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Nine Inch Nails demonstrates that yes, you can compete with free

Despite distributing part of his new album in the BitTorrent underground, endorsing piracy in numerous appearances, ditching his label, and perhaps offering one of the best $5 deals of the year, Trent Reznor and his accomplices at Nine Inch Nails managed to make good money. A lot of good money: his new album, Ghosts I-IV, sold 800,000 copies and raked in $1.6 million, in the first week.

What’s surprising about this number, aside from the obvious, is that the album made what it did while being freely and legally available in its full form (more on that in a bit) on the pirate underground. Nobody other than Nine Inch Nails planted the first seed: personally acknowledging that the “free trial” 8-track sample version of the album would be listed side-by-side with the 36-track pirate version, Reznor kindly asked users to buy the CD on the official web site, resorting to no threats and no drama.

But you know what? The full 36-track pirate version of Ghosts I-IV – the version that Reznor kindly asks you to buy from the website instead of download is perfectly legal. Why?

Creative Commons, baby. The copyright alternative! Page 39 of Ghosts’ liner notes states that the album is licensed under a Creative Commons “Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike” license, which unlike a normal, all rights reserved copyright arrangement, grants the listener some-rights-reserved privileges, including the ability to remix and distribute the album at no consequence. There are limitations, of course: the “Attribution” part means that licensees can’t pass the album off as their own, and the “share alike” forces any derivative works to be distributed with similar terms – but free is free!

Now, I know that effectively licensing the album for free was probably not Nine Inch Nails’ intention; rather, it is more likely that Reznor chose a Creative Commons license to facilitate remixing, which was previously used to great effect for Year Zero. Regardless, choosing to license via Creative Commons is an incredibly noble move on behalf of Nine Inch Nails, and an incredible victory for the Creative Commons movement – because outside of the occasional featurette in Wired, Creative Commons seems to be all but sidelined when it comes to mainstream visibility.

Unfortunately, Nine Inch Nails may be one of the few that are currently able to pull a move like Ghosts off. Most other bands of Reznor’s clout seem to be indifferent to progressive copyrights and distribution – a select few choose outright hostility – and most bands willing to mimic Nine Inch Nails’ model don’t have a large enough fan base to fall back on. Even Radiohead, which by itself is something of a force to be reckoned with, had mixed success after venturing into free. Creative Commons is still something of a catch-22 for most folks; however, much like anything new, now that we’ve seen a good success story we’ll likely see other artists follow suit.

Personally, I purchased the $10 version of Ghosts, opting for FLAC downloads and a copy of the CD, whenever it arrives. I’ll admit, I’m not the biggest Nine Inch Nails fan – I can’t stand listening to anything before The Fragile – but I am pleasantly surprised with Ghosts. If anything, it’s great music to chill out to, and the album’s gentle, ambient nature means it’s also great music to write to. By all means, check Ghosts out … after all, it is free.

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RE: So THAT'S how he did it!
By molgenit on 3/14/2008 8:17:25 AM , Rating: 2
While it’s great they did this as you pointed out the vast majority of bands would probably lose their shirts trying this. If you look enough on the net you will see many trying to make it by using the net to get their name out. Sad to say many stop because they simply cannot make enough to keep going. Once a band has reaped the benefits of the current system then they may be able to follow this lead but I would not hold my breath. If people would just stop pirating songs (GOD I hate that term)and just ignore the crap completely, this would send a MUCH stronger message to the labels and would allow this type of a model to become more viable.

RE: So THAT'S how he did it!
By tastyratz on 3/14/2008 8:38:43 AM , Rating: 2
This model doesn't have to become a replacement for the current model before it becomes a threat to the normal distribution systems creating a change.
If a reasonable percentage of bands and albums went this way Im sure the RIAA would have no CHOICE but to change the way they operate to stay competitive. I'm willing to bet it wouldn't meet the same concept but don't forget not too long ago the idea of selling drm free mp3's would have only been a punchline.

The beautiful thing about Trent's cd is it really doesn't cost them anything. He has it perfect. He distributes it on the pirate bay and it spreads like wildfire for free amongst others. Charges are mandatory for the full cd download from his website but that recoups his hosting costs - his bottom line.

