Thursday, March 13, 2008


This article originally appeared in the 3.13.08 issue of Metroland

I was going to survey all of the good lovin’ I’ve gotten in my life, and discuss which times may have been worth $5500, and why I think so, based on both objective and subjective criteria, if indeed I had to pay for it.

But I decided to talk about Trent Reznor instead.

A few months ago, Radiohead shook the music biz to its core by putting its new album, In Rainbows, up on the Web for download. For a band of Radiohead’s stature, this was revolutionary for a number of reasons. For one, the band was going it alone, without the benefit of label backing. Even more remarkable, the band put the album up for download with a voluntary payment.

The band still hasn’t released figures for what happened, although as of now, the band’s download page is disabled and the album is available for sale as a CD and as DRM-free downloads from all the usual online stores. The band has admitted that the voluntary-payment scheme, which offered only middling-sounding 160bps files, was really a promotional device to sell music the traditional way.

It would be fascinating to know what happened; there have been unsubstantiated estimates that over one million albums were downloaded, and roughly two-thirds of the people grabbed the music for free, but that the band nonetheless made more money that they would have had they been selling through a standard record-company deal. One interesting phenomenon was the fact that even though In Rainbows was readily available for free on the band’s Web site, “pirated” versions were was also tearing up the P2P and BitTorrent sites. Go figure.

While Radiohead’s experience may have been a tentative toe in the water, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails went all-in on the NIN Web site last week with a comprehensive roll-out of a sprawling new instrumental work titled Ghosts I-IV. The offering is a brilliant example of post-label consumer-oriented music delivery. The first nine tracks are offered for free, as high-quality 320bps MP3s, along with a stunning 40 page pdf program with liner notes. For $5, you can download the entire work—all 36 tracks—with the program and a pile of digital “extras” like wallpaper and other images. These downloads are available in an array of high-quality format choices, including CD-quality lossless formats. For $10, you get all the digital stuff, plus a two-CD set with all of the tracks. For $75, you get all this in deluxe packaging, along with all of the session tracks on a DVD in multi-track format, for the buyer to use in remixing the tracks, along with a Blu-Ray disk with the tracks in super HD stereo along with a HD slideshow. Finally, there’s a limited- edition $350 set, which includes everything already mentioned, plus the tracks on four high-quality vinyl disks and a set of Giclee prints of some of the program photographs.

The tracks are released under a Creative Commons license, which means it’s OK with Reznor if the tracks are traded, distributed, or remixed in non-commercial settings. To underscore the point, Reznor seeded the major BitTorrent networks with the tracks at the same time they were offered for sale on the NIN Web site. So anyone who wants to can go get the whole shebang for free from any of the so-called “pirate sites” on the Web.

Now, traditional thinking, major-label thinking, would be that Reznor is nuts. He’s giving it all away at the same time he’s trying to sell it. But consider this—the 2500 editions of the $350 set sold out the first night. So, we know Reznor pulled in $875,000 from the top-shelf offering alone. Traffic was so intense that night that it slowed to a crawl, and for a while the NIN site was sending people to the Torrent sites as an alternative place to grab the tracks. There haven’t been any other figures released about sales and downloads (although I’d expect Reznor to release them eventually) so I can only relate my own experience.

I’m not a Nine Inch Nails fan; I wouldn’t know a NIN song if it bit me on the heinie. But after reading the media hoopla of this release, and being aware of Reznor’s anti-label advocacy over the years, I figured I’d check it out. The NIN site is beautiful, and getting the initial nine free tracks was seamless and satisfying, sort of like the Apple consumer experience—it’s fun, sophisticated, and doesn’t insult my intelligence.

The tracks surprised me; mostly darkly ambient instrumental tracks, featuring airy piano, guitar treatments (from Adrian Belew), and hypnotic, non-face-melting percussion. After listening to the free tracks three times, I decided I had to have the rest, and I went back and bought them for the grand sum of $5. I could have gone to a Torrent site and gotten them, entirely legally, for free. But I didn’t want to bother with that, and more importantly, I wanted Trent Reznor to have my $5 for making my world a little bit better with his music. Call me crazy, but I think this is the way it’s supposed to work.


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