BitDepth 621 - April 01

Nine Inch Nail's Trent Reznor is aggressively pushing alternate distribution methods for online music.
Another way to sell music

Wallpaper from the NIN Ghosts I-IV online release.

For a musician trying to sell the product of their efforts, there has never been a more confusing time to sell recorded music than today. But there has also never been more empowering opportunities for bands and musicians.
All you have to do, apparently, is think harder and smarter than a big record label would about what the market wants.
While the big five music labels increasingly pursue an ever shrinking business model, deftly sidestepping the deathblow thud that echoed through the American music industry with the closure of the Tower Records chain of stores, savvy musicians have begun exploring new channels for releasing their work.

A few months ago, I bought a copy of Radiohead’s In Rainbows album. At the end of their contract with EMI, didn’t feel any pressure to put their new songs out on a CD and rush it into stores, so they sold it themselves online.
It isn’t strictly true to say that I bought the album. The online setup was a bit rickety and refused my first attempt to pay US$5 for the download, but authorised the transaction anyway.
I went back through the process again, but found myself locked out as a “previous customer.” An e-mail to customer support suggesting a donation box went unanswered.

Music direct
In Rainbows, released in DRM-free MP3 format (160 kbps) is believed to have been downloaded more than a million times during the short time the album was available on the band operated website (October to mid-December 2007). Roughly one third of those who downloaded paid nothing or close to it, and the average sale was 4. Radiohead has since released a physical “discbox” version and the album is available for download on both the iTunes and Amazon music stores. The current price is US$7.99 for the ten track album.
My second adventure with an online independent release was Nine Inch Nails’ Ghosts, an experimental 36 track release of instrumentals from a band that hovers on the edge of the rock mainstream. NIN, as it is better known, occupies a merciless sector of industrial rock that’s home to at least one other well-known band, Tool. Both bands have had mainstream success but their collective ouvre is very much an acquired taste if your idea of rock is Greenday or My Chemical Romance.

NIN frontman Trent Reznor hasn’t demonstrated a lot of patience with the music industry as it exists today. He’s sued his first record company, snubbed the MTV Music Awards 2005, issued a cease and desist order to Fox News over the use of three of his songs in a military documentary and leaked three tracks from his last release, Year Zero on USB flash drives at concerts, which prompted a crackdown by the RIAA.
Running differences of opinion between Reznor and Interscope Records/Universal Music Group led to the end of the band-label relationship after the release of Year Zero. Reznor is said to have declared the pricing of Year Zero as “absurd” and the musician has urged fans to steal the music at concerts.
In November 2007, Reznor produced the passionately confrontational online album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! by African-American poet Saul Williams.
The Williams release presaged much of the spirit of the Ghosts release. Both sell online for US$5. Visitors to the Niggy Tardust site at first had an option to just take the album for free, but that option has since been removed.
Both Ghosts and the Williams release include embedded album art, song tags and a PDF with liner notes.

Having the experience
All these releases beg the question...what’s it worth? 
Radiohead has declined to release hard figures on the online sales of In Rainbows, but Ghosts will be released as a traditional two-CD set for $10, a deluxe edition which includes a Blu-Ray high def audio version for $75 and an ultra-deluxe edition signed by Reznor and limited to 2500 copies.
The ultra-deluxe edition sold out in three days, and the release is reported to have netted US$1.6 million in its first week of release, with at least a third of the take coming from the limited edition, which sold out in three days.

My own experience with this music has been satisfying. Reckoning, from In Rainbows, is one of the most beautiful and haunting songs I’ve heard from Radiohead in years. Niggy Stardust is contemplative rap-rock, imagine a thoughtful Rage against the Machine and you’re in the ballpark. Ghosts alternates between brilliance and tentative blippy stumbles, but when it clicks and Reznor and his collaborators find the groove amid the clicks and snarls as they do on the tracks 8 Ghosts I, 24 Ghosts III, 31 Ghosts IV, the album soars beyond being irritated ambient.
It’s unclear how much of an impact these releases will have on traditional music sales channels. Radiohead has moved sales of In Rainbows to more traditional outlets and Reznor is said to have been disappointed with the number of downloaders who opted not to pay for Williams’ album when the free option existed.
The days of the music industry middleman may not be over, but for some bands, other ways of selling music are becoming potentially viable.

Ghosts online
The Niggy Tardust Project
blog comments powered by Disqus