The New York Times this weekend had a good piece on Trent Reznor and his approach to the ongoing disruption of the music industry, which is to experiment as much as possible and in some cases — as he did with his most recent album — to give things away for free.

“It’s all out there,” he added. “I don’t agree that it should be free, but it is free, and you can either accept it or you can put your head in the sand.”

The Nine Inch Nails frontman also seems to have changed his mind about the response to the album he produced by Saul Williams, which was offered as a Radiohead-style “pay what you want” download. At the time, Trent said that he was disappointed that only 20 per cent of people who downloaded it paid. But in the NYT piece, he says:

“The numbers of the people that paid for that record, versus the people that paid for his last record, were greater,” he said. “He made infinitely more money from that record than he did from his other one.

It increased his name value probably tenfold. At the end of the day, counting free downloads, it was probably five or six or seven times higher than the amount sold on his last record. I don’t know how you could look at that as a failure.”

My friend David Usher — who was on an excellent mesh 2008 panel about the future of music and the Web — said in a recent blog post that it’s easy for Trent and Radiohead and other multimillionaire musicians to pull what he called “stunts” like that, but it’s not necessarily a new business model for the vast majority of artists, and I think he is right. But I also think he and Trent share a lot of the same thoughts about what artists have to do in order to succeed in this new environment, and that is to focus on their music and on their fans, to build as direct a relationship with them as possible, and let the chips fall where they may.

Incidentally, David has thought a lot about these issues, and is as smart and perceptive about the business side of what he does as he is talented at the music side — I highly recommend his blog, CloudID.com, if you’re interested in what an artist thinks about new media, and you can follow along as the new album (whose release date he announced on Twitter) comes together at DavidUsher.com.

About the author

Mathew 2430 posts

I'm a Toronto-based senior writer with Fortune magazine, and my favorite things to write about are social technology, media and the evolution of online behavior

8 Responses to “Reznor: It’s all free — accept it”
  1. a big thanks for the link to David's blog – this is one I'm definitely going to enjoy reading

  2. Reznor is so jesus about this music business stuff. He's brave enough to try out new ideas. That's the only way new business get created in the first place, by throwing your bread upon the water (to stick with my opening theme).

    I think that in the end there are going to be various models for various levels and types of artists.

    And there is nothing wrong with that.

  3. […] Ingram on Trent Reznor: It’s [music] all free–accept it. […]

  4. thanks mathew, i had a really great time at MESH and it was a real bonus to have David Gratton as moderator. as we talked about on the panel, i agree that music is seen as free and as artists are going to have to find their way in that model. i like all the things trent is doing (i love a shit disturber:) but, i also think that its easier for him and radiohead to experiment because of where they are in their careers. they both got famous in the 'traditional' music business. they both have large tech savy fan bases. and, they both get big mass media coverage when they try something fun.
    when i think future model, i always try to think about up and coming artists. where the free model falls down a bit is in artist development. for many artists there is a point where they need funding to jump to that next level. to go from hobby to professional. with all the money draining from the music business there is less funding out there to help them make that leap.

  5. I agree, David — there is a gap there for new and up-and-coming
    artists. I'd like to see a return to the days when smaller labels
    acted almost like venture capital firms, finding and investing in
    promising startups (although of course there are flaws with the VC
    model as well).

  6. that what i hope to but i really wonder if VC's will have the stomach for it. its pretty hard dealing with artists and the returns in music can be pretty hit and miss.

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