Trent Reznor Talks To Techdirt About His Unconventional New Record Deal, And Why He Still Loves DIY
from the not-everything-is-as-it-seems dept
Contrary to what you may have been hearing lately, Trent Reznor still thinks there’s a big future in “do it yourself” efforts for musicians these days (and he expects to do it again at some point). And, no, he doesn’t think that bands need a label. Nor did he go back to a major label because they wrote some huge check. It appears that there have been a lot of bogus stories floating around in response to the news that Trent Reznor signed a “major label” deal with Columbia Records (part of Sony Music) for his new band, How To Destroy Angels. As we pointed out at the time, there’s nothing wrong with signing a major label deal, if you know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it — and especially if you have some leverage. We fully expected that Reznor, given his earlier statements about the major labels, went into this situation with eyes wide open.
And, indeed, Reznor has now shared (exclusively, with Techdirt) that this is exactly the situation.
Last week, there was some press coverage over some comments that Reznor made, in an interview with David Byrne, that some have interpreted to mean that he felt you needed a major label to be successful today.
Seeing that story spread, Trent Reznor and his manager, Jim Guerinot, asked if I’d be interested in hearing the full story, rather than the “latest scandal” version. Reznor, Guerinot and I had a very long conversation late last week covering a variety of topics, which would be impossible to cover in a single post, but let’s get to the highlights. First off, as expected, Reznor’s deal is not the same sort of record deal a nobody off the street would sign these days. Guerinot made that clear:
It’s a licensing arrangement. The deal that Trent is able to do at this stage of the game is different than what he would have been able to do at 19 years old coming into his first arrangement…. There are always different levels of accommodation and leverage that you’re able to do. For Trent, fortunately, at this stage of the game, he’s able to license it and continue to own his masters… and, really, that’s the most relevant thing about the deal.
Guerinot went on to talk about how the real crime of most major label deals (and even some indie deals) is that the artists never get their masters back. They knew that any deal Reznor made would include him retaining the masters:
The toughest thing is when an artist takes an advance, pays back the advance, and doesn’t own his masters. That’s always been — and I’ve argued this with my friends who run major labels — that is the single greatest difficulty and why so many artists don’t trust labels. At the end of the day, artists have paid 50% of every video that gets made — it’s recouped against an artist account. But they didn’t benefit from the YouTube deal. They didn’t benefit from the creation of Vevo, despite the fact that it’s their money that went to creating that.
This was not a “typical” deal. So why do this particular deal? A few key reasons — some of which (perhaps ironically) came about because of his previous success. Reznor pointed out that he has a huge fan base… for Nine Inch Nails. He was worried that those fans are the only ones who would pay attention — and that they’d not necessarily appreciate How to Destroy Angels or (worse!) think that it’s “just a side project with my wife.” He specifically worried that NIN fans would say “this isn’t what we want to hear,” and that would then limit their ability to reach a wider audience. However, he thinks that HTDA is amazing and deserves to reach an audience way beyond his existing fans. In the end, it came down to figuring out what the band’s goals were and they decided that they wanted to aim big, and try to reach as many fans as possible. And they weren’t convinced they could do that on their own. Reznor explains:
The main reason I do what I do is I want to do something that matters. I want to be able to create art that reaches the maximum amount of people on my terms…. That was a key component… That was why we wound up considering, and ultimately going with, a label, and not just a label, but a major label, for How to Destroy Angels. Because it came down to us — us being the band now — sitting around and identifying what our goals were. And the top priority wasn’t to make money. It was to try to reach the most amount of people, and try to reach the most amount of people effectively, that doesn’t feel like it’s coming completely from my backyard. Because I don’t want this project, ultimately, to just be dismissed as “side project” or… (*loud sigh*) “patronizing affair with Trent and his wife.” Sounds terrible, you know?
There really is something fascinating about the fact that, in some ways, his massive success and following because of NIN almost forced him back into a major label to try to get away from that same pigeon hole.
