Will We Ever Pay for an Album Again?

Has the music industry reached a tipping point?

Unless you're a fan of industrial grunge, you may not have read this week that the group Nine Inch Nails — which these days is basically musical prodigy Trent Reznor with a whole lot of time in the recording studio — has just released its new album, The Slip, for free off the NIN website.

"As a thank you to our fans for your continued support, we are giving away the new Nine Inch Nails album one hundred percent free, exclusively via nin.com," Reznor wrote on the site to his millions of fans. He has also reportedly said: "This one's on me."

Just as interesting, on the same page, Reznor tells the downloaders: "We encourage you to remix it, share it with your friends, post it on your blog, play it on your podcast, give it to strangers, etc." In other words, Reznor is not only giving the album to his fans, but also giving them carte blanche to pass it around, cut it up, mash it … heck, even sell it if they can figure out a way.

I'm not a NIN fanatic, but I have been a big admirer of Reznor's work (and the videos even more) for many years. And I know that he has long railed against the record industry, and has had more than his share of disputes with his record company. So, it's good to see him stepping up and literally putting his money where his mouth is.

Better yet, the early reviews suggest that The Slip is a very good album — maybe not Pretty Hate Machine, but perhaps as good as Broken … which is pretty impressive, and easily makes the case that Reznor is giving away the very best he can do at this point in his career.

And that too says something important. Late last year, when Radiohead set this new wave in motion by giving away In Rainbows, I used this column to cheer their move as the arrival of Web 2.0 thinking to music. But at the same time, after listening to album a few times, I wasn't sure Radiohead had really given us its "A" game.

Several months of listening have changed my mind: In Rainbows isn't The Bends (or, heaven knows, OK Computer) but its rhythm-driven tracks are both mesmerizing and addictive. Radiohead, like Nine Inch Nails, not only gave away a record, but some of its best stuff.

Now, add to that the news last week that Coldplay was offering a free downloadable track, "Violet Hill," from its upcoming album Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends. So great was the demand by downloaders that Coldplay's Web site temporarily crashed.

Nevertheless, this Wednesday the band announced that two million downloads of the track had already taken place — its spokesperson proudly announcing that "It would have outsold the whole of last week's top 40 [singles] four times over."

In other words, in the last six months, the world's greatest band, the world's most admired cult band, and the world's most popular band have all decided to give their creations — worth tens of millions of dollars — away to their fans. That's the trifecta folks: popular music will never again be the same.

You might have dismissed Radiohead's move as just the latest of leader Thom Yorke's wacky anti-capitalist crusades, and Coldplay's move as just clever PR for its new album and tour (and, somehow, Chris Martin's own Fair Trade crusade) — but with NIN now in the game, its hard to argue that this is anything but a harbinger of the future. Had only Mariah Carey given away part of her new album E=MC2 — yeah, like that would happen — this wave would have become instant tsunami.

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