Trent Reznor: download now?

Left in dire straits by downloading, the music industry is in desperate need of retuning. But few in the business could have predicted that showing them the way forward would be Trent Reznor, the Nine Inch Nails frontman whose appetite for self-destruction once took him to rock bottom.

By Chris Heath for Telegraph on March 4, 2009

The music business is in crisis: this is the story that has been repeated in the media, week after week, for years. A rise in illegal downloading, the emergence of a generation of young consumers who treat music as simply something you find free on the internet, and a severe slump in compact disc sales have undermined the industry's old economic model.

This is true, to a point, though the fact that these stories have generally not been accompanied by heart-wrenching tales of suddenly destitute pop stars suggests something slightly more complicated. For all the collapsing record company profits and closing record shops, much of the music world's business – its concert and pop festivals, merchandise, and newer revenue streams from ringtones and video games and the like – is robust. In fact in recent years it has often been the record companies themselves, as they tried to draw attention to and excuse their own problems, that have been guilty of talking down the music business. (If, as a recent survey suggested, globally 95 per cent of pop music is now downloaded illegally, that may be a deeply worrying statistic, but it also emphasises how huge the appetite and potential market for such music remains.) It is the record and CD industry specifically that is in trouble, stumbling in the face of the challenges posed by a disruptive technology.

Few could argue that the industry has responded swiftly, nimbly or with unity to these challenges. (The one coherently successful antidote to illegal downloading so far, Apple's iTunes store, was strong-armed into existence by a computer manufacturer with no previous experience in music retailing.) These days, even as they explore new ways of selling music, the big record companies often still seem clumsy and sluggish – sometimes out of inertia, arrogance and incompetence, though perhaps also so as not to jeopardise the income their old business model can still bring them.

It has largely been left to artists without record contracts to innovate, to find the most effective ways to exist under these difficult new circumstances, and to take advantage of the opportunities they offer. In October 2007 Radiohead announced that their new album, In Rainbows, would be available for download from their website for whatever price the downloader felt appropriate, including no price at all – a bold, groundbreaking step that gained them worldwide headlines. But the artist who may have been the most repeatedly and doggedly innovative, and shown the greatest sense of the possibilities thrown up by this changing world, is someone more surprising, and consequently what he has done has been far less heralded.

Trent Reznor is 43. His group, Nine Inch Nails, is mainly known for a kind of sombre, powerful, relentless industrial rock that has made him a big star in America and a much smaller one in Britain. (Here, he is probably better known as the author of Hurt, a song made famous by Johnny Cash's majestic, shattering cover version.) Reznor hasn't been trying to save the record industry, and doesn't push himself forward as any kind of example or seer. All he has been trying to do is to release Nine Inch Nails's music to the greatest effect. Some of the financial decisions he has made along the way seem almost suicidal. But, even so, perhaps more than anyone else right now, he has been offering the record industry a remarkable lesson in survival and some clues as to how, for those who are smart and passionate and flexible, there are ways forward.

A few years ago, it seemed unlikely that Trent Reznor would be at the forefront of anything much ever again. I first met him in the wake of his most successful album, 1994's The Downward Spiral, travelling with Nine Inch Nails for a few days as they toured America's Midwest. Reznor was courteous, but there was a dense, dark and reckless atmosphere around the band, both on and off stage, that seemed sometimes exciting, often disturbing. He explained to me then how The Downward Spiral was a semi-autobiographical concept album that took all of his most negative thoughts and placed them in a song cycle chronicling someone's descent into despair.

