Hyperpower! The Good Soldier sends Ghosts Into the Void

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 place.

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 and

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:

“We 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.

“Here's 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.

“As of 1/2/08,
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 disheartening.”

Reznor’s no stranger to experimenting with the internet community: 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 so 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.

"It looks like the iPhone 4 might be their Vista, and I'm okay with that." -- Microsoft COO Kevin Turner

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