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Trent Reznor ups the digital music ante

Having just fulfilled his contract with longtime label Interscope, Reznor is upping the digital ante in tandem with activist/musician Saul Williams.
/ Source: Billboard

Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor has spent the past few years using new methods to disseminate his music to fans. Past experiments have included hidden messages on T-shirts, “forgotten” USB drives in bathrooms containing copies of his last record, “Year Zero,” and cryptic Web sites, all culminating in a prerelease free stream on the band’s MySpace page.

Having just fulfilled his contract with longtime label Interscope, Reznor is upping the digital ante in tandem with activist/musician Saul Williams. Williams’ Reznor-produced concept album, “The Rise and Fall of Niggy Tardust,” which went live Oct. 31 via the Fader label, can be obtained in three download formats: 192 kbit/s MP3, 320 kbit/s MP3 and free Lossless audio codec (FLAC).

The lower-quality MP3 is free, while the high-quality MP3 and FLAC cost $5. In a twist on the “name your own price” scheme that Radiohead employed for its recent album, “In Rainbows,” fans will not be allowed to pay more than $5 for “Niggy Tardust.”

Billboard spoke to Reznor and Williams about the implications of their sales model, what this might mean for future Nine Inch Nails releases and why people should be willing to pay the same amount for music as they do for a good cup of coffee.

Q: How did you decide to collaborate? What sort of time line was involved?

Trent Reznor: “A couple of years ago, I came across a video from Saul’s last record, and it was like a breath of fresh air. At the time, I was looking for tour support and handpicked him to join us on the road. We became friends and decided to try recording a couple of tracks. It turned out to be an incredibly engrossing back-and-forth experience; I think there was a lot of mutual respect, and Saul really gave me a lot of confidence.”

Saul Williams: “The record started on the road, in hotels. We ended up doing three drafts. We did 14 tracks, and I sat with those for a few months. We came back, revisited them, did some more work and took another four months off, and then we got around to the final mixing.”

Q: Where in the process did you make the decision to pursue the “free or $5” distribution model?

Williams: “Trent is very tech-savvy, and we both wanted to find a new model that would work for us. We’d been saying that it would be cool to give it away for free, but when Radiohead made their announcement, we decided to try something close to their model.”

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“I’m someone who spends a lot of time online, and I’ll admit to having stolen music off the Web before. My main goal is to get my music out to as many people as possible in a way that feels pure and allows me to maintain my integrity.” (laughs)

Q: How did you arrive at the $5 price for the higher-quality download?

Williams: “Five bucks seemed pretty fair. It’s the cost of a good latte, so you’d hope people would pay that much for a good record.”

Reznor: “There was a lot of debate about it, especially after Radiohead happened. ‘Should we do the pay-what-you-wish model, (or) should we give it away outright?’ In the end, we decided to give people an opportunity to support the artist. In my mind, $5 is insultingly cheap for this album.”

Q: Trent, is this a trial run for a distribution model that you might pursue with forthcoming Nine Inch Nails records?

Reznor: “I’m just going to wait and see how it goes with Saul’s record. Six months from now, who knows what kinds of models will be out there and what will have happened. I have tried a bunch of different things in the past and will continue to try out new strategies.”

Q: Saul, the album title is a play on David Bowie’s “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust.” Is this record also a concept album? And Trent, having worked with Bowie in the past, did you talk to him about this?

Reznor: “I didn’t talk to Bowie about it. I was going to send him a copy of the record this morning, then the phone rang and I got distracted.” (laughs)

Williams: “The name came about as a joke, but there is definitely a strong concept running through the record. I created the character because I felt like there was nothing that was speaking to my experience as an African American. In the end, Niggy Tardust realizes that his only enemy is himself, and that he has to overcome the boundaries set before him in order to become liberated.”

Q: Do you have any indication of how many preorders have been placed for the album? And when you decided to use this sales model, did you consider the fact that it would mean the record wouldn’t be included on Billboard’s charts?

Reznor: “We do know the presale numbers, but we are keeping them a secret. As for (Nielsen) SoundScan, when I looked at the chart numbers for my last record, I was pretty positive that far more people heard it than actually bought it. I think chart positions are irrelevant; they’re not an accurate number of how many people are listening to a given artist.

“Look, when file sharing started to proliferate, I was upset about it. I had worked so hard to make music and was pissed that people thought it was OK to just steal it. But at a certain point, I just accepted that this is the way things are, and kids aren’t going to spend money on an inferior product when they can just get it for free.

“I just wanted to get the record out. I figure there are other revenue streams, and while I like being compensated for my work, I think it’s more important to get it out to the public. It was not my intent to try to start some campaign to destroy record labels — they’re doing a good enough job of it themselves. We’re not tainting the experience with ads or corporate tie-ins, and we’re letting the songs speak for themselves.”

Q: Trent, what are your plans for Nine Inch Nails in the next year?

Reznor: “I have started working on new Nine Inch Nails material, and when it comes time to release it, I’ll do some careful analysis of how this model worked and go from there. Interscope will be putting out a Nine Inch Nails greatest-hits album and a remix record, both of which I hope to be involved in putting together.”