With its Web-based, pay-what-you-want distribution of In Rainbows, Radiohead demonstrated that it's easy for established acts to take control of their own releases. Last week, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor went the Englishmen one better. To prime the pump, he gave away a quarter of the tracks on his new album, Ghosts I-IV, for free over NIN's website and charged a measly $5 for downloads of the whole thing. But Reznor didn't stop there. He also beat music thieves to the punch, making the entire album available through PirateBay, the prominent (and controversial) Sweden-based access point for peer-to-peer file-sharing of illegal copies of music, films and more.
All of this gave Ghosts I-IV, a wide-ranging instrumental album of varying quality, enormous exposure without benefit of music-industry support or prerelease hype from the music press. Through the old system of album promotion and distribution, a restricted number of hardcore Nine Inch Nails fans likely would have paid for the album in hard-copy CD form. By contrast, interest in the download was so intense that it crashed the NIN site for hours.
Better still for Reznor, he pocketed $750,000 alone from an autographed deluxe limited edition of the CD that sold for a whopping $300. Those 2,500 packages are all gone, but a somewhat more affordable $75 edition remains, as do ordinary CD copies, should any graybeard want one for that balky CD player in his car. (Reznor also allows fans to use music from the album free of charge in their noncommercial creative projects.)
What will be Reznor's total take? Given that those $300 packages sold out in three days, he could very well be pushing past the $2 million mark by the end of this week. More important, since he put out Ghosts I-IV by himself, he doesn't owe a major or indie label anything. That means he's not subject to the kind of crafty music-industry contract that routinely leaves artists with limited monetary reward from their recorded music. Less his costs for recording the album, producing the special packages and maintaining the NIN site, it's all Reznor's dough.
Doing business this way is brilliant, and it suggests once again that when major artists deal directly with their fans, the only losers are moribund labels. But how well can this model be replicated by lesser-known artists, most of whom don't have hardcore, deep-pocketed fans who'll subsidize the real costs of the freebie downloads by purchasing pricey limited editions of a new release?
In any case, Reznor has proved that it's possible to offer a free lunch and fill up the cash register at the same time. That's a remarkable business model, and you can bet it's bought him a lot of good will from fans.