that any manager in America can use as a differentiating factor when recruiting talent.  You just have to deliver on the promise and not be a bureaucrat.

 

 

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