In previous years, TLF has talked a lot about Nine Inch Nails‘ Trent Reznor (and Radiohead’s) attempts to bypass traditional record labels and establish new models of music marketing and distribution with experiments in pay-what-you-want-pricing, Creative Commons licensing, etc. As a music (especially NIN) fangirl and a web geek, it’s a topic that is close to my heart, and Reznor became a hero among the geek set for embracing social technology, digital distribution and ARG’s as a way to promote music and attract fans.
Well, NIN’s been on hiatus for a couple of years and T-Rez has recorded a couple of EP’s with his new project, How to Destroy Angels. The big news, however is that Reznor is back with a major label. The group’s latest EP, An Omen, will be released through Columbia Records. Say it ain’t so, Trent! What happened to sticking it to the man and striking your own path and maintaining creative autonomy?
In a recent Spin article, Reznor explains his decision:
Reznor boiled the decision down to a night in Prague during Nine Inch Nails’ last tour, in 2009. “We’re playing that night in Prague, but I see flyers up for Radiohead, who’s playing the same place we’re playing, six months from then,” Reznor recalls. “Then I walk into the record shop, and there isn’t a section that says Nine Inch Nails.” He said he realized that his Twitter account allows for “preaching to that choir of people,” but at the loss of a chance to cross over in an increasingly fragmented media environment.
So essentially, he’s admitting the the 1000 true fans approach can only go so far. And you know what? It’s kind of disappointing, but I can’t argue much with it, particularly when it comes to promotion and distribution of his new project, which doesn’t have a guaranteed built-in fanbase or brand of NIN. (I’ll admit, personally, I am not too big into HTDA, even though I’m a pretty hardcore NIN fan.)
Online buzz is much harder to translate into actual sales when you don’t already have a fanbase willing to shell out cash for your work. And he certainly knows from experience, from his first attempt at bottom-up distribution when he produced and promoted Saul Williams album. Social media can create a busy echo chamber of fan conversation and activity that many of us can sometimes mistake for exposure, but it’s not. And when you’re an artist looking to get your work to the largest possible audience that may be interested, even something as potentially powerful as social media can’t replace traditional marketing in this sense, or more importantly, an actual marketing budget and resources.
Personally, I still believe in the idea of a bottom-up, audience-centered approach for the music industry, especially for music that may not have pop appeal, but it’s not easy to replicate or scale, and musicians need to eat. I don’t know if Trent’s return to a major label will have any impact on the musicians and fans who lauded his initial choice to go indie, but it certainly shows the limits of a approach that depends on “viral” and bottom-up participation for success.