And, contrary to some of the buzz, they insist that the deal wasn’t about someone writing a big check. They note that all of the advance money is either going into the recording or directly to marketing, and not into the band members’ pockets.
Beyond the fact that Reznor and Guerinot could negotiate a much better deal, they also pointed out that a hell of a lot has changed at the major labels these days — as those labels have been seriously humbled. They noted that it’s been six years since Reznor was last signed to a major and plenty has happened since then. Guerinot pointed this out:
My experience as a manager who works with a label is that, what’s happened with major labels over the past six years, with the attrition of business, and the lopping off of the top end of the business, and the bringing in a lot of younger people… we’re just dealing with a lot of people with enthusiasm and excitement and ideas. It seems that the next wave of personnel that has come through these doors, does not have a sense of entitlement and position and stature. They feel like they have to justify their existence. And I’ve just been really excited working with them.
Reznor echoed similar feelings:
After thinking about it for a while, we thought some sort of label might have a benefit for us [in getting the word out beyond NIN’s fans], or some sort of team that’s able to work this thing, and present it like some of the other bands we’d like to be mentioned in the same breath as, it might infiltrate the consciousness of people through the same means.
So why go to a major label rather than just bringing in a team of your own or perhaps working with an indie label. Reznor offered up a few reasons, with part of it being that he didn’t feel like “setting up his own label,” even if it was just a temporary one for this release. Separately, they felt that — given the specific goals with HTDA (again, to become as widely known as possible) — the best people for that probably are still at the labels. They admit that it’s opened up some useful doors, such as some artists to work with on remixes that they probably wouldn’t have been able to get to otherwise. Also, as has been suggested repeatedly, they really wanted help internationally, and doing it themselves was really difficult. They noted how their UK distributor had gone bankrupt and taken all of their money not too long ago, and they didn’t want to have to deal with that kind of thing again. Reznor, again, on the decision:
It didn’t need to be a major label, but we have a good relationship with Mark Williams, who’s our A&R guy at Columbia… and he introduced us to the team at Columbia, and the lean and mean system that they have there. That coupled with what seemed like a reasonable deal, felt like, ‘hey, let’s try it.’ We’re not locked to it indefinitely. Let’s just see how it goes.
But does that mean that the new internet world is no good? Or that DIY doesn’t make sense? Not at all. In fact, I think they spent more time in the conversation focusing on all the awesome things that can be done online today that weren’t possible when Reznor was starting out. They think that, for many, many, many musicians today, there are amazing new opportunities to use these online tools to do amazing things, with or without a label. He did point out that the challenges facing artists today have certainly changed. In fact, echoing the exact sentiment we heard at our artists & entrepreneurs working group, the toughest thing today is the lack of an easy road map, a “logical progression” to a music career — but there are still a lot more opportunities. Reznor again:
What I think is great right now, is that it is the wild west. As frustrating and worrisome as it can feel to hear that we’re ‘in-between business models’ — which we’ve been hearing for at least ten years now. So, okay, all the old rules go out the window, let’s press reset, let’s look at what assets we have now that one didn’t have before. That’s what the good news is. This is what David Byrne focuses on his book. The stranglehold of distribution, the cost of making records, all of that has changed….
My advice today, to established acts and new-coming acts, is the same advice I’d give to myself: pause for a minute, and really think about ‘what is your goal? where do you see yourself?’ When I was coming up, things weren’t disrupted, and there was a logical progression…. As a 22-year-old kid in Cleveland, it seemed to me that just playing out in bars, hoping someone noticed your band, and then offered you a record contract, while that’s possible, I didn’t know anybody, and didn’t know anybody who knew anybody that that had ever happened to. The strategy, then, was let’s work on getting a band, and something that means something, music that matters, music that I feel proud of, and a vibe and name and ‘brand’ of this thing, and then try to reach maybe some small labels that had music in the same vein of what I liked. It didn’t work exactly that way, but that type of archetype of a plan led me to focus my energies on the thing that did start, and that fuse got lit, and it wound up happening.
