Trent Reznor's free-music experiment: The numbers

The Nine Inch Nails frontman tries to put out an album in an unconventional way. Does it work?

Published January 5, 2008 12:02AM (EST)

A few months ago, shortly after Radiohead announced that it would be releasing its new album online, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails took to the Web to declare his own independence from Big Music: "I have been under recording contracts for 18 years and have watched the business radically mutate from one thing to something inherently very different and it gives me great pleasure to be able to finally have a direct relationship with the audience as I see fit and appropriate," he wrote on his site.

Reznor's first move toward building that direct relationship occurred in November, when he hatched an unconventional plan to put out an album that he'd produced, the hip-hop artist Saul Williams' "The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!"

Fans could download a lower-quality version of the album for free (these were 192 kbps MP3 files), or they could pay $5 to help support the artist and get higher-fidelity tracks. In a post on today, Reznor goes over the results of that experiment. In short, he doesn't know what to think.

The good news: A lot of people got to listen to Williams' music. The bad news, though, is that only a small percentage of them decided to pay for it.

Reznor says that 154,449 downloaded the album for free; 28,322 people paid for it. Another stat: Williams' previous album, released three years ago on CD, has sold 33,897 copies.

So Reznor asks, "If 33,897 people went out and bought Saul's last record 3 years ago (when more people bought CDs) and over 150K -- five times as many -- sought out this new record, that's great -- right?"

Well, yeah -- more people are listening to him. On the other hand, though, "is it good news that less than one in five feel it was worth $5? I'm not sure what I was expecting but that percentage -- primarily from fans -- seems disheartening."

You might counter that at least this way, the artist gets to keep the money -- there isn't a record company sucking out a lot from the deal. But Reznor points out he spent much to produce and even to give away the album -- he paid for a studio, he paid for bandwidth, he paid to set up an online store. "Nobody's getting rich off this project," he writes.

So did he succeed or was it a bust? At least there's this: "Saul's music is in more people's iPods than ever before and people are interested in him," Reznor writes. Williams is on tour now; certainly having his music out to more people can only help that effort.

By Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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