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Nine Inch Nails, Radiohead, Free Music and Creative Competition 

Trade your heroes for ghosts

Wednesday, May 28 2008
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Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor is best when angry, and in the continued failures of the music industry and in the actions of 1990s competitor Radiohead he finds fruitful rivalry to fuel his musical and business innovations. His latest protest art and socioeconomic commentary came on May 5 with the release of TheSlip. It was an unannounced, unexpected, Internet-only follow-up to the February instrumental NIN album, Ghosts I-IV, and a general upbraid to what Reznor called “insincere” and many others called “revolutionary” distribution efforts of his 1990s alt-rock rivals Radiohead for their October 2007 In Rainbows album. Musically, it’s his most adventurous work since The Fragile, and his business model is inspired — if unsustainable. It is not meant to be a solution but rather a continued provocation of power, and a meditation on the meaning of making commercial art in a remix society; themes he’s been developing for 18 years but given special import in today’s legal climate.

(Click to enlarge)

click to enlarge Trent Reznor, collapsing into the digital world.
  • Trent Reznor, collapsing into the digital world.

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Trent Reznor, collapsing into the digital world.

Last fall, Radiohead promoted their new album, In Rainbows, by offering it first for download on a sliding-scale fee, a move that further darkened spirits among major-label record companies for the health of the CD format. Shortly after, during an interview with the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, Reznor called Radiohead’s distribution strategy a “bait and switch,” which he said was “to get you to pay for a MySpace-quality stream as a way to promote a very traditional record sale.” The Slip is Reznor’s solution — however temporary — to the problem of how a top-tier artist ought to release his art: not just free of charge but free of copyright chains.

Reznor’s creative and commercial beef with Radiohead has been nearly a decade in the making. Both Radiohead and Reznor spent the latter half of the 1990s doing credibility damage control after mainstream success, but Radiohead was much more successful with credibility, while Reznor was much more successful in sales. After 1994’s multimillion Downward Spiral success, The Fragile was a difficult two-disc concept album considered a commercial failure, a fact that soured his once-happy relations with Interscope Records. Radiohead’s Kid A won all critical acclaim at that same time, while at least initially selling fewer copies. (Kid A has since outpaced The Fragile, selling 1.25 million copies to NIN’s 950,000.) Reznor saw himself as a pop innovator of equal stature to Radiohead and wanted to be evaluated on aesthetic terms instead of being put in an alt-rock big-sales box along with faded grunge rockers and post-NIN nü-metal bands.

The Slip can be seen as Reznor’s latest attempt to win the cred war with Radiohead. On an armchair Freudian level, it seems that both albums are continued bids to inherit the anticorporate prog-rock kingdom cynically offered to them in their respective boyhood listens to Pink Floyd’s 1975 single “Welcome to the Machine.” On the synths (ondes Martenot be damned), cynicism and progressive business models at least, Reznor is taking the lead. The Slip is available for free with registration in three qualities of musical format — MP3, Lossless or 24-bit WAV file — and the master tracks were available through Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails Remix Web site. Initial press releases speculated that The Slip would be in physical format in July 2008, but that was unconfirmed at press time.

More revolutionary is Reznor’s decision to license The Slip as an “attribution noncommercial share-alike,” which means that any part of the music can be used by anyone for any noncommercial purpose. The language of this license comes from Creative Commons, a nonprofit organization dedicated to educating creative producers about intellectual-property licensing. Creative Commons has become a centerpiece of the free-culture movement, which promotes creativity through artist-centered, controlled sharing of intellectual products.

Reznor left Universal Music Group in October 2007 and in November fought the label to put multitrack recordings of his albums online for remix by fans. As Universal owned Nine Inch Nails’ master tapes, this move was seen as detrimental to the company’s copyright-infringement case against YouTube and MySpace, and was rejected. On the 27th of that month, Reznor posted on his nin.com blog the following message: “Sometimes you just have to say ... ‘fuck it.’ The remix site is UP! Have fun.”

The NIN remix site hosts multitrack recordings, in GarageBand, Ableton Live and raw WAV formats, of Nine Inch Nails and a few tracks from the Reznor-produced album by Saul Williams. The resulting hundreds of fans’ remixes, as well as those by Reznor and other professional remixers, are then hosted on the site. The site’s FAQ section includes the disclaimer in obvious if unfriendly deference to Universal’s legal department: “You CANNOT include samples of songs by other artists, or samples from movies, TV shows or video games. Any remixes containing these elements will be rejected during the approval process. Please understand that it is not our wish to impose these restrictions on your creativity or the functionality of this site, but we have no choice in the matter.”

The NIN remix site is a prime example of what legal scholar and Creative Commons founding member Lawrence Lessig calls “remix culture,” the encouragement of derivative works from a founding source of creative content. Lessig contrasts this to “permission culture,” where owners must give explicit approval for works deriving from an original. For Reznor, whose hugely successful 1990s music career began with the words “I’d rather die/than give you control” — screamed in rage to TVT label boss Steve Gottlieb — permission for creative control has been a big, ugly and unresolved issue. Now Reznor has given it all to his fans.

The same with The Slip, which Reznor announced on his Web site informally as if it were a drink buyback for an old friend with the words, “Thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years — this one’s on me.” He means it literally, as no capital was directly earned from the album — and producers Alan Moulder, Michael Tuller, Atticus Ross (not to mention the band, who played on this album, unlike on Ghosts) presumably don’t work for free. Industry experts chalk it up to “promotion” for his upcoming U.S. summer tour — those have always been successes — but interviews with Reznor himself point to the fact that he, like many disgruntled top-tier musicians in today’s industry, does not know exactly what he’s doing. In an October 2007 interview with AppleSource, Reznor admitted that he didn’t know “what the future holds” for career musicians like himself but was excited by the democratization of distribution and ease of musical exploration afforded by Internet technology. He concluded a tirade against the music industry with the statement, “My only concern has always been that my audience is treated fairly.” He is operating as a free agent, his steps unsure but entirely his own.

In an era when musical artists have turned into “lifestyle brands” and fan loyalty has become the only guarantor of revenue, Reznor is not just puffing air about serving fans first. Indeed, it seems that the intimacy-in-distance approach the Internet affords is exactly in sync with Reznor’s aesthetic, prompting his early and constant interaction with fans in what they have come to call “the nin-ternet”; a long-running online ring of threads, message boards and fan Web sites and, now, the official Spiral fan site, which connects hundreds of thousands of loyal listeners into a community. [Disclaimer: I am a member of The Spiral and am writing the book Pretty Hate Machine for Continuum’s 33 1/3 Series.]

With a nearly two-decade aesthetic that embraces technology for creative alternative-community building while cautioning for human dignity in its use, Reznor was primed for this moment. Laced with hazard and revolutionary potential, now is the musical and commercial moment Reznor has always been waiting for, and thus at 18 years of age, Nine Inch Nails has finally found its ideal situation, even if it still has to compete with the music-biz jocks and Radiohead cool kids.

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