American Culture

TunesDay: NIN, Lefsetz and the realities of Net success

In case you missed it, Trent Reznor yesterday released the new Nine Inch Nails CD, The Slip, as a free download. I’ve only had time to listen to it once, and that was while I was working. So I’ll let you know what I think once I’ve been able to give it a few minutes of real attention. In any case, it’s free NIN, and what’s not to love about that.

Industry watcher and pundit extraordinaire Bob Lefsetz predictably has some thoughts about the release. I’m a big Lefsetz fan, mainly because of his relentless assaults on music industry greed and stupidity, and if you’re somebody who’s disgusted, dismayed or confused by how bad the music biz has gotten in recent years, you need to be a Lefsetz Letter subscriber.

That said, Bob has his blind spots. Yes, the Internet represents a big opportunity for bands, as he notes in yesterday’s letter. Some snippets:

The Net is the very best thing that has ever happened to everybody but superstars.

The major labels are freaked out. Because historically they’ve only made money in the recorded music sphere. They’ve got opportunities in the future too, if they’d only step into the twenty first century. But they’re about amalgamation, you’re about…one.

First and foremost, for the very first time in history, you can know who your audience is. You can collect the e-mail address of everybody who likes your music. Maybe give a track away for free for an e-mail address. Maybe not all of the addresses will be valid, but if they’re truly fans, they’d LOVE IT if you contacted them in the future. This is what Led Zeppelin did with their O2 ticket sale, this is what Radiohead did with their name your own price “In Rainbows” deal, this is what Trent Reznor does again and again. You have to harvest e-mail addresses. So when you go on tour, when you’ve got something to sell, you can ALERT YOUR FANS!

And it’s no longer ONLY when you’re on tour. You can sell t-shirts while you’re at home watching the tube. People who’ve never seen you live can order a t-shirt or keychain or autographed tchotchke. Hell, you can PERSONALIZE all your merch and sell it at an exorbitant price. Shit, you can even ask your fans for money to record. True fans will give you ALL their dough. They want to support you, they’re in it for the long haul… Unlike the label. If your first emphasis track/single fails, the fan doesn’t drop you, he redoubles his effort, he’s even more committed, because you NEED HIM!

You’re living in the best era for music creation and distribution in the history of mankind. By complaining, you’re just showing your ignorance. Knowing how to play is not enough. Just like you can’t survive in today’s world without knowing how to type. Don’t cling tighter to history and complain, take a typing lesson, do some research, TAKE A CHANCE!

Pretty harsh language, although he’s right about the opportunities. The problem is that Lefsetz sometimes fails to grasp that there’s a difference – a big, qualitative and quantitative difference – between bands. Look at the success stories he talks about – NIN, Radiohead – when he says this:

I’m not sure you need a publicity agent anymore. Someone with relationships with newspapers and TV. That’s fine if you want to be Mariah Carey… But remember “Glitter”? No one wanted to see her thereafter, until she was resurrected by L.A. Reid… Whereas Trent’s not dependent on singles, not hits…he’s got FANS!

Well, no – if I’m Trent or Thom I probably don’t need a publicity agent. I don’t need any of the crap that you once needed. Pearl Jam is doing okay without radio and the conventional machine, too.

But in what way are NIN, Radiohead and PJ different from that great band you saw in a local club last week?

Let me ask the question a different way: name me a band that exists on the same level as NIN and Radiohead that got there exclusively via the Internet? Name me a band that has a wall plastered with platinum records that did it DIY with $6 and a mule Web site.

Right. Lefsetz acts like nobody had heard of NIN before Woodstock, but that simply isn’t true. Yeah, Woodstock helped blow Reznor up even more, but he had, via the machine, already established a rep and a fan base. I’d seen the videos for “Wish” and “Head Like a Hole,” for instance, on MTV. My first exposure to Pearl Jam was also through MTV. Radiohead was bigger than god before they had a Web site.

If you’re already a publicity gravity well, if you already have the attention of millions, you’re positioned to innovate, to take chances, to abandon the machine and embrace the power of the Web. If you’re Trent Reznor and you do something like release a CD free on the Web, people are not only going to do that viral thing, but established media outlets are going to cover it. And it’s a disservice to suggest otherwise.

Let me give you an example. Another pretty damned good band, Big Head Todd & the Monsters, gave their new CD away on their Web site not too long ago. They played the Web game the way Lefsetz says you have to. They tour relentlessly and have for years. They’re focusing more heavily on driving revenue through merchandise. And so on. You heard about it here at S&R, but … did you hear about it anywhere else? As best I can tell you didn’t hear about it on Lefsetz’s site. That’s not a slam at Bob, it’s merely an indicator that you have to reach a certain level before even a guy like him hears about it – and his ear is always to the ground.

So yeah, the Net is a great tool. Yes, it allows you to do things you maybe couldn’t have done before. It breeds innovation. And some day, perhaps, we’ll see an industry-redefining breakthrough, where a band reaches Radiohead/NIN multi-platinum status using only the Web and social media.

But until then we have to stop kidding ourselves that the old channels don’t matter at all. The corruption and ineptitude in the labels, in the radio conglomerates and in the FCC, which has allowed it to happen, is taking a legitimate toll on the American musical landscape and on the culture generally. So far, the Internet hasn’t solved that problem for us.

