The Billboard Q&A: Trent Reznor And Saul Williams

Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor has spent the last few years utilizing new methods to disseminate his music to fans.

Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor has spent the last few years utilizing new methods to disseminate his music to fans. Past experiments have included hidden messages on T-shirts, "forgotten" USB drives in bathrooms containing copies of his last record, "Year Zero," and cryptic Web sites, all culminating in a prerelease free stream on the band's MySpace page.

Having just fulfilled his contract with longtime label Interscope, Reznor is upping the digital ante in tandem with activist/musician Saul Williams. Williams' Reznor-produced concept album, "The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!," which went live Oct. 31 via the Fader label, can be obtained in three download formats: 192 kbit/s MP3, 320 kbit/s MP3 and free Lossless audio codec.

The lower-quality MP3 is free, while the high-quality MP3 and FLAC cost $5. In a twist on the "name your own price" scheme that Radiohead employed for "In Rainbows," fans will not be allowed to pay more than $5 for "Niggy Tardust."

How did you decide to collaborate? What sort of time line was involved?

Trent Reznor: A couple of years ago, I came across a video from Saul's last record, and it was like a breath of fresh air. At the time, I was looking for tour support and hand-picked him to join us on the road. We became friends and decided to try recording a couple of tracks. It turned out to be an incredibly engrossing back-and-forth experience; I think there was a lot of mutual respect, and Saul really gave me a lot of confidence.

Saul Williams: The record started on the road, in hotels. We ended up doing three drafts. We did 14 tracks, and I sat with those for a few months. We came back, revisited them, did some more work and took another four months off, and then we got around to the final mixing.

Where in the process did you make the decision to pursue the "free or $5" distribution model?

Williams: Trent is very tech-savvy, and we both wanted to find a new model that would work for us. We'd been saying that it would be cool to give it away for free, but when Radiohead made their announcement, we decided to try something close to their model.

Reznor: Radiohead is one of my favorite bands, and if I were sitting on a finished Nine Inch Nails record right now, I would do exactly the same thing they're doing. I think that right now, the music industry is between business models. I don't know if this is the wave of the future.

I'm someone who spends a lot of time online, and I'll admit to having stolen music off the Web before. My main goal is to get my music out to as many people as possible in a way that feels pure and allows me to maintain my integrity [laughs].

How did you arrive at the $5 price for the higher-quality download?

Williams: Five bucks seemed pretty fair. It's the cost of a good latte, so you'd hope people would pay that much for a good record.

Reznor: There was a lot of debate about it, especially after Radiohead happened. "Should we do the 'pay what you wish' model, [or] should we give it away outright?" In the end, we decided to give people an opportunity to support the artist. In my mind, $5 is insultingly cheap for this album.

Saul, the album title is a play on David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust." Is this record also a concept album? And Trent, having worked with Bowie in the past, did you talk to him about this?

Reznor: I didn't talk to Bowie about it. I was going to send him a copy of the record this morning, then the phone rang and I got distracted [laughs].

Williams: The name came about as a joke, but there is definitely a strong concept running through the record. I created the character because I felt like there was nothing that was speaking to my experience as an African-American. In the end, Niggy Tardust realizes that his only enemy is himself, and that he has to overcome the boundaries set before him in order to become liberated.

Trent, what are your plans for Nine Inch Nails in the next year?

Reznor: I have started working on new Nine Inch Nails material, and when it comes time to release it, I'll do some careful analysis of how this model worked and go from there. Interscope will be putting out a Nine Inch Nails greatest-hits album and a remix record, both of which I hope to be involved in putting together.


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