The iJamming! Weekly Download: Nine Inch Nails

Of all the acts who’ve recently declared themselves “free agents” of late, I’m most intrigued by the actions of Trent Reznor, a.k.a. Nine Inch Nails. Trent long ago proved himself that very rare exception to almost every music industry rule: an uncompromising, antagonizing, seemingly uncommercial artiste capable of selling millions of albums. Such sales have netted Reznor considerable wealth, enabling him to run out his contract with Interscope Records and embark on a series of online experiments. These began with the distribution of older tracks in downloadable files for fans to remix and upload – exactly the kind of thing that, were I 20 or 25 years younger, with sufficient time on my hands, I would have eagerly jumped on. Then, late last year, Trent made available his production of techno-rapper Saul Williams’ album The Inevitable Rise And Liberation Of Niggy Tardust in two price options: either entirely free, or for $5. Though he was “disappointed” that 80% of downloaders took it for free, he’s nonetheless followed a similar path for his first, label-free project: a series of instrumentals under the name of Ghosts I-IV.

The price structure is as intriguing as it is complex. First up, you can stream the music at his web site. (Interestingly, the tracks come at you randomly; this is clearly not a project that must be heard in sequence.) Secondly, you can download Ghosts I (in nine parts, approximately thirty minutes of music) for free, right away, providing nothing more than a functioning e-mail address. With your download, you also get a full pdf folder with some forty-odd visual images, in considerably larger format than you’d find them on an old-fashioned CD sleeve.

Then come the financial options. $5 nets you all 36 instrumentals from Ghosts I-IV for instant download. $10 gets you the same music on two CDs with a 16-page booklet. $75 gets you two audio CDs, a DVD and a Blu-ray disc in hi-definition. And $300 would have gotten you a super limited edition package, hand-autographed, with vinyl, extra visuals and perhaps some of Trent Rezner’s saliva on the envelope – if you’d gotten your order in on time. I.e., it’s already sold out.

Why are some people willing to pay $300 for a limited edition Nine Inch Nails package but most people will take a Saul Williams album for free? Simple: brand loyalty. Fans who feel like they’ve been treated fairly over the years by their favorite musicians will demonstrate their devotion via their wallets (typically via expensive concert tickets but, I suspect, more and more we’ll see these kind of limited edition online packages and fee-paying web sites). At the same time, they would prefer to sample an unproven new artist’s music (e.g. Saul Williams) for free. This microcosm of global capitalism – the rich get richer, the poor stay poor – may not have our collective goal when we all started embracing the Internet, but even Saul Williams should be happy that his music got out to that many more people than in the past. And if Niggy Tardust was good enough, he’ll make it back from some of those freeloaders in other ways down the line.

Unlike Radiohead with In Rainbows, Reznor has already announced the financial results of this experiment. In its first week, Ghosts generated 800,000 transactions, and $1.6 million in income. Not a bad return on ten weeks’ work with friends in a home studio. And yet not so much money, once you factor in manufacturing costs for the physical orders, distribution amongst other musicians for what was collectively a year’s worth of work, web site bandwidth etc., that you need feel envious. Certainly, Reznor is pleased. As he wrote yesterday on his web site,

We are all amazed at the reaction for what we assumed would be a quiet curiosity in the NIN catalog. My faith in all of you has been restored – let’s all go have coffee somewhere (my treat)!

Actually, Trent’s treat is to take the project a logical step further. He’s already uploaded many individual parts of Ghosts for registered site users to remix. He’s now inviting people to make films to accompany the music, which he will shortlist and present as some kind of “festival.” This is the kind of interactivity I always hoped for when I first got enthused by the Internet, and I’m thrilled to see an act of Reznor’s stature getting so thoroughly engaged in (and excited by) the possibilities.

trent.jpg One of the many images included in the Ghosts downloadable pdf folder.

In fact Reznor raises what is, for me, one of the most fascinating questions of all: is the music journalist or DJ any more obliged to buy a piece of music when there’s no longer a record company to supply it for free? Back when Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails signed to TVT in 1989, I was friends with a lot of people around the act, and treated as a possibly influential taste-maker. I was personally driven by the label’s President to see Nine Inch Nails perform one of its first shows in New Jersey. I was inundated with various promo copies of the debut album and its many remixes. Having duly championed the act, in print and as a DJ and on Rapido, I could always call up for free concert tickets; around the time of 1994’s The Downward Spiral, I was so overwhelmed with advance copies in multiple formats that I was mildly disappointed not to receive a birthday card and massage as part of the presentation!

Through all that process there was an implicit understanding of the quid-pro-quo. The freebies came from the record label and other business people as part of their job. If they could get the likes of me to favorably write about or play Nine Inch Nails, presumably they would sell more overpriced CDs and, in an ideal world, Reznor would get more royalties. But with his loyal fanbase, Reznor no longer need a label, or even a publicist, to send out free music to journalists and DJs, not when he’s giving thirty minutes of it away to the whole wide world. And so, after all these years, am I really such a freeloader that I can’t afford $5 for an extra hour of music? Especially if that money is going straight to the artist? For while it’s the job of record company promo departments to give journalists and DJs free music, it’s the job of musicians to make that music. And if the record companies aren’t going to pay them for it then we, the public, have to do so instead.

In the case of Radiohead, I wasn’t willing to pay for In Rainbows because I wasn’t enough of a fan. In fact, I’d bought Amnesia and Kid A at retail years earlier and, eminently disappointed, saw the In Rainbows free download as an overdue opportunity to get something for my investment. But in Reznor’s case, it’s different. Though I’ve become somewhat tired of Nine Inch Nails’ vocal music over the years (I grew out of my angst), I love the remixes and the purely instrumental stuff. It’s the kind of music I enjoy having on while writing.

Ghosts I, which I downloaded freely and legally last weekend, is experimental electronic instrumental music close to its finest: layered, textured, emotive, shaded, pervasive, persuasive and, above all, varied. There are times when everything comes crunching down on the listener with such velocity you know it couldn’t be anyone but Trent at the helm. There are other times where you hear more closely the influence of his partners: “Atticus Ross, Alan Moulder with some help from Alessandro Cortini, Adrian Belew and Brian Viglione.” Some of it is ambient, some of it quirky, there’s plenty interesting guitar work amidst the processed sounds, and it’s always evident that this is neither music for airports nor electronics for beginners. I’m not going to get into a detailed analysis of the differences between “1 Ghosts I” and “9 Ghosts I” because that kind of misses the point: if you want to hear it for yourself, just head on over to and use the pop-up player. And if you like what you hear, Ghosts I is there for the taking. Me, I’m happy to give Trent, direct, $5 of my money for the extra three pieces, partly because I’m enjoying what I’m hearing, and partly as a tip, a way of saying thanks for all the prior music and for being willing to embark on this experiment. It’s almost like buying him a drink. Cheers.

WINE: Prove to yourself how easy it is to do quality on the cheap. Visit your local warehouse store, search out a reduced bargain like the Domaine Chèze Vin de Pays Collines des Rhodaniens Marsanne 2004, itself a layered, textured piece of work, and toast your good fortune.

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