The irony, in retrospect, is that the record less described how his life was than how it soon would be. 'A prequel to my own demise,' he quietly laughs now. 'I guess everything was in there. I would have preferred it had it stayed in there and just been a story.' He sees the roots of what happened in his childhood in smalltown Pennsylvania. 'I never really knew who I was,' he says. 'I always felt like I'm not good enough. There's a voice in me, still there, that says, "You don't belong here – you should be back in a cornfield doing nothing." ' Success confounded the issue. 'A part of me that always felt inadequate felt justified,' he remembers. 'I was an asshole for a while. I know I was, looking back.' He soon discovered it was easier getting through each day with a couple of drinks, then through each hour. Then he rediscovered cocaine, which he'd dabbled with in his youth. When he finally got off tour, he bought a mansion in New Orleans and produced an album for Marilyn Manson: that didn't help. After a temporarily successful episode in rehab that no one knew about, Nine Inch Nails's 1999 album, The Fragile, entered the American charts at number one, and Reznor had a drink to celebrate. For the next year on tour he would oscillate between bingeing and hiding in hotel rooms, sick with withdrawal.

Back in New Orleans he went into full self-destruct mode. 'Drug addiction, or any kind of addiction, there's nothing romantic about it,' he says, 'there's nothing sexy about it, it's not fun, it's not anything to be proud of… not being able to get out of bed, life sucks, black cloud…' Perhaps he was already looking for an escape, but it took someone else's tragedy to make him find it. Rodney Robertson worked at his New Orleans studio. 'This big black guy,' Reznor says. 'He was a product of New Orleans poverty, no idea who his dad is, sister died of Aids, grew up in the projects right down the street. He was like the groundskeeper, handyman, of the studio for years and we just became friends. He had the keys to my house and watched the house when I was gone. I'd trust him with anything. His goal was to save up to go to truckdrivers' school and get out of town.'

On June 7, 2001, Reznor answered the telephone. It was Rodney's mother, looking for her son. As Reznor spoke to her, his eyes focused on the TV across the room, and of the pictures of Rodney's truck surrounded by police tape. 'He got shot in the head in the projects. No reason or motive.'

For Reznor, at that moment something ended. 'I don't know if I can explain it other than I just thought, "I'm done." I didn't feel like I had much left. I just didn't want to go on – I'd rather die or get better.' Two weeks later he called up a doctor he knew and asked for help. At the hospital he was directed through a door. 'It was one of those doors that closes and there's no handle on the other side.' He says what followed were the most unpleasant days he has ever experienced – 'I highly don't recommend it' – but that it saved his life.

The recovering Reznor moved to Los Angeles. When I meet him in New Orleans last October it is only the second time he has been back. It is making him feel melancholy and a little homesick. 'I realise one of the reasons I came here is to hide. Probably something in me realised it's a good place to be a drunk – which it is.' We drive past the mansion he used to own in the Garden District (now apparently owned by the actor John Goodman) and I ask how it feels to see it. 'Bittersweet,' he says. 'That's where it all happened.'

It took Reznor some time to get back to making music, and meanwhile the world was changing. By 2005, when With Teeth, his first sober album was released, downloading had already exploded. Reznor had always been interested in new technologies – in the mid-1990s he was one of the earliest name artists to write original music for a video game, Quake – and for his next album, 2007's Year Zero, he had an idea. It was not a commercial one, necessarily, but one that would use the potential of new technology in a way no music artist yet had. Year Zero was a kind of concept record, set 17 years in the future, a nightmarish prediction of how things might turn out. He and Rob Sheridan, who over the years had evolved from his art director to his most important non-musical collaborator, set up a 'private wiki' on the internet – a document only they had access to – in which between them they mapped out this world in tremendous detail, and then wondered what they might do with what they had created. Should it be a graphic novel? A movie? Then they remembered the marketing campaign for Steven Spielberg's AI for which a whole fictitious world was set up across the internet. Such universes are known as ARGs: alternate reality games. Reznor approached 42 Entertainment, the company who had put the AI ARG together, and asked what they could do with Year Zero, emphasising that he didn't want to do anything that would be, or seem like, marketing – he just wanted to allow Nine Inch Nails fans to immerse themselves. He reasoned that, in an era where the LP sleevenotes and gatefolds of his youth no longer existed, this was a way of creating the greatest sleevenotes ever made.

