Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Why Ghosts works where In Rainbows didn't

Let's get this right out of the way up front: Nine Inch Nails has had an immeasurable impact on me since 1990. The Downward Spiral played as much of a role in my formal design education as any of my courses did. There's not enough room here to explain why, but Trent Reznor's approach to his art ran in tandem with the very leading edge of design and communication theory at the time. If you've been following Burnlab over the years, you might think that I hate Radiohead. I don't. I like their music for what it is: traditional indie-pop done extremely well. Where I get agro about Radiohead is when people try to portray them as more than they are. There is absolutely nothing innovative about Radiohead. They are extremely good songsmiths and masters of pop music, but everything really interesting about them sounds borrowed from others. Nine Inch Nails has no interest whatsoever in being good at what has been done before. This is why I identify with them. The comparisons between In Rainbows and Ghosts has nothing to do with aesthetic preferences, but everything to do with artistic approaches.

Trent Reznor and Thom Yorke are both very smart men, but one is more in touch than the other. I'll be the first to admit that Nine Inch Nails hasn't done much truly exceptional musically in the past ten years or so. The important thing is that Nine Inch Nails has always been acutely aware of culture and society as a whole, while Radiohead has seemed like a rock dinosaur trying to be hip - unaware of anything but fleeting glimpses beyond its music industry blinders.

I read David Byrne's article in Wired, eagerly anticipating some profound revelation about the future of the music industry. I adore David Byrne. I read the article three times... thinking I missed something. Sadly, I didn't. He had nothing to say that wasn't common sense three years ago. Are people really that slow? MySpace can do so much more for you than a label can. This is news?

Before going his own way, Reznor watched carefully how others approached the world beyond major labels. Reznor clearly learned lessons from Radiohead's pay-as-you-see-fit model, its successes and its failures. I've been adamant that the the $1 per song standard is the most fair and reasonable approach in the digital music realm, and am disappointed that NIN didn't maintain this with the digital release of Ghosts. I am glad however that they did set a minimum price. As much as a few acts can make on touring and merchandise, the real product is always the recorded work. This should never be compromised. The expanded experience may be more profitable to some, but the recorded song is the art, and the art must be respected above all else.

Giving away music is brilliant - if it's only a tease to encourage people to buy the whole work. NIN gave away nine songs, or 25% of Ghosts. Traditionally, this would be two songs, which is pretty much industry standard by now.

I was glad to hear Radiohead say that their distribution model was not meant to be universal. It works great for Radiohead, but doesn't work for independents. NIN's model on the other hand, can work for independents and megastars alike. A standard minimum price for digital downloads and a range of bonus items for die-hard fans is a completely scalable concept. It's stupidly simple, fair and profitable.

The other thing I love about Ghosts is the Creative Commons license. It was - in my opinion - the most unexpected and most brilliant part of the package. Creative Commons has been around for a long-ass time in internet years, but has never been applied to music quite at this level. [I'm sure Yorke is looking up what it is right now.]

I commend Radiohead for being bold enough to try what they did and bring the issue to the spotlight. It took someone who really understands current culture to then do it in a way that works.

The single biggest difference between the two approaches though is this: Thom Yorke wants to sell his music. Trent Reznor wants to change the world.

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