Sorry we’re a day late on Tuesday, folks. But around here every day is music day, right?

12 replies »

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  2. You’re absolutely right that artists at NIN’s level can afford to use Web-only channels to sell and market their work, since they already have a huge fanbase that spreads the word independently–I, for instance, heard about the release of “Slip” both on Techdirt and my friends’ Livejournals. (How’s that for a mashup?)

    But look at all the bands using YouTube videos to vault themselves into the public sphere, like OK GO and the hilarious treadmill stuff. There’s no sure way to success in the Net-only sphere, any more than there is in the old-school way of getting a record label behind you, but sometimes people strike gold. Other times they strike out.

    In Trent’s case, even before the “machine” pushed him to success, “Pretty Hate Machine” was getting constant play on the alternative radio stations, in the goth clubs, and so on. It wasn’t until “Broken” that MTV really latched on to him, but the underground knew what was up.

    I think Lefsetz is being overly triumphalist, and you’re being excessively pessimistic. The era of record label hegemony isn’t quite over yet, but the need for them to adapt to the new realities of digital marketing has never been stronger. The smart ones will do for their artists what Trent has done for himself, and the stupid ones will die off.

  3. Nice article, and nice response, Martin. I was also going to mention OK GO as an internet success story. That video broke on youtube before it did any business on MTV.

    I think we’re still in a gasp moment. Neither the industry or bands seem to fully grasp the impact of the current landscape. Ten years ago, it was an advantage if your drummer was also a good graphic artist. Now we may be at the stage where having a singer who is also a marketing grad may be the biggest advantage.

    Bands have it better now than they ever have. High quality recordings can be made very cheaply using a computer. High quality videos can also be made using the same computer. And thankfully, the MTV age appears to be over — ugly rock stars may once again apply. You only need a little computer skill to be your own digital distributor. You can target your market very precisely, and for free, by collecting email addresses. You can book tours via email addresses, too.

    In other words, if your band members are willing to put in the legwork and you have someone in the band who can handle the publicity, there really is no reason why you couldn’t go all the way on your own.

  4. No disrespect intended, but let me inject a bit of a reality check here. I’m talking about bands in the NIN/Radiohead stratosphere and the best you got is … OK Go? Seriously?

    Let me note that you have one success story, and best I can tell they only have one gold record (if I missed one let me know).

    Further, let’s dispel the notion that they’re an Internet ground-up operation. No arguing what the vids did for their career, of course, but to suggest that nobody had heard of them before they discovered the Internets is bad revisionism. As with other bands we’re talking about, they had a base from which to launch their viral. Check the timeline for details.

    To be clear, I’m not dogging what the Internet can do. But let’s not get silly and start pretending that it’s doing things that it has NEVER DONE.

  5. Isn’t kind of a google type music stream? Basically, users track the music they listen to and the site gives suggestions for stuff that sounds similar or in the same genre or whatever. Seems net marketing would involve making sure your band is part of that “suggestion” list of songs somehow. I’m not sure if you’d need a big PR company for that or not.

    Maybe someone should develop a google type search engine that crawls the net looking for band websites and MP3 files, streaming it all together like or based on user preferences? Each band would register their website with category Tags?

  6. Ultimately, we’re talking about the definition of an artist. As Fikshun says, “if your band members are willing to put in the legwork and you have someone in the band who can handle the publicity, there really is no reason why you couldn’t go all the way on your own.”

    But who made this new rule that musicians — as well as artists and novelists — have to be PR and marketing people too? For God’s sake, that’s one reason they’re artists — cause theyre not cut out for those under-assistant, West Coast promotion roles.

    As it stands now, the most successful artists are the best businesspersons. What about other artists as good or better? It’s gotten more Darwinian than ever.

    (Incidentally, no offense NIN fans. But after the brilliant “Pretty Hate Machine,” NIN became pretty monotonous.)

  7. Dr Slammy,

    I agree with you 100%. I’m not arguing that established artists who already have name recognition and legions of fans can’t ditch labels and handle things themselves (though it should be noted that when Trent released his previous album, Ghosts, by himself, he hadn’t anticipated the response and his servers ate a gun for a day or so). Obviously, they have fans who check websites daily and pass things along by word of mouth. Obviously, news of their free releases will generate legitimate free press that will do the marketing for them.

    I’m just saying that we’re in a gasp moment where everyone is still feeling out exactly what is possible. We just haven’t seen the band yet that can put it all together, but I think it’s coming.

    To Russ:
    Artists sit at home and create. If you’ve heard of them or own their CDs, I would put them in another category called entertainers. Entertainers are either more business savvy or have a manager to handle that. While their images may be crafted to make them look like tortured, naive artists, most are just good business people who can play an instrument. They’re not in the positions they’re in by accident.

  8. Russ, I loved PHM and wish he’d have done a bit more of that before heading where he is now. Year Zero and The Slip seem to be moving toward minimalist ambient. Less overtly angry and destructive, too. But yeah, his sound hasn’t changed a whole lot and it’s very distinct. I still think it’s interesting. At least he hasn’t reached the stage of Steve Roach.