Thursday, May 08, 2008

NIN and the Future of Music

Years ago a little program revolutionized the music world. Its name was Napster.

Napster wasn't the first way to find music on the internet. Usenet and IRC had been around for years. However, both of those solutions required a bit of tech-know-how to use and were not accessible to the mainstream user. Enter Napster. A clean, easy to understand interface and instant access for millions of people (many of them college students) to begin sharing and downloading music was born.

Along came Metallica and the RIAA.

Sure, they weren't the only ones, but they became the most vocal. Lawsuits ensued, the service was shut down, the RIAA declared victory and then realized that, just like Obi-Wan Kenobi, "If you strike [it] down, [it] shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine."

Dozens of alternatives to Napster sprung up in the wake of the ruling. Audio Galaxy, Scour Exchange, Soulseek and others filled the gaps. As these were all services with centralized servers, a new generation of peer to peer programs appeared, without centralized servers, allowing true direct peer to peer connection to download, such as Gnutella, eDonkey, and Kazaa. As the RIAA continues to kick against the pricks, new ways to find music in the internet continue to flourish.

This article has nothing to do with the legality or morality of downloading music. Let's just establish that here and now.

What I find most disconcerting is the "head in the sand" attitude that the RIAA as a whole, and many artists and labels seem to have about downloading. Digital music is not just the future of music, it is the present as well. Apple has made itself a household name based on the premise that people want to be able to have access to lots of music, all the time. This can only happen with digital music. Heck, my very nice (at the time I got it) Sony Discman has been buried in a drawer of mine for over 2 years now. And this certainly isn't because I don't love music.

The truth, as I see it, is you cannot win out against downloading. It has proliferated since the RIAA decided to crusade against it, and shows no signs of slowing down. Intelligent artists and labels should be using it to help themselves, instead of insisting it is going to lead to the ruin of music as we know it.

Sadly, very few of them are doing just that. Yet there are pioneers.

Radiohead released their album In Rainbows to the internet last October, allowing people to pick their own price. While the figures have not been widely released, there is no question that Radiohead did well with their effort. Saul Williams released his third album in digital format, allowing people to download for free or for $5. While not a rousing success, it is worth noting that nearly 30,000 people have payed the $5 to purchase the album (released in Nov 2007) as compared to the 30,000 who have purchased his previous release since 2004.

But the most overwhelming success is that of Trent Reznor. The mastermind behind Nine Inch Nails, Reznor has very publicly spoken out against the recording industry and, after his release of Year Zero in 2007, severed all ties with his label and declared his forthcoming material would be self-published and released. In the beginning of March 2008, Ghosts I-VI was released. Ghost I was available free for download to anyone who wanted. If you wanted to download the other 3 albums, all that was asked was $5. If you wanted more than that (physical media, collector's sets), there were plenty of options.

Think about that for a minute. $5 for 36 songs. Each of the downloaded tracks had unique album art embedded in the tag, was at a high quality, and was ready to be loaded into iTunes (or your digital jukebox of choice: foobar2000 for me) and loaded onto your digital device. No DRM, no need to authorize your computer to play the song (iTunes, I'm looking sternly in your direction), and no limit to the type of player you could play it on. Want to burn them to a CD? Go for it. No problem. But how did this work out for Reznor? All we have are the first week's figures: Reznor took home $1.6 million in sales and scored 781,917 total transactions.

Does this include everyone who downloaded the album? Of course not. There are probably many more who downloaded the album for free from some other source. But can anyone call that a failure? I think not. And now, two months later, Reznor has again spit in the face of the RIAA and released The Slip. Another full album, this one is free in a variety of formats that will appeal to the most casual listener or to the most hard-core audiophile (24/96 WAV format is much higher quality than you could even get on a physical CD). Again, each track has unique album art embedded in the tag, the download comes with a .pdf file of the albums booklet. Physical copies will be available in a couple of months as well. According to Trent "this one is on me."

Why do this? In the first place, NIN is in that upper echelon of bands that could pull this off. There needs to be a certain, dedicated fan base who will, out of loyalty and love for the music, support the artist. The beauty of it, though, is that now Trent Reznor has complete control over his music. He controls the quality of what is available for download on the net, he certainly gains new fans as this album is spread around and talked about (heck, I would never have said I was a NIN fan, but here I am devoting time and energy to talk about Reznor). He has no middle man sucking him dry, telling him how and what to do. He has no contractual obligations to fulfill. The music remains just that: music. It no longer becomes muddied by the turbulent waters of large record labels and pompous, self-serving executives. The connection between artist and fan becomes that much more real, that much more pure.

Trent Reznor has embraced the new medium. He is quietly revolutionizing the way music reaches the ears of the audience. Let's only hope other artists will follow his lead.

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