This takes the spam model in a sense (and I touch on this carefully) only in the respect that even if you figure on a donation from 1% and the request reaches millions you still have 10,000 donating parties.

RE: So THAT'S how he did it!
By AToZKillin on 3/14/2008 8:16:03 PM , Rating: 2
The RIAA as an organization derives its profits primarily from physical album sales. Given that neither physical album sales nor digital sales are looking to amount to very much in the future, I think it's safe to say that the RIAA is screwed. Plain and simple. No other groups would ever let the RIAA touch their revenue. RIAA members (the labels) typically also squander a lot of $, and production costs and accounting tricks abound bring the "costs" upwards of a million for an album. I can bet you Reznor spent a LOT less than that for his 36 track album, whereas some of these million dollar recording advances (all of which the label demands to be spent) were for 12 - 16 track albums of no greater production value.

That's not all. The fact that the music industry is built on "relationships" is a double-edged sword. It can ensure some stability during stable times, but during changing times, it just leaves way too much room for inefficiency. The actual distributors go through shippers (I forget the industry term for them) like Transworld and such. And those then deal with B&M. Talk about middlemen up the ass. Even physical distribution itself wasn't nearly as cost efficient as it could've been.

Sorry, just my anti-label/distributor rant. I wouldn't trust them to handle digital distribution if the lives of their mothers depended on it. As far as the future of the industry goes, it lies in the hands of artist management and entrepreneurs with business proposals. The big 4 don't have a shot.

RE: So THAT'S how he did it!
By JAB on 3/16/2008 12:17:50 AM , Rating: 2
Why do people think that bands make money from record sales? Sadly they have had near total monopoly on the market and did not need to sare the profits. The artists got plublisity from the records and made the real money from other things like touring.

Bad things happen to bad people and bleeding every last dime out of records has burned a lot of bridges.

RE: So THAT'S how he did it!
By mindless1 on 3/17/2008 12:58:39 AM , Rating: 2
Same difference. They got publicity which they'd otherwise have had to pay for, that publicity making it possiblel to grow a fan base large enough that touring and other ventures were profitable. Thus, the record sales were a manditory part of their financial success. Look at it another way, what if NIN were the same band but had never sold an album before, mostly unheard of, would you expect them to rake in this much in a week now?

RE: So THAT'S how he did it!
By NullSubroutine on 3/17/2008 11:07:02 AM , Rating: 2
But what you fail to attribute is the fact that record industry is no longer needed to get out music to the masses. Viral marketing on things like Myspace, Facebook, and Youtube is all that is needed and in fact I believe much better than any traditional means of marketing. Add this to ingenuity like Reznor's to spread it on the Pirate Bay.

I am not the only person who would rather give my 5-10 dollars directly to the artist than have to choose between giving 90% of that money to the media conglomerate executives or downloading the whole thing for free. In fact I would buy all the NiN albums I do not currently own if he put them up directly like this (don't know if he could).

RE: So THAT'S how he did it!
By mindless1 on 3/17/2008 11:52:17 PM , Rating: 2
You must be kidding. The average adult over, say 25 years old does not spend much if any time on Myspace or Facebook. The average computer savvy person is also blocking ads or at least ignoring them, and myself included - the last thing I would ever do is justify advertising by clicking through or buying what was advertised if/when I see it advertised (though if I buy something I don't go actively seeking to find an ad as a reason not to buy).

There are two primary avenues for promotion, retail CD sales and radio stations. Maybe MTV used to be one but it's a joke to call it music television these days with all the non-music-video content.

I too would rather give 5-10 directly to an artist, no arguement there.

RE: So THAT'S how he did it!
By NullSubroutine on 3/18/2008 3:44:21 PM , Rating: 2
I am not talking about paid advertisements. I am talking about people talking and sharing music and entertainment. People sometimes like sheep, thats how singles can spread like wild fire.

The largest demographic of music purchasers are tween females, who infest social networking sites.

RE: So THAT'S how he did it!
By desertvet on 4/8/2008 7:45:39 AM , Rating: 2
Well said. I remember when MTV made it's debut and it's a far cry from being Music Television now. It's turned into a quasi marketing firm that acts as a surveying conduit for its advertisers.

"We don't know how to make a $500 computer that's not a piece of junk." -- Apple CEO Steve Jobs

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