It would take a separate article to describe the scope of what they created: dozens of websites, phone lines, messages hidden in music, sleeves, T-shirts, street murals and small computer hard-drives secreted in lavatories and elsewhere at concerts, and even a performance at which the audience was abducted by armed police. (Much of the ARG is archived at ninwiki.com/Timeline_of_Year_Zero_Discovery and connected websites.) Reznor remains proud of the whole experience, and on its own level it clearly worked. But his wish that it have no direct marketing benefit to his album – he refused any overtures to link with phone manufacturers, radio station competitions and so on – was perhaps fulfilled too well. Year Zero's sales were less than half those of his previous album.

Nor did the greatest sleevenotes ever made come cheaply. Reznor paid for the ARG out of his own pocket (his record company, Interscope, would eventually chip in for a third). Its cost: .5 million. It is not an example that has been copied.

After Year Zero, Nine Inch Nails had one more record due on their contract, but somewhat to Reznor's surprise, near the end of 2007 Interscope decided to pass. 'It was a weird mix of emotions,' he remembers. The constraints of being on a major label had been chafing, but it still seemed a little insulting. 'I would rather it had been my choice. It was, now we've got to figure out what we're going to do. And that was pretty scary. It still is scary.'

Meanwhile, Radiohead's In Rainbows honesty box had just been announced. To Reznor, Radio­head's experiment was both exciting and disappointing. It was ingenious in the way it acknowledged, and circumvented, one of the fundamental problems facing the record industry. Albums are usually completed several weeks, if not months, before their release; the finished music is then circulated within record companies and the media, and supplied to CD-manufacturing plants around the world. At some point before an album's release, someone always uploads it on to the internet where it quickly spreads, and is widely available to download free by anyone whose principles don't prevent them from doing so. These days every conventional release eventually leaks like this, however carefully its security is managed, and for the majority of the keenest music fans this is how they first hear a new record. (Reznor says that as a consumer himself, and as an illegal downloader, he can't remember the last time he first heard a new album he was looking forward to by listening to the finished CD.)

From this perspective what Radiohead actually did, knowing that their album like all others would inevitably leak before its CD release, was to take charge of the leak themselves – and give their more honourable, appreciative and law-abiding fans a chance to pay for the leaked version. But there were aspects of Radiohead's scheme that Reznor found less impressive. He didn't like the fact that this download version was only available in modest audio quality, and without artwork, and that in interviews Radiohead and their management seemed to imply that the real version of the album would be the subsequently available physical CD – all of which made what they had done seem a little less visionary and revolutionary. He also knew that he didn't like the idea of someone else telling him what the music he worked so hard on was worth.

Meanwhile, the first music Reznor created after leaving Interscope was a series of wordless pieces – two hours or so of instrumentals each named Ghosts and numbered from 1 to 36. This, he decided, would be the next Nine Inch Nails record. It was the kind of album – a double CD, no vocals, no possible hit singles – that a major record label might balk at even releasing. 'They would never have understood what the f*** it was to begin with,' he says. (Artists on major labels who insist on releasing such projects that are considered esoteric and atypically uncommercial usually are only allowed to do so on condition that the record is considered a non-contract album, one which doesn't count towards the artist's contractual commitment.) As it happens, much of the music on Ghosts is elegant and beautiful in a way that might appeal to many people who would find Nine Inch Nails's usual relentless sonic attack a little too much to take, but it was certainly not the kind of record that anyone in late 2007 would have considered a potential money-spinner.

But there was another part of Radiohead's experiment that the media seemed barely to notice, and that may turn out to be just as – or more – significant. At the same time as they offered the pay-whatever-you-want In Rainbows download, Radiohead also offered the opportunity to pre-order an exclusive deluxe boxed-set version, for £40. And while Radiohead declined to release any figures about how many had downloaded the album, and what they had paid, they let it be known the initial orders for the boxed set were about 70,000. That's a gross of nearly £3 million for a package that could be economically manufactured to order and which mostly contained music that was legally available free at the click of a button.

