Pretty marketing machine

By Daphne Carr for Associated Press on April 17, 2007

Friday, April 13 was another weird day at a Hot Topic. At the mall retailer's nearly 700 stores across the country, listening parties for the new Nine Inch Nails album "Year Zero" were unleashed. But no one came to the party at Glendale Galleria in Los Angeles.

That is imprecise - no one came specifically to listen to Nine Inch Nails fifth studio album (released on April 17.) Teens and about six families with younger children browsed, but few stopped to listen to the sounds of Nails' frontman Trent Reznor.

What makes this situation strange is that Reznor is the dark prince of alternative music and in some ways, the twin brother of Hot Topic itself. Plus, Los Angeles is almost ground zero for Nine Inch Nails fandom.

Both Nine Inch Nails and Hot Topic started in 1989 and have thrived among young, mostly suburban, rock fans who fancy the somber side of life. As the band releases its latest album, the two are drifting apart from each other and in a sea of industry woes. Both have weathered 17 years of alternative culture trend shifting, but they are now taking different paths into the future.



Nine Inch Nails's first album, "Pretty Hate Machine," was an early success for the burgeoning alternative rock genre in 1989, and was the SoundScan era's first independent label platinum seller. "The Downward Spiral" (the band's 1994 masterpiece of despair) established the group as one of the top-selling rock artists in the country.

The band's 1999 album, "The Fragile," and ferocious live shows attached Nine Inch Nails to a new generation of fans. Reznor has since harnessed the obsessive tendencies of his followers through a membership-driven Web-based fan club The Spiral, which contains active Web boards, pre-sale tickets and other perks (disclosure - I am a member of The Spiral). In this way, both Reznor's futuristic music and his marketing machine coincide - the Web seems to have been made for and by the generally tech-savvy Nails fans.

In 1989, Orv Madden, (then a 22-year veteran of the department store apparel industry) put his life-savings into a new retail concept he thought just might hit - a mall store for teens that would sell band T-shirts and MTV-influenced merchandise to accompany the alterna-teen lifestyle. He called it Hot Topic.

In 1996 he took the company public and by 2000 it was one of the fastest growing chains in the nation. Band apparel already had a national presence at the mall store Spencer Gifts, but Hot Topic was different because it focused less on classic rock icons like Jim Morrison and Led Zep and more on contemporary alternative rock artists, perhaps none more so than goth-industrial Nine Inch Nails.

Bands in NIN's mold followed Reznor's lead and developed the sound and aesthetic that would become Hot Topic's primary seller: angst-ridden and darkly tinged alternative rock for the tween and early teen sets. The high point of this era was in the late 1990s when Nails protégé Marilyn Manson and nu-metal bands like Slipknot reigned supreme.



Both Hot Topic and Nine Inch Nails have grown wealthy in the wake of alternative culture's mainstream success. Hot Topic Marketing Manager Russ Jimenez called Nine Inch Nails "endemic" for the store, along with artists like Tool, Slayer, AFI and Manson. In addition to the national listening party, Hot Topic pre-sold "Year Zero" on its Website and in stores. The store also carries three exclusive Nine Inch Nails T-shirts and currently has the band listed as a "Featured Artist" on its site.

Pre-sold albums and listening parties have become common for Hot Topic's primary artists in the last year, but the party this Friday showed the limits of the retailer's reach. It seems that older fans just don't go to Hot Topic and younger fans don't care about Nine Inch Nails. In carrying on the relationship out of either nostalgia or tribute, Hot Topic is now acting like its older rock merchandising sibling Spencer Gifts.

Even though Nine Inch Nails has a presence at Hot Topic, they are not the current favorites among the store's young shoppers. Cathleen Wilson, an employee at the Glendale Hot Topic, didn't seem surprised by the lack of enthusiasm shown by teens at the listening party. "I'm 30 and Nine Inch Nails was my favorite band in high school or maybe even eighth grade," she said.

