This past week Trent Reznor followed in the footsteps of Radiohead and many other bands currently trying to change the way we purchase music when he announced on the Nine Inch Nails’ website the independent release of a new record,Ghosts I-IV. The 36-track album, or four EP set was available immediately for digital download or pre-order in either CD or LP formats, and was offered to listeners in several different audio quality and price formats from a free nine track MP3 download to a $300 signed and numbered Deluxe Edition set that included both physical and digital versions of the record.
Ghosts is the first album NIN released since it broke away from its contract with Interscope Records, a move that mirrors Radiohead’s decision to release last year’s In Rainbows autonomous from its former label EMI. Now while Reznor didn’t entirely follow the “pay what you feel is appropriate” model that Radiohead promoted with Rainbows, Ghosts furthers the mounting notion that music listeners are looking for options in how they acquire and digest music.
To be fair a move like this wasn’t entirely unexpected for a musician like Trent Reznor. Long before In Rainbows stirred things up in the media, Reznor had been exploring the digital realm of promoting and distributing NIN music and even butted heads with his former label shortly after the release of last year’s Year Zero. Upon Zero’s official release Reznor was apparently appalled by the record’s high retail cost and even promoted illegal download acquisition of the album to fans to protest the higher powers. So unlike Radiohead’s surprise announcement last fall, it’s safe to say it was only a matter of time before Reznor took things into his own hands.
Still if you forget all the hype surrounding this new wave of sticking it to the record companies, a possible beginning of the end for the current industry, the most striking part of this story is Reznor’s newest opus itself.
It’s fitting that Ghosts I-IV was released in this manner because five to ten years ago, even when NIN was in its peak, a record of this nature probably would never have seen the light of day. Reznor no doubt realized this fact going into the recording of this album. Originally conceived to be a simple five track instrumental EP, Reznor decided to fulfill a dream he had been toying with for quite some time and instead concocted nearly two hours of varied instrumental tracks, each matching up with a separate visual entity.
Gone are Reznor’s agonizing vocals and harsh, politically charged lyrics. Absent too are song titles, which often serve as snippets into Reznor’s agenda or current mindset. Instead Ghosts is a fascinating collection of mini electronic symphonies that are at times haunting, at times beautiful, and surprisingly never boring, despite the record’s daunting scope. Each is paired up with a photograph provided in a downloadable PDF or an eventual 40-page liner note set. The images range from bleak exterior shots of desert landscapes to studio shots of Reznor and team working their magic with a slew of bizarre instruments and endless cords, knobs and control boards.
Ghosts I-IV was the result of an intense 10-week recording session that Reznor describes on his website as having, “a wildly varied body of music that we’re able to present to the world in ways the confines of a major record label would never have allowed.” The album was recorded either solo or in collaboration with a group of NIN regulars and friends including Brian Viglione of The Dresden Dolls and legendary experimental guitarist Adrian Belew, whose impressive resume includes his former band King Crimson, work with Frank Zappa, Paul Simon, Talking Heads, and David Bowie, during his heavy instrumental Berlin sessions. Longtime collaborator and former shoe gazer producer Alan Moulder (My Bloody Valentine, Smashing Pumpkins) also overlooked the sessions.
Reznor added on his website: This music arrived unexpectedly as the result of an experiment. The rules were as follows: 10 weeks, no clear agenda, no overthinking, everything driven by impulse. Whatever happens during that time gets released as… something.
Nine Inch Nails have long experimented with instrumental tracks on its records. Fragile, Reznor’s magnum double disc follow-up to The Downward Spiral, felt at times like a twisted, dark score to a dismal film that only Reznor could conjure up. Reznor has often spoken of his admiration for the instrumental work of Bowie, particularly on 1977s Low, a radical departure for the musical chameleon that featured numerous electronic soundscape tracks that were overlooked by Brian Eno. Ghosts in many ways mimics the second half of Low and the works of Eno, who spent much of his solo career creating ambient instrumental symphonies to be played in the background. Here Reznor seems to go with that concept on Ghosts and takes it up a notch.
Still unlike previous NIN records Ghosts feels very clean. While many of the instruments are eventually buried under waves of filtering and distortion, it is clear that a level of in-studio improvisation and real instrumentation played an important role in the recording sessions. Take “13” from Ghosts II, a sleepy little melodic piano piece carried by an almost soothing drum pulse. Or “6” from Ghosts I, a curious little composition propelled by what sounds like a marimba and subtle string orchestration that would feel right at home on a science fiction film soundtrack. Not the usual fare from the guy who once wrote, “Head like a hole. Black as your soul.”
Perhaps this is what’s most fascinating about Ghosts and why the record’s title is so fitting. NIN’s past efforts have always involved a level of social commentary and haunting reflections from one of the darker minds of our generation. Yet withGhosts Reznor has gone a completely different direction following merely what he thought sounded good and riding with it. It’s almost as if the soothing tracks and the more extreme, darker tracks included here are all afterthoughts or spirits of previous NIN compositions.
It will be interesting to see what other artists and bands follow suit and decide to take the distribution side of the industry into their own hands. Bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails succeeded in these little experiments (NIN.com’s servers actually crashed from a higher download demand than was anticipated after Ghosts was first posted) undoubtedly because of strong backing from a large fan base. In past years smaller groups like Arcade Fire and Wilco have used the net to stream its albums before the official release, another tactic that gives listeners a taste and hopefully entices them to purchase the album.
While an album like Ghosts I-IV is clearly aimed at a certain loyal audience, and not the average listening consumer, this may turn out to be an important step for Reznor because this seems to be a viable manner of putting his music out there for the world to hear. With a proposed follow-up album toYear Zero already in the back of his mind we may very well see another move like this down the road.
Record companies seem to be clinching to the ways of yesteryears when they need to realize that consumers of music are looking for choices when it comes to acquiring music. The age of dishing out $16 for a CD is slowly coming to an end. The PBS/PRI, pledge drive format that Radiohead essentially backed with In Rainbows forced listeners decide how much this music was worth to them. Financially and artistically it was a success.
Some have suggested that music should be something people pay subscription prices for and that the four major labels should each provide listeners with unlimited downloads of their respective catalogues for monthly or annual fees, rather than individual record sales. Reznor decided to simply give his listeners a series of options. Get a taste of Ghosts I for free, download the record as a whole for $5, add on the double disc CD format for $10 or go all out and splurge on the collector’s version. Smart marketing, sure. Important move for the state of the industry? Only time will tell.