Radiohead’s name-your-price download strategy, in which the band offered its latest album, “In Rainbows,” to consumers for whatever price they chose, has been the talk of the music world for months.
Now at least one major artist is following closely in the U.K. band’s ground-breaking footsteps. On Sunday, Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor announced on his Web site, nin.com, that he was immediately making available a new four-part album, “Ghosts I-IV,” containing 36 instrumental tracks spanning nearly two hours. The music was made available in five configurations at five price levels, ranging from free (for downloads of nine songs) to $300 (for a box set that includes two CDs, a DVD, an optical disc containing a slide show, and four vinyl albums).
Business was brisk. By Monday, Reznor had posted an announcement asking fans to be patient after the high volume of downloads crashed his Web site.
“We quietly released this album last night without any warning, and without any press,” Reznor wrote Monday. “Because we know how devoted our fans are, we planned for an overwhelming response, and expected heavy traffic. To our surprise, the traffic was more than three times what we anticipated, and has only been getting heavier throughout the day. The response has been absolutely phenomenal, and we couldn’t be happier, but our servers have taken a beating, causing numerous problems with the download site.”
Reznor also made the tracks available through various rogue file-sharing sites, including piratebay.org, and amazon.com. He has attached no digital-rights restrictions to the music and is encouraging listeners to share and remix it as extensively as possible.
The artist, who has sold millions of albums since debuting in 1989, found himself a free agent last year after fulfilling his deal with Interscope Records. He has accused the major record labels of price gouging and last year urged consumers to steal his final Interscope album, “Year Zero,” because it was overpriced.
“Ghosts I-IV” showed up without advance notice or any kind of marketing campaign. It resulted from a 10-week recording session, which included collaborators such as producer-mixer Alan Moulder and guitarist Adrian Belew.
“We began improvising and let the music decide the direction,” Reznor wrote on his Web site in announcing the release. “Eyes were closed, hands played instruments and it began. Within a matter of days it became clear we were on to something, and a lot of material began appearing. What we thought could be a five song EP became much more.”
The music ranges from contemplative piano-based nocturnes to percussive assaults. The tracks are divided into four sections without individual song titles. As usual with Nine Inch Nails, it’s all but impossible to identify individual instruments because the sounds are so heavily processed. A marimba-like instrument surfaces on several tracks, and guitars figure prominently in others. But for the most part, Reznor conjures swirling, gray-sky collages out of distorted rhythms and keyboards. He channels the sheet-metal percussion of Einsturzende Neubauten on Track 19, cool “Blade Runner” synthesizers on Track 24, and the sound of someone hammering in the apartment next door on Track 15.
Such an extravagantly esoteric release would’ve been unimaginable in the major-label system. It’s a lot of music to absorb, and only committed fans will really need to hear all of it. But that’s the beauty of an Internet-focused released with a five-tier pricing system. It allows listeners to determine their level of commitment at a price of their choosing. Like Radiohead, Reznor has used his newfound freedom to empower his fans.