When Nine Inch Nails' contract with Interscope Records (a subsidiary of Universal Music Group) ended in 2007, frontman Trent Reznor was happy to escape what he considered the constraints of an antiquated major label industry system. His first release as a truly independent artist was the Ghosts I-IV project, a 36 track instrumental album that was initially offered for sale as a digital download on the band's website. Personally, I found the release a chore to get through, filled with meandering sonic textures that only reminded me of the instrumental tracks on other Nine Inch Nails albums that I always skipped.
In May of 2008, a "proper" NIN release dropped out of nowhere. Hot on the heels of Radiohead's inspired decision eight months prior to release their In Rainbows album with a "pay what you want" pricing structure, Reznor released The Slip with absolutely no promotion and no advance notice. And no price ("this one's on me" he wrote to fans, although deluxe editions were also made available for a price and sold out quickly). That was impressive enough, but what also impressed me was that the album wasn't just made available in a standard 128 kbps mp3 format. Numerous options for download were offered, including Apple lossless and FLAC (a lossless format that converts tracks to larger WAV or AIFF files). Methods of digital delivery were straight from the NIN site or via bittorent. A major artist actually releasing music via the evil bittorent, the bane of the music industry? Scandalous! The "Discipline" single was distributed to radio by Reznor himself two weeks before the album was released. The song was sent out less than 24 hours after the final mastering process had been completed on it, something that was previously unheard of. No mention was made of it being part of a forthcoming album, so many thought it was just a one-off single. The completed album came out within mere days of the end of its recording. "You never could have done that before", Reznor said.
The next step for the band in pushing the envelope was to release over 400 gigabytes of official video footage from three shows on their Lights In The Sky tour via bittorent, knowing full well their rabid fans would run with the idea and create something special, which they have. A DVD titled Another Version Of The Truth: The Gift was released on Christmas Day of 2009, with over two hours of the best footage from the three shows packaged into a professional looking DVD. The project was organized and assembled by a collective of NIN fans known as ThisOneIsOnUs. Previously, the group had released a DVD of the band's performance of their full The Downward Spiral album in New York City last August, comprised entirely of fan-shot footage. The project received widespread acclaim from the NIN fanbase, not to mention numerous media outlets and the band themselves.
The Gift was released in pretty much every mulitmedia format available: Blu-Ray with 5.1 surround sound, standard DVD with 5.1, AppleTV, Playstation 3, iPod, YouTube, plus your standard .mov movie format. Additionally, a PDF file with extensive DVD booklet notes for printing was released. Covering all the bases, options were made for download on bittorrent or file sharing sites like Rapidshare and Megaupload. Speaking to the level of thoughtfulness and good will that exists in the fan communities of many musical artists, campaigns were also organized to get copies of the DVD to those without the resources to download it. Volunteers signed up to burn however many copies they could, while others offered to print out DVD booklets for those without printers, with only postage costs expected in return. As with many fan-organized endeavours like this, selling the release is extremely frowned upon.
The DVD itself looks very impressive, with the line between a pro and amateur level of quality being virtually indistinguishable. Future projects from ThisOneIsOnUs are a DVD of bonus content as a companion to The Gift and a fan-shot release of the last show from Las Vegas on the band's Lights In The Sky tour.
As for Reznor, he has famously claimed that Nine Inch Nails in its previous incarnation is over, whatever that means. Reznor has never shied away from making cryptic statements that only enhance his mystery and keep his fans and the media always guessing. This, along with both his musical talent and talent for (forward) thinking outside the box (whether it's his brilliant live productions or the innovative interactive promotional concept that accompanied NIN's Year Zero album), makes him one of the few figures in music these days truly worth watching to see what he'll do next.