(First, that title isn’t meant to be a criticism. Trust me. But go here if you’d like some context.)
Among the other joys of my birthday was discovering that one Mr. Reznor had decided to release a new album out of the blue (or almost out of the blue — there’d been a cryptic ‘two weeks’ comment on his site that amount of time prior to Sunday, so something was going to be up; I actually think he might not have even needed to do that, but more later). Among the slight sorrows, though, was the realization that nobody had expected demand to be the insanely high thing it was — both Trent and his official minions had various ‘whoops, sorry folks’ messages up on the main site and the store and album sites saying as much only a few hours after the announcement, and it wasn’t until over a day later that everything was running smoothly.
Which it did, and this morning I was able to download the album (Apple Lossless format at $5), and I’m giving it my first listen now. More concrete thoughts on that will appear at the end of this post, as well as a possible follow-up, but there’s much more to talk about right now, because this, ultimately, may well be the turning point for early 21st century music distribution…maybe.
The problem with hyperbole, of course, is just that — it is hyperbolic and it doesn’t necessarily bear any relation to reality. So my claim just now had best be regarded with several lumps of salt. In taking the time to think about this album over the past couple of days, though — its existence and its availability and much more besides — the sense of a real moment has been settling in, something that can’t not be noticed with interest, concern, fear, celebration — a lot of different things.
Let’s get one thing out of the way now, though — the Radiohead comparison. Which is logical, because the controlled leak of In Rainbows was the story of late last year on the music business front, and still represents a way forward. As a combination promotional tool, excitement builder and a careful leveraging of resources, ranging from the group’s Internet infrastructure to the passion of its fanbase, In Rainbows was a stroke of genius — and any of you following my countdown to the release knows that I was happily caught up in it all as well.
It was around this time that Trent announced his departure from Interscope, leaving with a not-bad-at-all remix album for Year Zero, noting Radiohead’s move and speculating where things might go next. In this regard his most important release since wasn’t Ghosts I-IV but the Reznor-produced Saul Williams album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, which was made available in two basic options — a temporary free download at a passable mp3 bitrate (much like the Radiohead option, which was also the only choice aside from the full limited edition release) or a charge of $5 for a variety of download options, from higher bitrates to FLAC files). It wasn’t a blockbuster — Reznor and Williams clearly had no illusions it would be, as well as knowing that a large amount of interest would be generated solely because of Reznor’s fanbase — but it did work well enough.
And so now Ghosts I-IV, which as a full-on NIN release unsurprisingly has generated a slew of attention, god knows exactly how much Internet traffic and most notably the widest variety of ordering options yet for a high-profile release like this — as you can see from the order page, there are a total of five, including one that’s not available any more which I’ll discuss more in a bit.
It’s all early days still, and trying to make a unified essay out of it all is a bit much for me right now, so instead let me dwell on a variety of observations to make:
* This is still an established artist’s privilege, first and foremost — a pat thing to say, but to spell it out: let’s say that a group out of nowhere offered its debut album in the fashion given here, including the limited editions and all that. Exactly how far do you think they’ll get? In contrast, in NIN we have the example of an established band, musician, brand and more — now almost two decades in the public eye, high profile at every step of the way, packing out arenas and so forth for the last few tours — able to command a fanatical loyalty that isn’t a matter of assumption but utterly demonstrable via the demand for downloads and other bits of evidence. Ignoring that loyalty or shrugging it off is a stupid assumption to make, so don’t make it — right now, most of the working musicians in this world would love to have this kind of attention and following.
* A record label is unneeded — the corporate entity releasing this project is simply ‘The Null Corporation,’ an obvious reference to the old Nothing label setup with Interscope and just as obviously Reznor’s own self-contained unit. Where Radiohead contracted with a Dave Matthews-affiliated label to formally release In Rainbows, right now it seems like there’s no need or reason for Reznor to go that kind of route. Realistically, why should he? Why would he need to? What would be the point? To get the product into the stores? To spread the word via radio marketing? To drum up interest in a tour? These questions all answer themselves at this point, and while they are extensions of the kind of fanbase-supported labels and band ventures that have long been commonplace for new and old bands alike, it is the scale here that is the difference. This approach will be copied as swiftly as possible by established bands and singers wanting to pull the plug on their own contracts or otherwise seeking alternate options.
[EDIT: this said, ILXor Creeztophair did notice something I'd missed, that the album will be available in some sort of retail form in April via 'an exciting partnership and experience,' which sounds wonderfully plummy and ridiculous. I almost hope it's through Hot Topic for the hell of it.]
* iTunes is unneeded — in ways, this is actually the bolder move, though conditionally so. The fact that one can also order mp3s (and that’s it) of the album through Amazon’s music service shows that Reznor is hardly averse to working with a larger organization where it can be helpful, and in fact this was the only way to get the album during the initial day and a half of main site swamping. So a little corporate power isn’t being sniffed at here — but again, it was through Amazon, *not* iTunes, which clearly wants to be music central and is now among the top retailers for it around. Rightly, the order options indicate which files can and can’t be played in iTunes without conversion — Reznor knows what software nearly everyone’s using — but that’s the extent of it. Now imagine, knowing what he now knows demand will be like for whatever his next release is — especially since it’ll presumably be something with vocals and straight-ahead anthems as is his wont — why he would want to pair up with iTunes (OR Amazon) when he could just acquire some more server space upfront and go to town.
