Written by: Mike Leader, Special to CC2K
"Nine Inch Nails Follow Radiohead! New album released online for free!"
In terms of chronology, this headline is true: NIN frontman Trent Reznor has ventured into digital distribution. However, Ghosts I-IV is a bold step into a world of innovation and experimentation, both in terms of internet-dissemination AND music. For the unenlightened, this double album was originally planned as a short instrumental EP, recorded over a 10 week period in Autumn 2007. These sessions saw Reznor working with a distinct hub of musicians, including NIN regulars and guests such as Atticus Ross, Alan Moulder, Adrian Belew and Dresden Dolls' Brian Viglione. The material produced from these sessions eventually came to nearly 2 hours' worth of music. Fast-forward to the end of February 2008, and Reznor posts on the NIN.com blog with '2 weeks'. A fortnight later, Ghosts I-IV was available to download.
The music itself is notable, as Reznor is allowed, outside of the major label system, to release such a baggy, leftfield, epic project. A 36-song 'soundtrack for daydreams', each track comes with an individual piece of art: the music is inspired by visuals. This expression is, in his words, only afforded by the freedom of internet distribution. The music is varied; often sparse, minimal and atmospheric, not unlike Brian Eno's Ambient albums (2 Ghosts I), or Aphex Twin's Selected Ambient Works releases (25 Ghosts III); at other points, noise and distortion are brought into the mix (10 Ghosts II). Without Reznor's often clichéd or immature lyrics, his ever intricate and masterful use of the studio is left to shine; the louder, heavier segments crystallise as raging beauty, as opposed to frantic tantrum (8 Ghosts I).
The pieces are tight and structured, meaning that ideas float in and out of focus; no figure really outstays its welcome. So the music is different. Nine Inch Nails, even at their best, like on 2007's Year Zero album, were still riffing on the same formula. This project sees Reznor tinkering with his own (nearly) 20 year old mould; found sounds, instruments created or taken from other traditions are added (30 Ghosts IV).
The result isn't chart-friendly, and probably finds its closest brethren in fan-favourites, such as the live bonus disc Still, and Reznor's Quake Soundtrack. Although, why this inscrutability is worthy of rebuke is beyond me. This is experimentation without the need for Major Statements, Big Songs or Anthemic Choruses. It is certainly different from In Rainbows' slight hedge towards a poppier sound.
The double album is musically worthy; there is danger that its real worth, however, may be overshadowed by its distribution method. Radiohead gave away their album for 'whatever you want', however, the mp3s were relatively low quality, and it all seemed like a gimmick anticipating a physical release. In retrospect, the strategy was thinly executed. The release of Ghosts I-IV, is certainly more wary of the changing musical climate. Interested buyers were faced with 5 choices: a free download of Volume 1 (the first 9 tracks); a $5 download of the whole project, plus a PDF of the liner notes; a $10 physical release; a $75 deluxe release, which included a data disc with complete multitracks of all the pieces (for remixing), a Blu-Ray disc with a high-definition version of the album, and a hardback book with album artwork; and a $300 ultra deluxe limited edition with all of the above, plus a high-quality vinyl of the album, and some beautiful, signed prints. The downloads themselves are offered in three formats: MP3 320kbs, FLAC Lossless and AAC lossless, offering CD-quality fidelity.
This serves the hypotheses that cheap, high quality downloads and well-crafted, desirable, but more expensive physical editions will encourage listeners to pay for what they could get through other channels for free. Also, with the focus on making multitracks available for remixing, Reznor accepts that remix culture and sampling, in the quick-fix digital culture of the moment, is a way of spreading the word. Nine Inch Nails have previously sampled artists like Prince or David Bowie, even films like THX 1138 – and have equally created a musical community through their own remix albums (making links with other musicians such as Coil, Ladytron, The DFA). Now, Reznor is giving away his multitracks as a way of creating a fan-community around the music. A prime example of this approach is found in the Nine Inch Nails Remix website, where Reznor has made available instrumental remixes of the majority of his output, along with multitrack files for his more recent albums, for fans to come together and create their own expression. These are all ways of connecting the artist with the fan – the blog, the remix, the effort and respect in the creation of the music. Encouraging a personal link; consumer loyalty, if you will.
The free download is just as important. The first volume is still a tidy 26 minutes of music, and is more than a fair taster of what is on offer. However, what impressed me most was the method of distributing this taster: an official torrent on the Pirate Bay. There have been rumblings about Reznor leaking albums or shelved projects through bit-torrent sites before, such as the Closure DVD a couple of years ago, but this is the first official endorsement of bit-torrent by a major artist. Crucially, Reznor and Nine Inch Nails are aware of these modes of distribution (not knee-jerk reactionary, like Metallica). They were just as aware of the possibility of the whole album being leaked onto Pirate Bay before long; they said in the official album release statement: 'Undoubtedly you'll be able to find the complete collection on the same torrent network you found this file, but if you're interested in the release, we encourage you to check it out at ghosts.nin.com'. These guys know which way the wind is blowing. Indeed, this album is also released under a Creative Commons license, which means that it is free for anything – remixing, sampling, performance, broadcast, even sharing – as long as it is not for commercial profit.
These experiments are important; they need to be made. It is true that Nine Inch Nails have a very solid fanbase. Indeed, like Radiohead, they serve both the casual, mainstream listener and the hardcore obsessive. How else would the $300 deluxe version sell out in less than two days, making a minimum of $750,000? Smaller bands just aren't rich enough to be this radical. However, distribution is the next level of experimentation. Just as experimental studio techniques (The Beatles, Pink Floyd) or early synthesizers (The Monkees, Kraftwerk) were only available to established artists with financial backing, this next frontier must be traversed by the comfortable or the self-sufficient. There are other artists dabbling in audience-supported expression, such as Einsturzende Neubauten or Marillion, both of whom work outside of the major label system, and record projects sustained by donations from fans. In this regard, Trent Reznor is on the frontline. First, he produced his friend Saul Williams' latest album, titled The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, and released it for free (low quality) or $5 (high quality). This was, like this Nine Inch Nails release, an experiment: he posted the stats for people to read. Ghosts I-IV has already been more successful than the Saul Williams album, both in terms of business and criticism. This is a landmark release; it is both a statement of the new 'business models' allowed by the internet, but also a statement of creativity from an artist that has been previously dismissed.
The release of Year Zero last year saw an invigorated Reznor, revisiting his hooky, noisy past while pushing forward into new areas of socio-political expression. Yet, whereas that album showcased new lyrical and thematic vistas, it was still tied in with the anger and melancholy of old. On Ghosts, Reznor has found a style which moves beyond childish frustration, towards a strident, confident, and graceful experimentation.