The Future of Music: Don’t Forget About NIN

By Josh Catone
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A couple of days ago we wrote about Soulja Boy, and how the young rapper’s use of social media was a blueprint for the future of the music industry. But Soulja Boy isn’t the only artist out there rewriting the rules and using the Internet to his advantage: let’s not forget about Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor.

Reznor turned the traditional music distribution model on its head in 2008 by releasing not one, but two Nine Inch Nails albums for free on the Internet. In March he released the first section of his four-part instrumental album Ghosts I-IV for free on Bit Torrent, and released the entire album under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike license that allowed fans to remix and use the music for other projects. Then in May, Reznor put out another NIN album, The Slip, for free download on his website and streaming via the iLike music service. It was also released under a CC license and Reznor encourage fans to remix it.

We wrote about Reznor’s distribution experiments in July and talked about how Reznor was able to be successful giving his music away for free by cultivating a group of “true fans” and building awareness for his personal brand. In fact, the Ghosts I-IV album ended 2008 as Amazon’s bestselling MP3 download of the year (where is was priced at $5), despite being available for free.

One of the likely reasons that NIN’s free albums were a commercial success even though Reznor gave them away, was that he had built up a core group of die-hard fans who wanted to support him, even when it wasn’t necessary.

Reznor’s exploits also helped build awareness, and there’s a ton of value in that. Reznor’s free download stunt, and similar alternative music distribution plans from major acts over the past year and a half from bands like Pennywise, Oasis, REM, and Radiohead, are valuable to the artists because they build brand awareness.

By giving away free downloadable music, Reznor likely accomplished a few very important things: 1. he built buzz for his concert tour and potentially boosted ticket and merchandise sales, 2. he likely converted a few casual fans into “true fans” (the type that will pay for free music the next time around), and 3. he probably attracted new fans via a “look-in” audience — people who had never listened to Nine Inch Nails before but downloaded the album because there was no barrier to doing so (i.e., they didn’t cost anything).

Reznor clearly understands the value in building mindshare. Awareness translates to new fans, which means bigger returns on non-album revenue sources such as concert tickets, merchandise, and limited edition releases.

His latest stunt? This week Reznor put over 400GB of HD concert footage on BitTorrent. The footage comes from multiple cameras shot at three shows over his past tour, and Reznor announced the release via a note on his official web site. “I was contacted by a mysterious, shadowy group of subversives who SOMEHOW managed to film a substantial amount (over 400 GB!) of raw, unedited HD footage from three separate complete shows of our Lights in the Sky tour. Security must have been lacking at these shows because the quality of the footage is excellent,” he wrote. “If any of you could find a LINK to that footage I’ll bet some enterprising fans could assemble something pretty cool.”

NewTeeVee speculates that the wink, wink, nudge, nudge bit is likely due to the fact that the footage includes songs previously written while Reznor was under contract at Interscope records, and so he can’t legally give them out for free. While it’s unlikely that Reznor will see direct revenue from any fan mashups created using the “leaked” concert footage — which probably can’t be sold for the same reason he has to pretend he’s not behind the “leak,” it is likely that he’ll benefit yet again in terms of building awareness.

We concluded in July that “Reznor’s blueprint can work for any content creators that exist in the long tail. From music to novel writing to web applications, if your goal is to make a living from your craft, it may be possible to do so by cultivating a group of ‘true fans.'” We still believe that. Like Soulja Boy, Reznor is pioneering a new business model for the music industry. Unfortunately for the labels, the two are showing that a lot of this stuff can be done without their help.

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  • Jeannie

    Shame on you for completely ignoring Trent’s first foray into this model in 2007, in his collaboration with (production of) Saul Williams’ “The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust”. And then there’s Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” which preceeded all of those the same year. tsk, tsk ;)

  • This is a similar transparency that marketers like Seth Godin are suggesting businesses take with their customers/clients/etc.

  • @Jeannie: Well, I did mention Radiohead later in the article — Reznor has just done a lot more interesting stuff over the past year when it comes to alternative music distribution than Radiohead, imho. You’re right about Saul Williams, but Reznor is on record as saying he was disappointed with the results of that experiment (he was unhappy at how many people chose to pay the lowest amount, iirc). Certainly it probably informed his later experiments, though, so you’re right that I shouldn’t have omitted it.

  • markfiend

    The problem with Trent Reznor’s approach is that he (or NIN; it amounts to the same thing) has been a successful act through a traditional music-business route, and had a large enough fan-base already there before his decision to “go it alone” online without record-company backing. I’m not sure whether a similar approach would work for a new act.

  • superklye


    YOU are forgetting that Trent announced his intentions of doing the free album release first…only to have Radiohead swoop in and capitalize on the idea and get theirs out “first” and get the recognition for being pioneers in the music industry when it was really just a ploy to get you to pay for the full-quality audio because the “free” version was completely gimped in terms of audio quality and complete lack of any artwork.

    Trent Reznor calls Radiohead on their online offering


    I am also a solo artist. When you have no band to argue with, you can really put a lot of time into the business side of things. Ever seen Reznor in a video BEFORE NIN? He looks like the guy from A Flock Of Seagulls !!

  • moretea

    What markfiend said… It’s great to build mindshare if you’re a pop act with a large potential audience, but somehow I don’t see this approach working for, say, a jazz or classical artist. I could be mistaken though.