Thursday, July 09, 2009

Trent Reznor Interview: Music Is Free

UPDATE (1-22-08) at 2:25 p.m.: More than a week after this story was published, Trent Reznor accused CNET of misquoting him about the issue of a music tax on ISPs. We have posted an audio excerpt of the Reznor interview here. For the sake of full disclosure, we have also updated this story to include the text of what he said following his remarks about the ISP tax.

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. (To see an interview with Williams, published Friday, click here: "Unlike Trent Reznor, Saul Williams isn't disheartened.")

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), 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."
Someone asked me recently whether I've used 4-1-1 lately. I said 'Not really." They said do you know you're paying for that every month? 'I am?' Yeah, X-amount of your money goes to a service that you don't even use.'

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.
In a separate interview with Saul Williams, the rapper and spoken-word artist has a very different take on the sales performance of NiggyTardust than Reznor. That interview will appear on CNET on Friday.


Thomma Lyn said...

Fascinating interview -- thanks for posting it. I've long been a fan of Trent Reznor / Nine Inch Nails. And the music scene has certainly changed a great deal since his early days.

Candy Minx said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Candy Minx said...

Hi Thomma Lyn, I'm so glad you watched this interview. I think what Reznor says has resonance with musicians and artists and writers so profoundly right now. Reznor is a perfect case study for the way music and trends occur within art and in the past 20 years. I imagine that any musician out there has watched with the same rapture I did this video. It has a word-of-mouth with musicians. What he is digging into is beyond style or genre of's part of the grass roots movement that music has always had...and that has now slowly slipped away from the control of marketers and corporations.

His insight and observations go further than music. I have always felt art was free and it was some kind of a con game to get into a gallery system, to desire to sell art at ridiculously huge prices. I don't believe ANY painting is worth more than a 1000 dollars. And maybe I might even admit to saying...a couple hundred is going too far in art pricing.


Art is free too. People have images all over their homes.

BUT...they aren't going to galleries to get those images. Galleries are for an upper level of income. And they serve a corporate mentality towards profit and images. They aren't for us to absorb images into our homes. How do we communicate narratives and get them into peoples homes? It's a different business completely that the art worlds mandate..

In the same way that Reznor says a new artist has to ask themselves..."what are they wanting to be?" and "how do they see themselves"...visual, audio design artists are wells erved to ask themselves the same question.

Reznor says if you want to be Justin Timeberlake or a Christina Aguilera...then you pretty much should go with a major record label as your goal.

If someone wants to be Jeff Koons (who aimed from very early on to be Warhol) then go with galleries.

But if you are creating audio and imagery that isn't part of the mainstream then explore a different pathway to reach an audience.

He is brilliant and he is mirroring what is already long happened in the visual arts and recording arts. People have sought out alternatives. And for someone like me that believes the art world is a snake oil factory...well his words are really refreshing.

Reznor is interesting because he hit the mainstream because of the fortune of counter-culture movement of goths growing from the late 70's and the 80' a fairly desperte and hungry society of young people dressing as goths and trying to find something legitimate and sincere to and look at. AND Reznor did it with the goal of being an alternative music maybe only selling less than 100,000 records. He was very lucky in his cultural time period and experience to hit that mark in music history and cultural desire.

So he is able to sincerely say "follow your vision".

This works with you in publishing Thomma Lyn, that you are part of an alternative culture of publishing and reading...which is growing so fast it's almost "mainstream". So I can imagine how anyone trying to be true to themselves...with their work would find a lot of inspiration from this interview.

I'm keeping it on my blog as recent post for a few days because I think anyone working visual, audio or literary narrative should watch this video.

X. Dell said...

Actually, if a new band had the same numbers, they would have profitted a far sight more than had they sold it through a major or dependent labels (i.e., labels that have P&D deals with majors, or are owned by them in whole or part).

For an established artist, the numbers could be somewhat deceptive. Some in the music industry use the "free cheese" analogy to explain what's going on. Say you're at a supermarket, and someone offers you a free sample of cheese. You take it. Whether or not you actually bought the cheese is another issue. The vast majority of the time, I don't buy the product given to me as a free sample, because I neither need nor want it. Does anyone buy always (or even usually) buy the product they've just sampled? Especially if they neither need it nor want it?

In this case, Reznor's assuming that the number of downloads equals the potential (or blown) sales of NiggyTardust. That's probably not true. It's likely that most of those who downloaded, and didn't pay (or paid a negligible amount--you compensation under $5 isn't spelled out) wouldn't have bought the album at all, or perhaps might have bought a couple of tracks off of iTunes or some other vendor. They simply downloaded it because it was there for the taking.

One could say that without major label publicity, Reznor's bunch might have lost greater exporsure, thus creating less enthusiasm for the project. But I can't recall something that generated the pre-release publicity that this did.

So in short, the album didn't sell particularly well in terms of a major label act. In fact, sales of 155,000 wouldn't have paid them enough in mechanical royalties to offset the potential advance on the album--and most likely, that was a greatly inflated figure.

On the other hand, by cutting out the middleman, they garnered some kudos and still made six figures off an album that wasn't their most popular.

But that's just a start.

The potential of the material for touring and merchandising is just beginning. And publishing royalties could accrue because the songs are more out in the public than they were before.

On the whole, Reznor might be disappointed to some extent. But realistically, his experiment was a success.