NIN Offers Free Lunch!

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Changes in media distribution are often regarded with a sense of confusion: Admirers think of change within the context of an economic rebellion and treat it with an awe of reverence; detractors dismiss it as a naive marketing ploy. As with most conflicting views, however, the truth of the matter lies somewhere in between.

When Radiohead decided to offer their seventh studio album as an online download three months prior to its release, they also trusted their fans to pay whatever they wanted for the album. This basically meant that a good number of people (myself included) could legally download the songs directly from their website free of charge and free from guilty.

In March, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails criticized Radiohead's efforts for being insincere: He claimed that since the quality of the download is inferior to the quality you'd find on CD or vinyl, Radiohead's online release "was very much a bait and switch to get you to pay for a MySpace-quality stream as a way to promote a very traditional record sale." In other words, Radiohead's publicity stunt should by no means be considered a revolution in the way music is distributed.

On Monday, Reznor gave us a picture of what a more revolutionary way to distribute music might look like by offering the band's latest album, The Slip, as a free download. What's different? Just what Reznor emphasized earlier: the quality of the songs. Armed with an email address and speakers, I can now download the album in any combination of four different qualities from the Nine Inch Nails website, giving me the opportunity to drown my ears in various degrees of sound fidelity.

How anyone can tell the difference between the same array of broken melodies and cacophonic sounds when it is played in either low or high quality is beyond me. The more important question this brings up is what kind of benefit this new form of distribution has for the band.

As illicit and legal downloads have popularized over the last several years, album sales have seen a sharp decline. While music distributors bemoan lost revenue and enforce tough measures against cyber pirates who traffic in intellectual property, musicians have the opportunity to distinguish themselves as standing apart from their distributors. By doing this, bands can establish a credible relationship with their fans.

Reznor's move suggests a time-tested artistic creed: I'm not in for the money, it's all about the music. Although some revenue is inevitably lost, what Reznor gains instead is a sense of authenticity that helps to establish a community of trusting fans.

While it may not seem like a sustainable business strategy, trust itself is a type of currency. Fans that are treated well are more likely to attend concerts, purchase merchandise and even buy albums. It's like shopping at a bazaar: If a certain vendor offers you free products, you are more likely to continue shopping there. By creating the sensation that they are trustworthy, artists ultimately increase the value of their bands over the long term.

Nine Inch Nails neglected to include an option to pay for the album, probably assuming that those who download music do so because of cost and wouldn't pay anyway. However, the album version of The Slip will be released in a couple of months. In a post on the band's website, Reznor thanks his fans "for your continued and loyal support over the years - this one's on me." Ultimately, however, he remains guilty of the same criticism he leveled against Radiohead: using a ploy to increase returns.

Swap music with Ariel at [email protected]

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