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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 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.


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