Pixel Envy

Written by Nick Heer.

A Conversation With Trent Reznor

Trent Reznor — of Nine Inch Nails, How to Destroy Angels, and Apple — speaking to David Marchese in a wide-ranging interview:

We did a record with Saul Williams. I probably spent 18 months working on it with him — a real labor of love. We thought he was going to be signed to Interscope, but that didn’t work out. So I said, “Let me use your record as an experiment. I’ll cover the losses if it doesn’t work out.” I wanted to test out a simple scenario. It went something like this: To my database of people, we sent out a message saying, “Here’s a collaborative album I’ve worked on for X amount of time with Saul. Click on this box if you want the full album, not copy-protected, free. I know you can steal it anywhere you want anyway. All I want in return is your email address. Or, click on the box next to it: five dollars; it goes directly to Saul. You can have it for free or you can pay. I’m calling your bluff. Are you going to do the right thing?”

Maybe 30,000 downloads occurred in the next week and less than 20 percent were paid for. I thought that second number would be higher. At the time, I felt I was making a genuine offer, worded simply and confrontationally, for something I thought had genuine value. So I was bummed out by the result. It took the wind out of my sails as far as thinking of direct-to-customer as a sustainable business for a musician. In a way, that experience gave me a preemptive look at music today. You’re not making money from albums; instead they’re a vessel for making people aware of you. That’s what led me to thinking that a singular subscription service clearly is the only way this problem is going to be solved. If we can convert as many music fans as possible to the value of that, in a post-ownership world, it would be the best way to go.

I see this part of the interview as related to the handful of pieces I’ve linked to recently about different pricing models within an indie app developer context. It’s worth reading the whole thing, even if you’re not a fan, but Reznor’s thoughts on music as an art form as well as a business are eye-opening.

By the way, the Saul Williams album Reznor references here is available on iTunes and Amazon, and it’s really good. You can see the first two songs from Nine Inch Nails’ first performance in three years — in Bakersfield, where this interview was conducted — from the stage on YouTube.