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In chaos, there is opportunity. And yes, cynics, that even applies to the free-fallin’-sales chaos of today’s music industry.


Just ask Trent Reznor.


cover art

Nine Inch Nails

Ghosts I-IV

(The Null Corporation; US: 2 Mar 2008; UK: 2 Mar 2008; Internet release date: 2 Mar 2008)

Review [10.Mar.2008]

The Nine Inch Nails mastermind racked up a minimum of $750,000 in one week when he sold out 2,500 copies of his “Ghosts I-IV” project at $300 apiece through his Web site earlier this month. That doesn’t even take into account the thousands of others who ordered “Ghosts” - four albums of instrumentals that range from rockish to experimental - in one of its other options. Depending on their interest, fans could get nine tracks for free, get them all for a $5 download, a $10 double CD and a $75 deluxe package that provides a Blu-ray disc high-quality version and all the songs in multitrack format that can be remixed to their hearts’ content.


Radiohead was smart to release its “In Rainbows” album in the groundbreaking, pay-what-you-will model as well as the high-priced super-deluxe versions. Of course, “In Rainbows” was a commercially viable album from one of music’s top bands that would have been a hit no matter what way it came out.


But Reznor’s project is nothing short of brilliant. Four albums of instrumentals, even from a known hit maker like Nine Inch Nails, would never have found a big audience in the traditional music industry release system. What Reznor has done may end up being the turning point for artists who want to follow their muse wherever it takes them and still get compensated for the journey.


And they don’t necessarily have to handle the whole thing themselves. Though Reznor did set up sales through his nin.com Web site, he also used the artist-friendly service TuneCore - which allows any artist to sell music on iTunes, Rhapsody or, in Nine Inch Nails’ case, Amazon.com, for a flat fee - to take the songs to a broader audience.


Reznor isn’t the only one coming up with inventive ways to involve fans in the artistic process. Singer-songwriter Jill Sobule recently launched a Web site, jillsnextrecord.com, to raise enough money to record her next album - with pledge levels ranging from $10, which gets a fan a copy of the album when it’s done, to $5,000, which gets a Sobule concert in your house, and $10,000, which buys you a vocal appearance on the album.


Sobule surpassed her goal of $75,000 earlier this month and ended up feeling empowered, even as she asked for help. “I have always been a sort of special-needs child (like a good percentage of artists in my industry) who wait for the label, the manager, the `man’ to do everything for them - after taking any or all profits,” she wrote on her Web site. “But now I’ve learned to rely on myself and ... well, you.”


That sentiment will become increasingly important as more and more conglomerates that used to at least pretend to care for artistry - because it brought them profits or respect, or in rare cases, both - continue to wobble and fall. And artists will learn that they could do quite well for themselves simply from the support of their fans and from going after little payments here and there that record companies felt were too small to bother collecting.


Smaller companies are starting to realize that there’s no reason any album should be out of print. Merge Records, home to Arcade Fire and Spoon, as well as label founders Superchunk, recently launched its own online store that will make its rarities and out-of-print albums available for download.


It’s a model that every label should follow since all the overhead associated with making the music has essentially been paid already. The only new overhead is associated with collecting the money and, gee, isn’t that a tough problem?


If record labels don’t want that money, no doubt brainy artists like Reznor will soon figure out how to get it instead and cut the middlemen out completely.


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