Correction: Saul Williams' album debuts Thursday and is available for free or a $5 donation.
Rocker Trent Reznor doesn't pretend to know the answers to what ails the music industry.
But that hasn't stopped the iconoclastic front man for the band Nine Inch Nails from marching to the front lines--in lock step with British band Radiohead--in an assault on the traditional music business.
Reznor, who made news earlier this month when he left his record label, spoke Tuesday with CNET News.com about the decision. He also bashed the music industry, detailed how he persuaded performer Saul Williams to give away his latest album for free, praised Radiohead for distributing music directly to fans via the Web, and indicated that instead of fighting the so-called free culture--people who share music online--he plans to embrace it.
"Personally, I would like people to support artists," Reznor said. "After all, we as artists dedicate our lives to producing the best music we can. It's been a painful process for me personally (to see the changes in the music industry). But should I be angry at the audience that wants to hear music so much, an audience that is so passionate about hearing it they go online to get it two weeks before the music debuts? No, I want them to be that way."
Reznor has become a revolutionary figure to the file-sharing community. A video appeared recently at YouTube that showed him during a concert performance lamenting the high prices of CDs. Fans whooped it up when Reznor told them to go ahead and steal his music.
Since then, Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead have become symbols of a growing movement among performers who are trying to use the Web to cut out the traditional middlemen of distribution: record labels.
Radiohead shook the industry earlier this month by releasing a digital version of their latest album and asking fans pay whatever price they believed the album was worth. It was unprecedented move largely because it appeared to address an issue that music industry has largely tried to ignore. Music fans, many of whom obtain songs for free through illegal file sharing, perceive the dollar value of songs as almost nothing. Unless something dramatic occurs, many believe there is a chance a large number of fans will never again be swayed to plunk down money for music.
Reznor, 42, said that the music industry is spinning its wheels trying to fight that perception. He said that in the future songs can be a way to entice fans to buy concert tickets and merchandise and he recognized that this may be how musicians make their living. He has recently produced an album for Williams, a rapper/filmmaker/spoken-word artist, called The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust, which goes on sale Thursday on Williams' site.
Not coincidentally, the digital version of the album, which is free of copy-protection software, is priced for free or fans can make a $5 donation. It was Reznor's idea to give away Williams' music in a similar way as Radiohead.
"Radiohead is one of my favorite bands," Reznor said. "When they announced they were releasing that album for free, I got dozens of text messages. It gave me goose bumps. It's such an exciting way to sell a record."
Now, here's the rub. Reznor isn't the na?ve artist who doesn't understand dollars and cents. He said that he knows giving away music may not make business sense. In addition, such a model could work for marquee bands like Radiohead but not for up-and-coming acts.
"Radiohead has a built-in audience and they have the luxury of being able to experiment with a new distribution model," Reznor said. "I think there were some serious flaws with how they executed but it was a good idea."
Reznor addressed some of the questions about whether artists are prepared to become merchants. Who is going to oversee sales, promotion, marketing, site supervision, and the countless other chores that record labels historically handled?
But Reznor isn't afraid to get his hands dirty. He said that he was part of the negotiations with Musicane,the company handling the online distribution of Williams' upcoming album. Musicane is overseeing fulfillment, payment processing, and customer service.
The beauty of Musicane, according to Reznor, is that it provides the backbone for distribution without requiring musicians to invest "hundreds of thousands of dollars."
"Look, we're looking for what works and this seemed like it made sense," Reznor said. "Ask me in a week about how it went and hopefully I'll be saying the same thing."
It's doubtful that even if problems crop up Reznor can be dissuaded from his belief that the Internet is good for artists. He thinks that the Web creates direct links between musicians and their fans. This is beneficial even if sometimes it's hard for performers to stand out among the countless acts trying to promote themselves online.
"The greatest thing about the Internet is that everybody is their own distributor," Reznor said. "Being your own distributor is power and the thing that labels once held over artists. The power of getting your message out to an audience is very empowering as an artist. These are exciting times and things are happening that I couldn't imagine just a few years ago."
As for the future, well, Reznor fully acknowledges that he--like everybody else in music--is unsure of how things will turn out. But he says he's sure of one thing: the old way of doing business is dead.
"I don't know what the future holds," he said. "I don't know what model is going to work. I do know relationships between music labels and artist like myself aren't going well. These days when digital elements come into play labels have dealt with them generally poorly. It has gotten to a place where it couldn't be worse. Their treatment of artists has less sympathy and it's more like 'What can we get out of you?' My only concern has always been that my audience is treated fairly."