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 theyâ€™ve only made money in the recorded music sphere. Theyâ€™ve got opportunities in the future too, if theyâ€™d only step into the twenty first century. But theyâ€™re about amalgamation, youâ€™re aboutâ€¦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 theyâ€™re truly fans, theyâ€™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 youâ€™ve got something to sell, you can ALERT YOUR FANS!
And itâ€™s no longer ONLY when youâ€™re on tour. You can sell t-shirts while youâ€™re at home watching the tube. People whoâ€™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, theyâ€™re in it for the long haulâ€¦ Unlike the label. If your first emphasis track/single fails, the fan doesnâ€™t drop you, he redoubles his effort, heâ€™s even more committed, because you NEED HIM!
Youâ€™re living in the best era for music creation and distribution in the history of mankind. By complaining, youâ€™re just showing your ignorance. Knowing how to play is not enough. Just like you canâ€™t survive in todayâ€™s world without knowing how to type. Donâ€™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:
Iâ€™m not sure you need a publicity agent anymore. Someone with relationships with newspapers and TV. Thatâ€™s fine if you want to be Mariah Careyâ€¦ But remember “Glitter”? No one wanted to see her thereafter, until she was resurrected by L.A. Reidâ€¦ Whereas Trentâ€™s not dependent on singles, not hitsâ€¦heâ€™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?