No. 77: Nine Inch Nails’ Flood of Digitally Distributed New Music

In the decade after 1994′s The Downward Spiral made Nine Inch Nails a household name, Trent Reznor cultivated a reputation as a reclusive perfectionist of nearly Chinese Democracy-level procrastination, releasing just one bloated double album, 1999′s The Fragile. And though 2005′s With Teeth hinted at a leaner and more workmanlike model of NIN, nobody could’ve predicted the accelerated pace at which Reznor would begin releasing music after completing his Interscope contract.

In March, the instrumental double album Ghosts I-IV was dropped into the digital ether with no prior announcement, and before that feast could even be digested, a more traditonal NIN album, The Slip, debuted in May. If Ghosts was the for-fans-only indulgence a major label never would have approved, then The Slip is the humble, concise 40-minute album Reznor never would have let himself make while he was Interscope’s cash cow. And both albums benefit from a wider variety of instrumental textures and clearer production aesthetic than 2007′s sonically muddy and conceptually overloaded Year Zero.

Much hand-wringing can be done about whether Rezor followed “the Radiohead model” or if he improved upon it. But it remains remarkable that an artist long thought past his prime was able to make his music better, cheaper, more plentiful and more profitable in one fell swoop.

80 ’08 (And Heartbreak)

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, the live show was incredibly impressive, even in a nowhere-near-full Rupp Arena in Lexington, KY. I’m really glad I got to see it, as Reznor said he may never do another one like it again.
    I think it’s pretty clear he improved on the “Radiohead model” because he offered more options. Radiohead offered the same crap-quality mp3′s not matter how much you paid. Nine Inch Nails allowed you to download anywhere from crap-quality to lossless. All that was missing (with The Slip) was the ability to pay for it. Radiohead seemed to be doing it just to get people to go and buy the physical product it released later. Reznor also released a physical product, but it was really more for halo collectors. I didn’t bother buying it because I was happy with the digital downloads. I think Reznor is the future of the music business. He’s savvy like I’ve never seen before. Nobody is as comfortable with the new digital age while still having a profound understanding of what their fans want.

    Oh, and P.S…Year Zero was not “conceptually overloaded.” If you took the time to get the story, it was very rewarding. I just hope we get an HBO or Showtime series out of it (and the promised sequel album) as has been rumored.

  • Chris N.

    I forgot to thank Trent. Thanks, Trent!

  • Marth

    I just like how honest he seems with the whole thing. With Radiohead (and Saul Williams and whoever else), there was always a subtext of “Hey, everyone, look at us, we’re changing the industry!”. But with Reznor’s moves this year, it seemed to come simply from a place of wanting to make music and let people hear it, not some sort of grand statement.

  • Al Shipley

    @tallboy7: Yeah, pretty awesome show, if I had more room I definitely woulda mentioned it.

  • octobersky is electric barbarella


    That show was friggin’ impressive! Saw NIN in Seattle this summer and it blew my mind. I’ve been to a ton of concerts over the years and the Lights In The Sky show is hands down top three shows ever. I then had to see again on the fall leg in Columbus – it was that good. Wired magazine did an article on the technology that went into the show, it’s seriously amazing even if you don’t care for the band musically.

    I get the impression that he’s just happy creating and not really in it for the laud and glory. Reznor really seems to actually CARE about his loyal/rabid fanbase and it suits him well. The Ghosts I – IV was nominated for a Grammy due to the packaging BTW.

  • Anonymous

    Don’t forget the live show. Best thing I saw in ’08.

  • Anonymous

    I think what I love most about this is that Trent was able to look at something like Oink and realize exactly why it was so great and turn it into something profitable in the exact way that the major labels haven’t embraced at all. He not only gave all the different qualities of mp3s but he even gave away the first dist so that you could sample it and see if you wanted to pay for it. I don’t know how it will work in the future when everyone is doing it but there is no question that Trent deserves all the accolades he gets for making p2p profitable.

  • Buck Plankchest Is Your God Now

    I agree that parts of The Fragile were unnecessary (honestly, nothing happened in “Ripe (With Decay)”), but I still think that album gets a bad rap.

    Radiohead and NIN should go on tour together (if NIN ever tours again, that is).