Normally, when Big Name Band X releases Brand New CD Y, it’s
not newsworthy anymore to report that said Brand New CD Y can easily be found
through the regular pirate channels. New music appears on these networks all
the time, and I think that most of us can agree that the presence of new, free
music is about half the reason the pirate underground exists in the first
What to think, then, when Big Name Band X is really Nine
Inch Nails, and Brand New CD Y is really its latest 36-track, 2-CD release, “Ghosts I-IV”? Nothing, right? What if I told
you that the first chunk of the CD was uploaded
to the BitTorrent scene by the band itself, and not only to the big dogs
like The Pirate Bay, but smaller,
invite-only fish like What.cd and Waffles.fm?
Now, Nine Inch Nails fans in the loop know this isn’t
unexpected. Trent Reznor, the band’s frontman and only official member, spends a
good amount of time examining the online music economy; free of the burdens of
a record contract, the man’s certainly come up with a few of his own
conclusions. Further, he’s demonstrated that he’s not afraid to test ideas or
honestly discuss their results: a recent blog post finds Reznor ruminating on
the less-than-stellar sales for “The
Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust,” a record he produced for
artist Saul Williams that was subsequently released online for free, with an
optional $5 price:
offer the entire record free (as in totally free to the visitor - we pay
bandwidth costs) as 192 MP3s, or for $5 you can choose higher fidelity versions
and feel good about supporting the artist directly. We offer all major CCs and
PayPal as payment options.
what I was thinking: Fans are interested in music as soon as it's available
(that's a good thing, remember) and usually that's a leak from the label's
manufacturing plants. Offering the record digitally as its first appearance in
the marketplace eliminates that problem. I thought if you offered the whole
record free at reasonable quality - no strings attached - and offered a hassle
free way to show support that clearly goes straight to the artists who made it
at an unquestionably low price people would "do the right thing". I
know, I know...
“…Saul's previous record was released in 2004
and has sold 33,897 copies.
154,449 people chose to download Saul's new record.
28,322 of those people chose to pay $5 for it, meaning:
18.3% chose to pay….
“…[If it could be assumed] that most of the
people that chose to download Saul's record came from his or my own fan-base -
is it good news that less than one in five feel it was worth $5? I'm not sure
what I was expecting but that percentage - primarily from fans - seems
Reznor’s no stranger to experimenting with the internet
community: remix.nin.com offers complete,
high quality multitrack recordings of Nine Inch Nails songs available for
remixing, and he has a reputation for leaving
USB drives with unreleased music in the bathrooms of his concert venues.
The fans love it: one leaked, unreleased track gained so much notoriety that it
received over-the-air radio play, with the station in question later receiving
a cease-and-desist order from Nine Inch Nails’ label.
Meanwhile, Nine Inch Nails’ remix site eventually blossomed
into a full-fledged remix portal that allows
fans to show off their work. Further, a few artists actually saw their hard work
published: selected interpretations of Nine Inch Nails’ 2007 “Year Zero” album found their way into “Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D,” which
received a publishing deal with Interscope Records.
This brings us back to Ghosts,
with its “25% free!” campaign and its implicit support of the piracy scene that
many musicians claim to fear. Personally, compared to lessons past, Nine Inch
Nails’ approach seems more evolutionary than revolutionary; a version 2.0 of
Reznor’s Saul Williams (not to mention Radiohead’s “In Rainbows”) experiment
with a bit of psychology thrown in for good measure. If it worked for “Steal
This Film II,” can it work for Ghosts?
If early markers are any indication, the answer is yes. The “luxurious”
$300 “ultra-deluxe limited edition package” sold out of its 2500-unit
allocation within a few days, earning the band $750,000 in revenue from that
SKU alone. Personally, I’m curious on how the purchasable downloads are doing,
particularly with respect to the packages that offer tangible media – what are
their sales like? Are the numbers just as disappointing this time around?
And what about the BitTorrent downloads? “Our website had to
go down for maintenance” due to the incredible traffic, says Nine Inch Nails Art
Director Rob Sheridan, “[so] we linked directly to our Pirate Bay torrent as a
way for people to get the music while we were offline.“
“We use torrents ourselves, and we know that most Nine Inch Nails
fans are tech-savvy and familiar with file-sharing, so we want to experiment
with ways to use that to our advantage,” added Sheridan, “instead of making the
mistake of trying to fight or ignore it, as so many artists and labels do.”
In the end, Nine Inch Nails finds itself in the unique
position of both commanding a huge fanbase and being free of labels’ allegedly
oppressive influence. Rather than rest on his laurels, Reznor’s chosen to run
with his opportunities to see what results, while the rest of the world watches.
If Ghosts continues to be the success
that it appears to be, I am certain that we’ll see a lot more artists explore Nine
Inch Nails’ brand of generosity in the near future.