With Ghosts, Nine Inch Nails refined and elaborated on both parts of Radiohead's idea. Ghosts was available in five forms. The first quarter of the album was available free as a high-quality download. The whole album was available as a high-quality download with artwork for . The basic CD version (itself fairly deluxe by modern standards) was available for . A deluxe CD version – also including a book of photos and the multi-tracks of all the music so that fans could remix it as they wish – was available for . And an 'ultra-deluxe' version – also including vinyl versions and art prints, and signed by Reznor – was available in a limited edition of 2,500 for 0.

Reznor also decided to be open about the results. 'I thought, everyone's trying to figure out what to do – why not?' The figures were impressive. In its first week of release, as the music industry supposedly toppled around them, an album of Nine Inch Nails instrumentals grossed ,619,420. (By the end of last year it had grossed between million and million.) 'What is exciting,' he says, 'is taking back the excitement of being able to debut something to an audience in exactly the way you want to.' Even with Reznor and Sheridan's evident devotion to the quality of what they put together, and the money thus spent, Ghosts had clearly become not just a triumph of art but of business.

Some other things have gone right for Reznor, eventually. In 1993, when he was looking for somewhere in Los Angeles where he could live and record The Downward Spiral, he was shown a beautiful house in the Hollywood Hills with views of the ocean and downtown LA. It was available cheap and, at the time, the reason for the bargain also seemed appealing. 'I didn't think it through,' he says. The house, on Cielo Drive, was where, in 1969, followers of Charles Manson had murdered Roman Polanski's pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, and four others. 'It seemed like it was a piece of Americana, in a weird way. In hindsight it was a mistake. I didn't think – as I should have – that 15 years later I'd be defending an undefendable choice.'

It was there, with his album nearly completed, that he sat at a keyboard and wrote Hurt as something to close the record. It was another bleak song – 'I hurt myself today / to see if I still feel / I focus on the pain / the only thing that's real', it begins – but one that, eventually, allows just a little hope and humanity to seep through. When, a few years later, the producer Rick Rubin called to say that Johnny Cash was recording a version, Reznor wasn't even that enthusiastic. It was a song he felt possessive about, and when he listened to what Cash had done his first reaction was to feel somewhat invaded. 'I said I was flattered,' he recalls, 'but it also felt like someone was kissing your girlfriend. Really what it was, was feeling "that one was my song".' He gave Cash's version one listen then put it aside.

Only when he was sent Mark Romanek's video for the song, with its footage of Cash months before his death, did he realise this was something special. Reznor's words had been written by a young man racked with doubt, depression and insecurity; his anger with the world a kind of rebellion and insolence. In his original version, the line 'everyone I know goes away in the end' is laced with misanthropy and a certain amount of self-pity. It was remarkable how, when sung by an old man the same words could mean something so different. A young man has the choice to remove himself from the world and the freedom to agonise over whether the fault is his or the world's; Cash's version is soaked in the knowledge that, sooner or later, time removes you from the world anyway.

'It had such an emotional impact,' Reznor says. 'It was, how the f*** did I write that song? Hearing someone who's actually one of the best in the world at what they do say, "I chose to cover your song" – I don't mind hanging that one on my wall as something I feel pretty good about.' Visiting where he grew up, Reznor detected a change in the way people treat him. 'I'm sure there is a group of people that assume Nine Inch Nails is just noise and chaos – or whatever it might be dismissed as, and sometimes is. I noticed coming home that suddenly I was OK.'

Following the success of Ghosts, one might have expected Reznor to utilise the same model for his next record. He didn't. After completing an album called The Slip – this time of more typical, rougher Nine Inch Nails songs – he released the following statement, one with few precedents in the avaricious world of pop music: 'Thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years – this one's on me.' The album, and accompanying artwork, was made permanently available as a high-quality download for nothing. You couldn't pay, even if you wanted to.

'Really all the thought that went into it,' he says, 'was, I think this should be free, this feels like the right thing to do.' If there was any further business upside, it was that the download allowed Nine Inch Nails to expand their database of email addresses (currently at 1.8 million names).

