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Nine Inch Nails in the coffin of the music industry

04 March 2008

N.I.N: Nine Inch NailsNine Inch Nails (NIN) has taken Radiohead's digital distribution model and improved upon it.

NIN leader Trent Reznor has created a 36-track instrumental album called 'Ghosts I-IV'. The official website is providing the first nine tracks as a free download, and taking orders for the full album at a range of price points. If you're a hardcore fan, you can spend $300 on a signed edition that includes artwork prints, vinyl LPs and even the WAV files for each track so you can make your own remixes. If you just think the first nine tracks sound kinda interesting, the full album's yours to download for $5.

Some of the same problems remain: as with the Radiohead album launch, the website's fallen over. If bands want to take on digital distribution, they need to have web hosting that can cope with massive spikes in demand. Having a closer relationship with fans is great, but let's not forget that ultimately they're customers and they'll get angry if they can't download the stuff they've bought.

Some things are better this time around than with Radiohead: Firstly, there's much more clarity about what you're getting. One of my gripes with Radiohead was that they didn't tell people what file formats or DRM they might have to cope with in advance (MP3, and none, as it turned out). NIN offers several different download formats (MP3, FLAC and Apple Lossless), and is clear that there are no technical restrictions on copying or use.

Also, the band has put some real effort into making the download a desirable option. When you opened your zipped Radiohead album, all you got was a bunch of MP3s. When you open your NIN zip file, it's a bit more like the experience you have when you buy a CD. There's artwork there. There's stuff to read. Every song has its own photographic artwork, and there's a bunch of graphics you can use for wallpaper, or avatars or plugging the new album (see above). As someone brought up on records, tapes and CDs, the artwork and sleevenotes are an important part of the music experience for me. NIN understands that.

What about the music itself? Some of it (including the superb siren song at the start) works much better than other bits. Instrumental stuff is hard to pull off, and at first I thought that some of tracks didn't have a strong enough melody to be songs and didn't sustain or develop the ideas long enough to be considered ambient pieces, either. But it's growing on me, and third time through, I'm really enjoying it. I'm curious enough to hear the other 27 tracks that I'd consider buying them now. So it's been a successful promotion for me, then, considering yesterday I hadn't ever heard a NIN album and the only song I knew was Johnny Cash's heartbreaking cover of 'Hurt'.

The distribution model matches the creative work perfectly here: NIN can give away an album's worth of material, and still have something to sell. And selling the source tracks for remixing is a great idea: it's valuable content, that the band has already created, and which will encourage fans to have a more interactive relationship with the work. It will lead to fan remixes, which will in turn promote the original album.

The band sold out of its super-special $300 edition in under two days. That's $750,000 worth of business the band has taken without any of it going through the conventional music industry. Clearly, there are significant costs involved in creating these lavish box sets and that's not all profit. But as with Prince and Radiohead, NIN has shown that it doesn't need the music industry to sell music. Or, at least, it doesn't need the industry any more.

UPDATE: You have to go through the ordering process to discover that the $10 CDs cost $13.50 in postage to the UK, which is a lot more than I'd ever pay for P&P at Amazon. The CDs are cheap enough that the double album still only costs about £12 including postage to the UK, but that's more than I'd usually gamble on an album I'm just curious about. The postage makes the CD a significantly less attractive option than downloading the lot for £2.50, so perhaps I'll do that instead.


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