With the music industry constantly changing, losing money and never likely to act as a cohesive business ever again, some well-known rock and pop acts are foregoing longtime major label relationships to put out music on their own terms. And early returns for them are looking good.
Radiohead, and now Trent Reznor, with his industrial hard rock band Nine Inch Nails, are among the big names in popular music who have released new material on their own respective websites in recent months. Ghosts I-IV, NIN's new and all-instrumental 36-track album went on sale in various, low and high-paying formats March 2 on NIN.com and in its first week generated $1.6 million in revenue from over 800,000 download sales.
Unlike Radiohead however, NIN, who left Interscope Records late last year, plans to keep their new material away from a record label. Radiohead on the other hand, after releasing their seventh studio album In Rainbows online on a pay-whatever-you-want basis in October of 2007, ended up signing with a label anyway, XL Recordings. They released it on CD on New Year's Day. And also unlike Radiohead's music files, which were mid-level quality at 160kbps, NIN's choice of audio quality is of the highest caliber, at 320kbps for mp3s and lossless formats available for a higher price. You could also purchase CDs, DVDs and limited vinyl versions of Ghosts I-IV as well, again, all without any record label's input. The latter came as part of the already sold-out $300 limited edition, of which there were only 2,500 and were personally numbered and autographed by Reznor.
Though not enough time has passed to sufficiently compare the two artists in terms of sales numbers, both appear to be enjoying success with their new directions, not to mention highly acclaimed music, especially in Radiohead's case. Radiohead never made official estimates of their online sales, but various reports say they made millions of dollars on the online edition of In Rainbows, perhaps up to $6 million, with downloaders paying $5-8 on average for the album. Lead singer/guitarist Thom Yorke has said: "[W]e've made more money out of this record than out of all the other Radiohead albums put together, forever – in terms of anything on the 'net."
NIN's successful way of doing business may not revolutionize the music industry as a whole, but it may influence artists in ways Radiohead and independent artists like Ani DiFranco (who runs her own label Righteous Babe) have not to this point. In addition to marketing his new album on his own website, Reznor, who has been in the business for twenty years now, paid just under $40 to have Amazon.com sell it as 36 mp3s for $5 (which matches the lowest price you can pay for it on his own web page). He also gave away the first 9 songs for free on his site and on BitTorrent, presumably so that fans can get a good taste of the album and spread the word about it on the web. You can also get a free, 40-paged PDF from NIN's site. It contains visual representations of all the songs, courtesy of Rob Sheridan and Phillip Graybill.
What was most fantastic, shockingly simple, and perhaps influential about Reznor's self-release is his Amazon.com deal: he only had to pay Tunecore $38 to distribute the Ghosts album to Amazon's mp3 store. This method of marketing allows artists to own their music AND keep 100% of all royalties. All for under $40!
If more high profile artists take after NIN's all-encompassing strategy of selling music — especially the use of Tunecore — this could inspire who knows how many legions of musicians to come up with similarly unconventional album packages that are attractive, innovative, and relatively cheap to make and sell. And no record label would be needed.
But without labels, big or small, promoting your material would still be a big challenge, as would sustaining a career without a recording contract in general. That's where a growing number of independent media companies and concert promoters like Live Nation come in. This could be a highly rewarding or bad career decision for musicians, and may or may not result in the same kind of contractual and business-related headaches artists experience with record companies.
Newly inducted Rock Hall of Fame member Madonna recently said she will be leaving Warner Bros. after her new album Hard Candy comes out next month. Instead, she will work with Live Nation on all future releases — minus one greatest hits CD she contractually owes Warner Bros. — for the next ten years. Thus, it remains to be seen how an artist even as big as Madonna succeeds with a concert promoter running the show instead of a label.
In all, there may be plenty of retro acts out there trying to make hits by recycling the past, but there are a few forward-thinking star musicians trying new ways to market the music you crave. Who knows which new methods, if any, will have a lasting impact on the music industry, but at least Reznor and Radiohead are at the moment making a significant contribution to popular music once again.
Note: Pre-orders for the CD and other physical versions of Ghosts I-IV are available and will be shipped out, starting April 8.