Yesterday, Trent Reznor and a handful of collaborators released a 4-disc album entitle Ghosts. The album is described as a departure from Reznor’s usual fare – “music for daydreams”, says the NIN frontman.
Reznor’s done his fair share of daydreaming in advance of this album’s release, it seems, as he is toying with a revolutionary distribution model. He’s selling the album in a variety of formats on the Nine Inch Nails website for prices ranging from $5 for a digital download (in many DRM-free formats) through $300 for a super deluxe package of vinyl albums, CDs, and posters. Definitely a trailblazing and compelling offering, and when I think of how many full-priced albums I bought and hated you really can’t go wrong for $5.
Furthermore, as a taste, they’re giving away the first album for free via BitTorrent, effectively recruiting fans as co-publishers since the BitTorrent protocol forces downloaders to upload as well.
Reznor’s motivation for this publishing scheme is well known – he’s been quoted saying he’s frustrated with the price gouging imposed on his fans by greedy record companies. I’ve easily found quotes on the subject relating to China:
If you can find and buy our legal CDs, I express my thanks for your support. If you cannot find it, I think that downloading from the Internet is a more acceptable option than buying pirated CDs. Our music is easy to find on the Internet, and you might not need to spend much effort to find most of our songs. If you like our songs after you’ve heard them, please feel free to share it with your friends.
And another quote empathising with his Australian fans:
The ABSURD retail pricing of Year Zero in Australia. Shame on you, UMG. Year Zero is selling for $34.99 Australian dollars ($29.10 US). No wonder people steal music.
Reznor’s message seems fairly consistent here – he doesn’t want fans to pay an unreasonable amount for his music. Fair enough, I suppose. Considering the fact that an artist is responsible for the actions of his distributor (since he endorsed the terms of his contract with them) I consider this to be the first step in taking responsibility and apologizing for his label’s exploitation of his fans.
However, stickler for principles that I am, I’m not entirely satisfied. I find this message inconsistent with the reality of the situation. Here’s some of the text accompanying the official torrent of the first album with my own added emphasis:
Undoubtedly you’ll be able to find the complete collection on the same torrent network you found this file, but if you’re interested in the release, we encourage you to check it out at ghosts.nin.com, where the complete Ghosts I-IV is available directly from us in a variety of DRM-free digital formats, including FLAC lossless, for only $5.
My problem with this phrasing is the definition of the term “DRM-free”. DRM means “Digital Rights Management” – an awkward term masking the real meaning, copy prevention technology, in sugary pleasantry. I find this obfuscating acronym curious in this case, though no doubt Reznor didn’t think twice about its common use.
The above quote claims that a higher-quality copy of the free disc, as well as the other three discs, are available only from their website. This is the contradiction. Trent Reznor elects to manage the distribution rights of these digital formats by claiming the right to sole distributorship.
To spell it right out, you and I have the right to copy bits from one part of your hard drive to another, and over the internet from one computer to another. That’s the one and only purpose of the Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) which is the fundamental technology the Internet consists of. Anything that gets in the way of this right can be fairly and literally deemed “digital rights management”.
The point I’m trying to make is that Trent Reznor, being a technologically savvy and contemporary fellow, should know the futility of trying to be the sole distributor and thus should have released the entire album, in high quality, DRM-free formats, absolutely free of charge. He’s made his point about pirating music to combat unreasonable prices, he’s pledged allegiance to OiNK, the now-disbanded illegal music sharing community, for filling a void in the consumer space. He’d be delusional to think it would take more than a day (it didn’t) for someone to use the same website and protocol to make the full album available to music pirates.
So why bother? Why no take the high road by releasing digital formats for free and starting the pricing tier at $10 for physical CD media? I’ll tell you why. Reznor isn’t in favour of free music distribution, he’s simply opposed to third parties profiting from his work. That’s understandable, but it deemed this brand new distribution model old-fashioned the day it was invented.
I feel like Reznor and I are two peas in adjacent pods. We’re both musicians, we’ve both released music for free, we’ve both released open-source music accessible to remixers, and we both agree with (but I don’t practise) an artist’s right to ask for money for his works. All that remains between us is that last bastion of forced commercialism.
If you own the copyright to the perfect triangle it’s reasonable for you to sell copies of the perfect triangle you drew with your top-end artist’s gear on the finest Egyptian papyrus. However, everyone in the world owns at least a couple of pencils and a pad of graph paper and they can draw their own low-grade squiggly triangles just fine. How on earth do you intend to enforce the monetization of triangles people draw themselves, and why put yourself through that unachievable exercise? Why not let people draw all the triangles they want until it’s a household name, and when they’re ready to see the Cadillac of triangles they’ll already know where to find you?