Radiohead isn’t talking numbers, but Trent Reznor is. After producing Saul Williams’ The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust and offering it to fans online, Reznor yesterday laid out the numbers from his experiment. Saying that it’s easy for artists to know “what NOT to do these days, but less obvious to know what’s right,” Reznor found that 18.3 percent of users who grabbed the album paid $5 for it; the rest paid nothing. Is this what success looks like?
That’s the basic question he addresses in a lengthy posting at the Nine Inch Nails web site. By offering the record as both free 192kbps MP3 files and as a five dollar 320kbps download (FLAC was also an option), Reznor wanted to see how many people would “do the right thing.” He found that 154,449 people downloaded Williams’ album; of that number, 28,322 people paid the five spot. (Gaming Editor Ben Kuchera was one of those who anted up the cash; he loves the album, but says that “too often it sounds like a NIN B-side with rapped lyrics.”) So the only question left to answer is whether this was a success or not.
Reznor’s not sure what to think. On the one hand, 154,449 people downloaded and presumably listened to the album; that’s the kind of marketing you just can’t buy (well, you probably could buy it, but it would be expensive). Since only 34,000 people bought Williams’ 2004 effort on CD, this is certainly evidence that offering free music can help spread the word.
But it won’t make much money. The 28,000 people who have purchased the album so far are less than the number that paid for the CD four years ago, and despite the money going right to Reznor and Williams, it’s not pure profit. They had to pay for studio time, engineers, the creation of the download site, and bandwidth (including for those who paid nothing). The result is that “nobody’s getting rich off this project.”
Williams is touring this year, and the increased exposure may translate into more money on the road. Because the record wasn’t really marketed except by word of mouth, though, most of the downloads probably came from those who were already Williams fans (or NIN fans), and Reznor doesn’t seem to know what to think about the fact that so few of these people decided the album was worth paying a measly five bucks for. “I’m not sure what I was expecting, but that percentage—primarily from fans—seems disheartening.”
These sorts of musical experiments are fascinating, and tend to garner plenty of press, but they don’t often provide much clarity for other musicians looking to try a similarly innovative things. Without knowing the backend numbers, experiments like Radiohead’s may provide inspiration for other artists but can hardly be used to make a business case. Kudos to Reznor for putting his own data out there so transparently; hopefully it will point the way to a “better solution” for other artists in the future.