If I were that person today, there’s a hell of a lot of things that didn’t exist then, that exist now. Like, YouTube. Like the ability to self-publish. Like the ability to reach everyone in the world from your bedroom, if they’re interested. And I’d focus my efforts on what seems like a logical way to do that, that maintains integrity. If my goal is to compete with Rihanna on the pop charts, I’d think that requires going through a major label system with a powerful manager. That game….
It all comes down to what is it that you want to do? I think indie self-publishing and do it yourself is great. I will certainly do it again. But it will be in the context of what I feel is right for me.
Guerinot added some more thoughts to that as well:
The beauty about today is, in the absence of [a major label being interested in a musician], the contemporary way that you can distribute allows you worldwide distribution. You can actually make that happen…. Now, you can be a tree falling in a forest, but there was a point in time where you just couldn’t even do that. There was no way for someone to watch your video, buy your record, participate with you, in Australia, if you lived in Southern California. That wasn’t available. Now, it’s very nice that someone has said to Trent, ‘hey, we’d like to do x, y and z on your behalf,’ but they just as easily at some point in his career might not do that. I think it’s amazing that the world accommodates the ability to do that.
They also took on the idea that the “old way” was ever a great business model. Guerinot explained:
When you look backwards, everyone thinks ‘oh, gee, they had the great business model.’ I guarantee, if you talk to anyone who was making music in the 60s, they would tell you they did not have a great business model. As you moved into the 70s, 80s and 90s… nobody thought it was a great. Everything looks great in the rear view mirror. And everybody, as you go forward, keeps saying ‘oh we need the new music business model.’ We might already be in the new music business model! This might be it!… And as a guy who’s supposed to help Trent navigate and ultimately get his music to as many people as he can, and honor and respect the way that he does that, it’s pretty great right now. I mean, it really is. It’s pretty great.
Finally, if there was one theme that ran through the entire discussion, which came up over and over and over again, it was that what was most important to Reznor was finding the path that would hopefully be best for getting fans to enjoy the music. And, while he noted that he really relished the challenge of trying to think through business models and new opportunities, in the end, it was more important to him, personally, to focus on the music at this time. He admits that all the other stuff let him “flex a different muscle in my brain” for the past few years, but he wanted to try to focus on the music for now. He says that it was fun, and had a sense of “wow I can do that!” when stuff succeeded, but he also worried that “I’m really not the best guy at figuring that stuff out,” (despite earlier admitting he was “high on arrogance” at his own ability to figure some of this stuff out). And as he got more and more focused on solving that business model riddle, it became more and more engaging for him — but he worried that, since he became so focused on it, he almost became too focused on that new challenge, rather than on the music.
I found this part of our discussion really interesting (and it included a little tangent discussion about the energy that goes into dealing with trolls…), because he was more or less admitting that all of the new opportunities out there were too enticing, and he wanted to spend more time figuring them out, but that process alone was distracting. Interesting stuff.
Oh, and, as for the recent revelation that Reznor is working with Beats by Dre on a new project, Reznor revealed just a bit of information on that… mostly off the record, but if all goes according to plan, it sounds like it’s going to be very, very interesting, and not at all what you’re thinking it’s about.
In the end, the overall story was pretty much what I expected. For this particular project, with these particular goals, Reznor (and the rest of the band) felt that this deal made sense — a deal that they were able to negotiate with some leverage, as a licensing deal, where they retain the masters. They get to work with folks who are enthusiastic and different than the “old guard,” while still having the ability to market on a massive scale. But none of that changes the excitement that they feel for some of the new stuff and new opportunities that are out there, and they see lots of reasons for bands to keep experimenting. In fact, they used that word over and over again — that this new deal was also “an experiment” — no different than the experiments they’ve done over the past six years with different ways to release music — and they were upfront that it might fail. “I’ll keep you posted,” Reznor promised, noting that, “I may have a very different story a year from now.” So, stay tuned…