Mysterious phone numbers. Cryptic messages that, when decoded, lead to hidden Web sites. Spectrogram analysis. USB drives found in cities across Europe. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the marketing for the new Nine Inch Nails album.
Viral marketing has been around for as long as there have been buttons and stickers, but the depth and complexity of the scheme cooked up by NIN's Trent Reznor and his record label are taking the practice to new heights of complexity and absurdity. Reznor's dystopian concept album "Year Zero" comes out April 17, but the run-up to the release has been a mind-boggling mix of amateur sleuthing and advertising ingenuity.
In mid-February, fans of the band noticed that the letters highlighted on certain NIN T-shirts spelled out "I Am Trying to Believe," which in turn led to iamtryingtobelieve.com -- a Web site with information about a mind-altering (fake) drug called parepin. The drug plays a central role in the story of "Year Zero," which takes place 15 years in the future, when the public has been turned into compliant drones living under a totalitarian government. More clues about the album were taken from portable USB drives found in Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester. The Lisbon and Madrid drives contained MP3s of the track "My Violent Heart," which promptly hit the Internet. The Barcelona drive contained the track "Me, I'm Not" and an MP3 of static, which, when subjected to spectrogram analysis(!), revealed a phone number. Call the number (1-216-333-1810) and you'll hear a disturbing snippet from a (fake) government wiretap. That's just skimming the surface: There are other phone numbers to call, more static in need of spectrogram analysis and other clue-infested Web sites. This rabbit hole goes deep.
But what's at the bottom? This spy-game stuff is all supremely well thought out and wonderfully creative, but I'm skeptical about the effect any of it will ultimately have. The marketing team behind "Year Zero" is doing a good job of creating buzz, but does buzz work for an act whose musical identity is already as firmly established as Nine Inch Nails'? It's hard to imagine anyone who's not a fan of Reznor's pummeling electronic beats and pitch-black worldview being moved to buy the album because of a clever marketing campaign. Reznor, of course, denies that marketing is even going on. "The term 'marketing' sure is a frustrating one for me at the moment," wrote Reznor on his blog. "What you are now starting to experience IS 'year zero.' It's not some kind of gimmick to get you to buy a record -- it IS the art form."
I'm curious to know what you think "it" IS. Is Reznor just throwing bones to his hungry fans? Are you any closer to buying the album than you were before? And how do you feel generally about viral marketing -- is it harmless fun or insidious manipulation? Embedded somewhere in this post is a clue that leads to a Web site where you can post your responses. Or you can just use the comments section.
-- David Marchese