Even so, that wasn't the end of The Slip. A CD version, limited to 250,000 copies, was subsequently released. Though it came with an accompanying DVD of a few songs being played live in a studio, it was basically what was available free, but it sold none the less – sales that would comfortably cover the whole project's cost. Another interesting lesson, and example to others. For, within the puzzling ethics and habits of modern music consumption, the fact that people should have bought The Slip CD isn't as counter-logical as it at first sounds. After all, to most young music consumers, every physical CD they purchase is a copy of something they can already download for free.

'What's just flashed through my mind,' Reznor says one day as he drives around New Orleans, 'was how much fun it used to be to come down here and go to Tower and Virgin – pile up with records and wonder what you'll listen to first on the way back. It sucks that that's gone.'

It's not that Reznor is evangelical about this new world he is facing with such ingenuity; he misses the old one. All he has been doing is smartly responding to new realities that have been forced upon him. 'I don't feel that music should be free just because it's able to be copied, and because record labels have misused your trust over the years and abused your belief, and let a technology slip by because they were too ignorant to understand it until the toothpaste was out of the tube. I don't agree with it, but I also know I can't change that. We can sit around and lament the riches you don't make off record sales any more, or missing vinyl and big artwork and physicality and aesthetics and experience – complaining about the good old days, as I've often done – or you say, this is the hand that's dealt today: how do we make the best of it? And remember that little prick whose ass you want to kick that leaked your record – he's a huge fan too.'

You might think the record industry would have swiftly followed Reznor's examples – the obviously lucrative ones, anyway – but perhaps there are reasons, beyond inertia, why they don't. There has been a small glut of major label deluxe editions, for instance, in the wake of the Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails examples, but many of them have been ill-considered and shoddily realised. And for a record company to release such an expensive edition prompts an awkward question – for whom is the majority of its income being generated? This is a reflection of a wider problem that may have some bearing on record companies' apparent sluggishness. As the production and transportation costs of physical CDs shrink in importance, what a record company actually does to deserve the lion's share of the record's income has become more opaque, especially for established groups with devoted followings. Setting up and managing the infrastructure to go it alone is not easy or straightforward, but according to Jim Guerinot, Nine Inch Nails's manager, for each copy of a regular CD that Nine Inch Nails sell now, they receive roughly five times the income they would have received for each CD under their Interscope contract. In the future, if record companies are to endure, they may need to show artists that they can do much more for them, or accept much less for what they do.

Meanwhile, Reznor will doubtless carry on, free and keen to explore what's possible, in big ways and small, sometimes just because you can. On Nine Inch Nails's website, for instance, you can download a three-dimensional map of the earth that shows where each copy of The Slip was downloaded from (just the one so far to Burkina Faso). Most recently an HDTV-quality shoot of a recent Nine Inch Nails concert mysteriously appeared online for fans to edit their own concert videos. Reznor himself has been pitching a TV series based around Year Zero. He has no idea how or when the next Nine Inch Nails music will appear. Maybe they'll do something a bit like Ghosts, maybe something no one has yet thought of. He'll see what makes sense at the time. 'I've no idea,' his manager tells me. 'I'm expecting a phone call.'

In New Orleans, Nine Inch Nails headline a two-day outdoor event, the Voodoo Fest. Their show exhibits a similar kind of over-reaching ambition. There are layers of light screens in front of and behind the performers, and sometimes the band members interact with the images – triggering each beat of a drum machine in one song, for instance, by touching a screen of lights hanging in the air. The music veers between electronic discipline, roughshod rock and acoustic delicacy. It's easy to see why Reznor is frustrated at how Nine Inch Nails are routinely dismissed in Britain as a one-dimensional metal or goth band. He would rather them thought of as like Radiohead or Talking Heads, which is fair enough, though they are a little angrier than either.

When I was on tour with them in the 1990s they would cover themselves with corn starch, and would smash their instruments, and sometimes each other. Now theirs is a more controlled, coiled anger; the sincerity without the damage. Reznor has prospered by realising that there are some changes it is dumb not to make. When he tells me, 'I'm not trying to pretend to be who I used to be,' he is not presenting this as a wider wisdom, but he well might.

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