Very early in a discussion with Trent Reznor, the front man for the band Nine Inch Nails, it’s obvious how highly he prizes his collaboration with musician Saul Williams on the album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust.
Reznor produced and helped bankroll the album, which debuted November 1. All the more reason why he was stunned when fewer than one in five people who downloaded the music were willing to pony up $5, roughly the cost of a McDonald’s Quarter Pounder.
Williams and Reznor were trying to follow the lead of Radiohead by distributing music online without the backing of a label. Like the British supergroup, Williams made the album available for free in one version but he also offered the option of buying a higher-quality digital download for $5. The promotions were groundbreaking and plenty of people predicted that a profitable outcome would convince many musicians to drop their labels and use the Internet to distribute their own artistic creations.
And then Reznor ended the hoopla last week when he reported on his blog that 154,449 people had downloaded NiggyTardust and 28,322 of them paid the $5 as of January 2. In the blog, Reznor suggested that he was “disheartened” by the results.
Now, in his first interview since releasing the sales data, Reznor on Wednesday talked about his rethinking of music in the digital age.
Q: Trent, lots of fans were shocked and saddened by how disappointed you sounded with the sales results. Many piped up to tell you that the numbers may be misleading. Were the numbers that bad?
Reznor: I’m not disappointed with the numbers with Saul at all. I think, particularly looking at what he’s done historically and in the climate of today’s music scene, that’s something to be proud of.
What disappointed me is that I had thought–and this is just based on how I experience music–given the opportunity (his voice trails off). Why do I end up stealing music? Usually because I can’t get it easily somewhere else or the version I can get is an inferior one with DRM, perhaps, or I have to drive across town to get it to then put it on my computer or it’s already out on the Internet and I can’t pay for it yet.
If I think of it a month later walking through Amoeba (record store), hmm…do I want to just buy a piece of plastic and give most of the money to the record labels, who have to be thieves because my experience with them has always been that? And you have a lot of reasons why you didn’t do it. So I thought if you take all those away and here’s the record in as great a quality as you could ever want, it’s available now and it’s offered for an insulting low price, which I consider $5 to be, I thought that it would appeal to more people than it did. That’s where my sense of disappointment is in general, that the idea was wrong in my head and for once I’ve given people too much credit.
Saul and I went at this thing with the right intentions. We wanted to put out the music that we believe in. We want to do it as unencumbered and as un-revenue-ad-generated and un-corporate-affiliated as possible. We wanted it without a string attached, without the hassle, without the bait and switch, or the “Now you can buy the s**** version if you buy…” No, no, we said: “Here it is. At the same time, it’d be nice if we can cover the costs and perhaps make a living doing it.”
I’m not saying that this is a completely accurate test. Yes, there is a possibility that people downloaded it and the same people went back and downloaded it and paid for it and that can throw the numbers off. I get all that.
It kind of gets into the bigger picture that you’ve had to face as a musician over the last few years, which in my mind was a bitter pill to swallow, but it’s pretty far down the hatch with me now: the way things are, I think music should be looked at as free. It basically is. The toothpaste is out of the tube and a whole generation of people is accustomed to music being that way. There’s a perception that you don’t pay for music when you hear it on the radio or MySpace.
There’s a difficult transition in the mind of the musician and certainly in the mind of the record label. If that is the case, how does one adapt to that?
How are you going to adapt to that?
Reznor: For me, I choose the battles I can fight. In my mind, I think if there was an ISP tax of some sort, we can say to the consumer, “All music is now available and able to be downloaded and put in your car and put in your iPod and put up your a– if you want, and it’s $5 on your cable bill or ISP bill.”
Was everybody in the Williams camp happy that you disclosed the sales numbers?
Reznor: I didn’t see the harm in not using this opportunity–and I’ll name check Radiohead on this–they’ve done a pretty suave marketing plan on this new record.