* You don’t need anticipation — Radiohead did a ten-day delay, got people talking, got critics wondering, the thing became a huge enough news story, and so forth. His one little post aside as noted, Trent basically said, “Here ya go” and that was that. Both demonstrated that the established promotional/run-up to release process could be readily ignored but NIN have taken it to a logical conclusion — you’ve recorded something and have it ready? Put it up. Now, this in and of itself isn’t new — all you have to do these days is put music up on a Myspace page or something similar as you record and release it, if you don’t want to strain your own site. But you can just as easily make it an event, as formal as you want it to be, and this clearly is a formal release. And again, anticipation? Sure, it’s exciting to wait, but Reznor knows that he’s at a time where everyone wants something now, so now it is.
* You don’t have to adhere to a fanbase expectation — this is, after all, an instrumental album, where NIN has gained so much of its reputation for its perfect shout/scream/angstathons. Hey, it’s how I first got into the band back in 1990 or so, and anybody who discovered them via the With Teeth singles would have had the same visceral reaction (if they liked what they heard!). Of course, at the same time Trent has the ability to afford avoiding adherence. To put this into some context — bands like Marillion and Einsturzende Neubaten, to name two examples of many, have exercised the option where fans contribute money towards recording and manufacturing costs of releases. However, going that route, which seems logical on the face of it, can create a vicious circle — do fans want you to simply repeat what you’ve already done? Will they accept you trying something totally different? If they don’t like the results, will they be so interested in the next time around? Rather than doing that, Reznor got into the studio with his preferred collaborators — Alan Moulder again does production, Atticus Ross as cowriter of every track, Adrian Belew guesting on guitar on many songs and so forth — and did whatever the hell he wanted to do in the belief that people would be interested in whatever it was he did. He said up front it was an instrumental album and people did in fact go for it.
* You can embrace ‘piracy’ and still make a hell of a lot of money — this might actually be the real stroke of genius here, with, again, the clear caveat that this is because Reznor is established and well-off enough to be able to make this work for him. Break down those ordering options a bit — you’ll note that on the one hand he’s offering the first nine tracks as a free direct download; elsewhere, he’s directing folks to grab high-quality mp3s straight through one of the highest profile torrent sites around, the Pirate Bay. Having recently come under fire legally, for them to have Reznor not merely in their corner but as an active participant is a perfect middle finger back — artist and distribution site allied for mutual benefit, and Reznor himself neither under illusions that all of Ghosts won’t be copied and shared, even though he only shared those first nine songs directly, nor standing on ceremony when it comes to copyright. As the release notes indicate, Ghosts I-IV has been released under a Creative Commons license, similar to what I do with my photos on Flickr. That’s pretty sharp all around.
So where does the hell of a lot of money come in? Easy — there’s that $300 limited edition package that was also offered, with each package containing the full album on both vinyl and CD, a separate CD of data and multitracks, a Blu-Ray disc, tons of photographs, Mr. Reznor’s autograph, etc. etc. Tchochtkes galore, and I’m sure more than a few people thought he was nuts and that whoever working for him was nuts. Certainly I looked that price tag, shook my head and shrugged.
But having been put on offer the evening of March 2, it had fully sold out by the morning of March 4. Like that, the Null Corporation had raked in a jaw-dropping $750,000 from the sale of 2500 album packages.
Again, fanatic fanbase, established artist, etc. I keep having to say it because it can’t be ignored. But *think about that* — three quarters of a million directly to Trent and whoever he has on his staff and whoever he pays his bills to (including of course manufacture of the packages — which aren’t going to eat up all that cost by any stretch of the imagination). And that was just the hyper-limited edition — now add in the straight downloads, the CD pre-orders, the slightly fancier CD deluxe edition, all the money to be made from those, straight to him and his accountants or whoever. I don’t think any American artist has it quite so good right now and I’d be surprised if anyone else in the world does either.
So all that said — how’s about the music? I’m now mostly finished on my first listen through it all, and it’s very enjoyable. I had actually figured shortly after hearing it was a lengthy instrumental album that this might well be his Selected Ambient Works Volume II, some kind of monumental release with extended meditations and explorations. It isn’t, and part of me is kinda disappointed, but that’s really by means of comparison (let’s face it, if I’m thinking about that as the role model, almost everything else will suffer!) — taking it as it stands, it’s a grand mix, touching on everything from more immediately obvious fragments and sketches to anthems without lyrics, from contemplation to swagger. As such it’s an extension of Reznor’s recent work more than anything else, though in its quieter moments especially it suggests the musical approach he’d embraced on The Fragile and then left behind for subsequent efforts, something which I’m glad to see him work on again.
Beyond that, though, I have little to immediately say about Ghosts I-IV artistically — not that I can’t, just that these are my first quick impressions after a still incomplete listen (I have about three tracks to go). But given what I’ve discussed, I’ve no doubt that this, Reznor’s least immediately accessible ever, might well also be his most important, for what it is more than for what it sounds like. Time will tell, and I can’t wait to see what surprises me next.