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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: Torrent
By TomCorelis on 3/14/2008 12:24:11 PM , Rating: 5
Out of respect.


RE: Torrent
By tastyratz on 3/14/2008 2:37:40 PM , Rating: 2
which is the same reason I just downloaded and paid the 5 bux for the album. I respect and support Trent as well as his cause with this.


RE: Torrent
By AToZKillin on 3/14/2008 8:25:18 PM , Rating: 2
Respect would be the same reason to buy any other ala carte albums/tracks. And yet people don't do it, because it just doesn't click with them. Respect unfortunately isn't good enough to turn things around and actually generate positive results for the industry as a whole. Reznor has a uniquely loyal fanbase, but we can't expect that from all artists, especially not ones who are up and coming.

Anyway, I personally am for non a-la-carte business models, as are many of the people who did go out and just pirate his 36 track album (or they're just cheap). Even $5 is prohibitively expensive for people who habitually get music quickly and easily for free. And many see it as a hassle to make little purchases here and there (or some have no self control and rack up massive debt, hehe). I don't think Reznor's model gives us any answers...it just brings up more questions. But they are good questions, so I'm really glad that this thing has taken off and receieved some publicity.


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