I think generally it’s been a pretty cool thing, but what they’ve done is used those (sales) numbers in a way that they can spin them anyway they want cause you don’t know what they are. They can present themselves as the biggest band in the world. Someone leaks out a number of a million and someone says a number of visits and someone else says that must mean they made a million and someone else says the average price was $5 or $6 and that means they made $10 million.
I highly doubt that’s what happened based on my own experience.
And I’m not saying that Radiohead and Saul Williams are in the same breath in terms of popularity by any means, but it felt to me like that, partially inspired by Radiohead, we tried this and here’s the results we got and I assume there’s a bunch of other bands that are intrigued by the idea that may want to follow down that path. I’m not saying it was a failure or a success. I think it was both. But it wasn’t 90 percent of the people that showed up paid us what we asked for. Nor did I ever think it would be. I’m not sure what I did expect.
But I’ve found it entertaining reading different people’s perspective on the Web, what they’ve thought of what I’ve said. There’s been a wave of people that said, ‘Oh, that’s depressing. Only 18 percent chose to pay for it.’ Another whole wave of people feel just the opposite. I don’t really know. That was the point of it. I’ve heard people say, ‘What was the point of that blog?’ It was just to share information with you. It wasn’t any kind of concrete analysis of anything.
I’m sure I didn’t win any points with the aforementioned people by doing what I did. I questioned whether it was the right thing, but it felt morally like the right thing to do. I’m not ashamed of it. I find myself a bit defensive right now, like ‘Did I f**k up? Should I not have said that?’
Talk about technology and your experience using the Web as a distribution method.
Reznor: When we started the idea, we liked the clean feel of the Radiohead experience. It didn’t feel like we were a sidebar on the Snocap site. Somehow that kind of thing cheapened it in a sense for whatever reason. I’m not sure why. That’s based on my own perception. I like the idea of feeling kind of homemade and simple. There is a beauty to the fact that everybody has got their own distribution network that is already set up. How simple and obvious to just do this. But the reality of that is building the infrastructure that has a store and accepts the right form of payment and fulfillment and all those boring kinds of things.
What did you learn from the experience?
If I could redo everything and start again, I think having a physical product is a good thing. I think that having some more coordination on our part–and I’ll take the blame on that because there was an urgency to get this done and get it out that I was the ringleader for–I think if we could wave a magic wand and do it again I think being able to offer an inexpensive version in addition to a premium physical product that could be shipped out afterward.
On day one you can buy it online and it’s also in the store. But the manufacturing (of CDs) is the leak (to file-sharing sites) for everything and the leak is important to get around. The leak blows momentum. It happens and it’s going to happen on every release there is. It’s a fact of life. But that leak happens once it leaves mastering and goes to manufacturing, if it hasn’t by then, then it certainly does at that point. I like the energy of release day, the excitement of watching blogs light up and bulletin boards. I think that’s an important spike in attention. And the only way I can see to accommodate a physical release if it goes to manufacturing after the thing is in the hands of people. But I do think there is a need for presence in physical retail.
Are you going to abandon this or will Nine Inch Nails offer a similar promotion as Williams?
If I had a record to put out today, I would do something very similar to what we just did cause I don’t think there is a better option. I would include a physical piece as I just said and all of the components I would make sure had value.
Saul said he doesn’t have any regrets about the way the album was released. He credits the Internet with setting him free from having to deal with the labels. Is this how you feel?
Reznor: I can’t tell you how great it felt when Saul and I and his team said ‘Let’s do this. Let’s go.’
There’s not an army of people saying no for this reason. To feel in control of your own destiny for a change, that’s an incredibly liberating feeling. Where it needs to be worked out and fine tuned is the right way to hopefully generate enough commerce from it to justify doing it and really working on the right way and right tone to get the word out to people that doesn’t feel intrusive or old school.
But at the same time there is a little bit of an element with Saul’s record of a tree falling in the woods…It hurt my feelings to see it not show up on everybody’s Best Album Of The Year lists, because I think not enough people knew it was out there.