Trent Reznor could have just given a few interviews to explain Nine Inch Nails' new album, "Year Zero." But instead, he's utilizing a multifaceted Internet scavenger hunt, and in some cases, his own r

Trent Reznor could have just given a few interviews to explain Nine Inch Nails' new album, "Year Zero." But instead, he's utilizing a multifaceted Internet scavenger hunt, and in some cases, his own rabid fans, to help gradually build the story of the project, due April 17 via Nothing/Interscope.

Dystopian, apocalyptic themes are pervasive on the album, echoing topics the group has explored since 1989's classic "Pretty Hate Machine." Neither Reznor, his manager nor Interscope reps would speak to Billboard about the campaign, which has encompassed everything from cryptic phrases on T-shirts to Orwellian Web sites to MP3s found on USB drives in bathrooms at NIN concerts. But a source with knowledge of the project says Reznor may very well perceive it all not as a marketing campaign, but as "a new entertainment form."

Indeed, the source says the campaign forms the body of the "Year Zero" experience: "It is the CD booklet come to life. It precedes the concept album and the tour. And it will continue for the next 18 months, with peaks and valleys. No one has assembled the full story yet. The new media is creating the story as it goes."

"Year Zero" came to life in early February when Web-savvy fans discovered that highlighted letters inside words on a NIN tour T-shirt spelled out "I am trying to believe." Savvy fans added a ".com" to the five words and, voila, located a thought-provoking, eerie Web site. Other associated sites created by 42 Entertainment, where a dark future reigns supreme, were soon discovered. Within days, the blogosphere was rich with anxious NIN fans sharing their experiences on message boards.

According to one post, a male fan, allegedly by happenstance, found a USB drive in a bathroom stall during a NIN concert at the Coliseum in Lisbon, Portugal. This flash drive (yes, Reznor's idea) contained an MP3 of album track "My Violent Heart." Additional USB drives were purportedly found in Barcelona and Manchester, England; they included MP3s of album tracks "Me, I'm Not" and "In This Twilight," respectively.

Excited fans then began swapping and sharing these music files online. Another Web posting alleged that all this activity resulted in entertainment blog Idolator and other sites receiving e-mail from the Recording Industry Association of America, demanding that they remove the MP3s from their sites. An RIAA representative confirms this, a move that boggles the minds of many. "These f*cking idiots are going after a campaign that the label signed off on," the source says.

Ironically, with its numerous pirated downloads available, the whole album has not leaked yet. According to a source, the only leaks are the ones Reznor approved himself. And whether he realizes it or not, Reznor may be building a new option for presenting music that augments the existing CD/tour scenario. "It's not about slapping something on top of an existing experience," the source says. "It must be its own entity. Make the experience as immersive as possible for fans."