How Trent Reznor's "The Slip" Helped Pave The Way For New Music Distribution Models

When you are signed to a label, you will often receive a very small share of the actual sale of your physical album.

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For example, if you were to sell a $10 physical album, the record label would take $9 and leave you with $1 (Source: Investing Answers).

In 2008, Trent Reznor (from Nine Inch Nails/How to Destrory Angels) decided to bypass the record label and create his own independent record label (The Null Corporation). This allows him to do basically whatever he wants with his albums, because he owns the rights to his music.

With this new freedom, he decided to release the album as a free download, with the option to purchase special edition physical, and digital copies (it's still available for free on his website today.)

It's essentially a "pay-what-you-want" payment model, and it worked miracles; Trent sold 98,000 of the "paid copies" (and had well over 2 million downloads).

Keep in mind that he was able to keep all the profits, so a $10 album nets him around $8 (when you consider the cost to print the covers, CD duplication, etc.; he would have had to sell 10x the amount of records for the same amount to make a similar amount of profit.

Distribution Before The Slip

The record industry has long made consumers out to be ravenous wolves who will steal whatever they can get. The idea of "pay-what-you-want" didn't really exist, and offering your music for free was not common for large bands before "The Slip" was released.

One example of a band that did this before The Slip was Radiohead, who had previously offered a similar deal with their album, "In Rainbows"(Oct. 10, 2007).  But the free offer was retracted only 2 months later, so I don't think I can acknowledge it as a committed act.

Before that, there was outrage from music industry executives when Prince released his album, "Planet Earth" for free with every "Mail on Sunday" british tabloid (July 15, 2007). 3 million copies were given away, practically revitalizing Prince's career.

Prince's display is different from "The Slip" and "In Rainbows" though, as there was no digital "pay-what-you-want" option, so I can't concede that he "beat them to the punch".

Before the slip, it was also very rare, if not unheard of, to release an album under the Creative Commons licence. I won't go deep into what that means here, but you can read more about it over at Creative Commons Wiki: The Slip.

The idea of allowing people to pay whatever they want scared the nuts out of recording labels. "What if nobody pays?" they would say.

Going with this model means you actually have to trust your fans, rather than controlling them. This is not an attitude that labels like.

In this interview with Reznor, the interviewer says something that really reinforces what I'm saying:

"Your solution seems to be to trust your fans, rather than treat them as a market ripe for exploiting, which has been the major labels’ way. You’ve put your financial fate in your fans’ hands."

This statement really accurately describes how labels thought before this album.

They still think this way, but...

How Things Have Changed

The general world of music is moving more and more towards these out-of-the-box ideas for distributing music. 

Entire platforms have even been developed around offering these types of payment methods (Bandcamp), and I see more and more artists adopting them every day.

Although the internet itself was a disruption in the music industry, Reznor's committed and genuine expression in this creative distribution act has given independent artists hope that they can do it too, without the label

Reznor has stated himself that he couldn't have achieved this level of success if he weren't already a big name, but that doesn't mean that smaller artists can't achieve smaller levels of success.

That's quite a disruption for labels if you ask me, and the current trend is going more and more towards independently releasing your own music.

Artists such as yourself, now have tons of websites and resources dedicated to teaching you how to release your own stuff (CyberPR, IndieGuide, MusicThinkTank, even TheRealMusician).

Many artists are now making a decent living by:

  • releasing tons of music through digital distribution (iTunes, Tunecore, CDBaby, Bandcamp, etc)
  • respecting and connecting with their audiences through social media, email, and in person
  • performing a buttload of concerts
  • offering creative & quality merchandise options (Reznor speaks a bit about that in this interview)
  • selling the rights to their songs to TV, movies, or ad campaigns.
  • offering members-only sections of your website for hardcore fans - shows a good example of this, though personally I can't stand his music.
  • following the general outline of 1,000 true fans.

A lot of these things were never previously possible, and I feel that The Slip was a memorable milestone for change in the music industry.

What other milestones am I missing for change in the music industry? Let me (and others) know in the comments below.

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My name is Andrew Muller. I love creative art, music, television shows, movies, video games, and a good story.

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