C|Net interviewed Trent Reznor to talk about music downloads.
Williams and Reznor were trying to follow the lead of Radiohead by distributing music online without the backing of a label. Like the British supergroup, Williams made the album available for free in one version but he also offered the option of buying a higher-quality digital download for $5. The promotions were groundbreaking and plenty of people predicted that a profitable outcome would convince many musicians to drop their labels and use the Internet to distribute their own artistic creations.
And then Reznor ended the hoopla last week when he reported on his blog that 154,449 people had downloaded NiggyTardust and 28,322 of them paid the $5 as of January 2. In the blog, Reznor suggested that he was "disheartened" by the results.
I'm going to posit here that what's going on is that the record industry has made its bed, and must needs now sleep in it. They've pushed overcommercialized crap out to their customers for so long, overcharged for so long, ripped off their own recording artists for so long, that a very large chunk of their customer base has gotten soured on the idea of buying music at all. Music fans have come to learn that even when a band that's actually any good releases a new CD on a major label, the chances are the record company is going to have ruined it by ordering the recording engineer to firewall the gain and pin the VU meters because the record company executives are convinced that (a) radio play sells records and (b) louder is better on the radio. The record company executives all have tin ears anyway (just look at some of the crap that they release for proof) and can't tell good music from bad in the first place, so who cares? And if there's only two half-decent tracks on the entire CD, and the rest of it is space-filler shit ... well, we've got the customers' money by the time they find that out, so, again, who cares?
The music fans have been stolen from by the record companies for so long that they regard turnabout as fair play. Now that the record companies have taught their market that 90% of their product isn't worth paying money for, they're just going to have to suck it up and deal with it until they can convince the market that they can produce product that's actually worth buying again. And as for the artists, well, half the reason a lot of the smaller artists are going to indie labels is because they've learned by experience that the major labels are going to screw them so hard that they can put out a successful release and, by the time the record company accountants get done cooking the books and charging proceeds to made-up expenses, end up owing the record company money. (And a good portion of the rest is that they know damn well a major label will start telling them what to write and what to produce, and will use the contract terms to screw them over until they give in and do as they're told.)
I think Trent should be pretty pleased to see that one in five people who downloaded the album paid $5 for the premium-quality version. Sure, it's not a landslide. But it's a start. And in fact, Trent goes on to say,
If I had a record to put out today, I would do something very similar to what we just did cause I don't think there is a better option. I would include a physical piece as I just said and all of the components I would make sure had value.
I think he gets it. Which is going to be more profitable in the long run: to release a new CD through a record company, have it show up on store shelves priced at $15, and see maybe 50¢ for every disc that actually sells — minus every dollar the record company can find a rationale to charge to promotion, advertising, advances, and anything else they can dream up to justify keeping an extra couple of per cent of the gross; or to release it yourself on the Internet., maybe only get paid for one copy in five, and get to keep the whole five bucks?
Saul Williams' album — and he's by no means a household name — SOLD 28,322 copies out of 154,449 total downloads (through January 2). That's about 142,000 bucks, at $5 per premium paid download. Would Saul have seen a $142,000 check from a major-label record company after releasing a CD that sold 155,000 copes? No way in hell. He'd be lucky to see $14,000.