She gestured to the display of T-shirts folded in squares behind plastic display cases. While there were shirts in the corner for Marilyn Manson, Tool and other older favorites, most of the shirts were for bands like Fall Out Boy, My Chemical Romance, Norma Jean, The Academy Is, Panic! At The Disco and others mostly falling in the emo, pop-punk and metal genres. "My favorites are in the corner. All the younger employees and kids like these other bands," she said.



Each new band carried by Hot Topic is carefully selected by the company at their corporate headquarters to represent what is current for the 12-22 year-old alternative rock-minded mall shopper. "It's important for us to find emerging bands because we're in a good place to support them," said Jimenez. He called Hot Topic's band selection process an "ancient Chinese secret" and that it includes things like "going to tons of shows" and "feedback from stores."

The choice of which bands to support has a serious consequence for Hot Topic. Over 90 percent of Hot Topic stock is carried nationally and a band carried by the retailer must have significant potential to reach the desired national teen audience through radio, MTV and tours to rationalize that kind of stock pile. After a decade of steady mainstream alternative rock, there are few alternative rock artists today selling as many albums as Nine Inch Nails did in the 1990s.

After a decade of unstoppable growth, Hot Topic stock has nose-dived since 2004. Trading at a high of over 30 dollars per share in January 2004, it now trades at about 11 dollars per share.

In a recent Forbes.com article, business journalist Tom Van Riper wrote about sales expectations for specialty retailers, noting that for retail analysts, "being 'on trend,' i.e., keeping ahead of the style curve to lure fashion conscious shoppers, is just as important as economic climate," and that Hot Topic "is increasingly seen as decidedly off-trend."

Back in July 2004, the Los Angeles Business Journal reported that "trends toward preppy looks and bright colors, primarily pink, are hurting the company's sales," a signal that Hot Topic's black-clad Goth look was waning among teens.



And while the milling teens in that Glendale store ignore the sound of NIN, another question looms: Maybe it's not Trent Reznor who's behind the times? Maybe the old world custom of listening parties has faded into the background as Internet album leaks and Web 2.0 tactics attract more followers.

Perhaps Nine Inch Nails's "real" fans in Los Angeles were not at Hot Topic because they were chasing down another clue to the band's new game. Nine Inch Nails and Interscope Records hired Web marketers 42 Entertainment to create Year Zero, a dystopian alternate-reality game in which clues (including album songs) were leaked via various media platforms and tracked by fans on Web boards and wiki pages. The game will go on for 18 months.

At exactly the same time as the Hot Topic listening party, another clue to the Year Zero game was being released in Los Angeles. Fans stood in line at a designated billboard on Melrose Avenue when a van pulled up, dumped out Nine Inch Nails "resistance propaganda" including stickers, buttons and cell phones to use for future clues, and drove away. No money exchanged hands and no music was heard - it was just another strange moment in the ever-unfolding story of the game.



So by 8 p.m. on Friday the 13th, there were two distinct Year Zeros being played in Los Angeles: one was mostly ignored on the stereo at the mall and the other was being joyously consumed on Melrose Avenue. It begs the question: Nine Inch Nails has already conquered the mall masses and helped Hot Topic along the way. Now that the band has rendered itself irrelevant to the ever-changing taste of young mall shoppers, why even bother steering fans there?

The real dystopian future Nine Inch Nails helped show in Los Angeles on April 13 was not an alternative universe, but the cold reality of another brick and mortar rock music merchandiser making a way in today's business climate.

Hot Topic, like an aging rock band, has just a few options: it can either become a dinosaur by selling '90s acts and novelties (like a younger Spencer Gifts) or simply calling it quits.

The third option is one NIN itself has taken - return to the core fan base, shed the bulky overhead and focus on new, innovative elements of the underground culture. This means shedding the sentimentality. Nine Inch Nails fans have shown that even they aren't nostalgic for the band's past. To them, the band has never been more exciting and relevant than now: out on the streets, on the Web and in Year Zero.


Daphne Carr is a writer in Los Angeles. She is currently working on a book about the Nine Inch Nails record "Pretty Hate Machine."

Transcribed by JessicaSarahS

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