Trent Reznor Calls Radiohead Out on Their Online Album Distribution.

I’ve written a couple of times about my disappointment with Radiohead’s online distribution of their latest album (In Rainbows).

Initially, I thought that they were just naive and had blown a great opportunity. But I soon found out they knew exactly what they were doing, and were just as bad as the labels in their treatment of those who prefer to download albums instead of buying CDs.

It’s nice to see at least one artist in the business agrees.

While being interviewed by Australian Broadcasting, Nine Inc Nail‘s Trent Reznor had this to say:

“I think the way [Radiohead] parlayed it into a marketing gimmick has certainly been shrewd, but if you look at what they did, though, it was very much a bait and switch to get you to pay for a MySpace-quality stream as a way to promote a very traditional record sale.”

Bingo! And as the article states:

Reznor is referring to Radiohead’s release of “In Rainbows” as lossy 160kbps (max) MP3 downloads, which many would argue are sub-par when compared to DRM-free offerings from Amazon and iTunes Store (both of which offer 256kbps DRM-free music).

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Reznor continued, “but I don’t see that as a big revolution [that] they’re kinda getting credit for.” In addition to the quality of Radiohead’s MP3s, NIN’s frontman also took issue with the band’s omission of artwork and altogether not taking care of the fans. “To me that feels insincere. It relies upon the fact that it was quote-unquote ‘first,’ and it takes the headlines with it.”

This is exactly what I was saying — right down to the lack of artwork — though Trent sums it up better in hindsight.

Meanwhile, Trent did online distribution right. Look at how he handled distribution of the NIN’s album Ghosts I-IV:

There is no way to pirate this item; faced with the inevitability of listeners stealing it, the entire album has been uploaded to The Piratebay. In addition, the first 9 tracks are available for free to sample before you take the plunge and have been uploaded to Piratebay as well. For those looking to purchase the album, it will run you $5 for a digital download in any format you wish, including FLAC, Apple Lossless, and MP3. Of course you can purchase a CD as well, alongside a deluxe $75 and now sold out $300 limited edition package.

The free Piratebay tracks are better quality than the Radiohead album people paid for. And for just a fiver you get your choice of the best digital download formats available. Yes, a traditional CD is also available (as it should be) as well as deluxe packages, but unlike Radiohead’s offering the online options won’t be going away anytime soon.

You know what makes me feel best about this? In my initial Radiohead article, when I thought they were just being naive, I concluded with this sentence:

So, to the next major band to bypass the labels and sell their album themselves: Please do it better than Radiohead. Much, much better. Are you listening, Trent?

Of course Trent doesn’t read my blog, but clearly he was “listening” nonetheless. Good for you, Trent. And thank you.

10 thoughts on “Trent Reznor Calls Radiohead Out on Their Online Album Distribution.

  1. Hey Tom – I’ve gotta go with you for the most part on the Radiohead thing; I think they cheated us a bit (although, at the same time, I tend to think that perhaps Michael could be correct in giving them the benefit of the doubt over their naivete as far as the public reaction and the way their motives would be interpreted).

    I think Jeff’s being a bit harsh on Trent but I don’t slavishly read every NIN interview created so I wouldn’t really know much about his personality xD (although I wouldn’t presume to know it if I DID read all his interviews ;).

    I think he made an accurate assessment of the Radiohead situation and wasn’t as derogatory as some have been.

  2. I love NIN and Trent Reznor is incredible, but frankly, I am so damn tired of him complaining about other bands and voicing his opinion as if he is the expert music critic. For hell sake, Trent, why the hell do you care what other bands are doing? Are you jealous that you didn’t get the same attention? Yeah, I prefer a higher quality download, but the average listener can’t tell the difference. I think he makes himself sound like such an ass when he goes off on these tangents.
    … and speaking of selling out on fans, what the hell happened after the fragile? That was an incredible album with amazing well thought out music, your latest albums sound to me like you reverted back to the simple “club” sound just for the money. The songs are boring and sound remind me of a scarier gothic version of Brittney Spear’s beats. Come on, Trent, you’re better than this.

  3. Scott,

    Thanks. If my blog ends up getting cocky I hope readers would point that out.

    In this case, however, I don’t see any correlation between “here’s what I like best”, and “this was my role”. You read more into it than I wrote. I specifically mentioned that Trent didn’t read my blog; which clearly means I played no role whatsoever. I have no illusions about that.

    But I don’t write in a vacuum. If I mention something in the early days — my comment for Trent was written even before I believed Radiohead deliberately pushed low quality wares — and it somehow comes to pass, what is wrong with mentioning it? To do so and claim credit would be wrong, but I didn’t do that.

  4. It’s too bad that the thing you enjoy the most about this is that you called for it and now you feel “involved” in the way Trent somebody dealt with their own online distribution. Seems like more and more blogs I read have articles that sound great and then you get to the “and this was my role! part” which I don’t really care for or about.

    Otherwise, interesting.

  5. No need for apology. I didn’t see it as argumentative at all. We simply see this differently, and you’re absolutely correct that we can agree to disagree.

    Come back and comment on this blog any time you like. Debate is a Good Thing. 🙂

  6. sorry, I didn’t mean to get all argumentative or anything. I’m just saying…

    But like I said…I do agree with the gist of what you’re saying. I guess we differ mostly on the reaction.

  7. If they reuploaded the 256k songs and offered it for download again….that’s like doubling (more than doubling) their bandwidth costs for the whole thing. Like I said, it was a bit messed up but I think you’re reading a bit too much malicious intent into it. Contrary to popular belief, Radiohead aren’t really into being crazy audiophiles…Johnny Greenwood has actually poked fun at people who get all worked up about bit rates and spend hundreds of dollars on sound equipment. So they very well could have thought 160k was adequate. I’m pretty sure they figure CD/Vinyl quality is supreme and the difference between 160k and 256k isn’t that great.

    I’m not saying i agree with them. Most of my music is at 192k or higher or has been re-ripped to be at that quality. I do think they had an actual physical CD release in mind when they did this “experiment” but I think they really just did it mostly on a whim after they couldn’t get a satisfactory deal with EMI. They figured they’d see if it would work without EMI’s help….and I really doubt they expected it to be nearly as big a deal as it became. (I became a HUGE deal.)

    But yes, I guess we shall agree to disagree on this…I don’t disagree that it was messed up though. (I may not think it was as messed up as you do though.) I think I’ve just seen it in a way that allows me to be more forgiving of them.

  8. Michael,

    Thanks for the detailed thoughts. They’re appreciated, though we tend to disagree on this issue.

    I’m not sure servers being bogged down over peak demand means failure. After all, you don’t setup for the absolute peaks.

    I would like to point out that I like “In Rainbows” quite a bit, better than their last two albums at least. The quality of the actual work, however, is not the issue.

    I disagree that they didn’t set themselves to be something special, or were just trying to see “what happens”. They deliberately avoided iTunes and other sales of singles, and when they finally did their own album-only download, it was WORSE than the very methods they disparaged. It is clear they didn’t hate the iTunes model, they simply hated the DOWNLOAD model.

    What other conclusion can be drawn when, even after being called on it by a few sites, they did NOTHING to rectify the situation? It would have been trivial to setup another zip file of, say, 256K MP3 files and an album cover for people to download. But they did no such thing, instead killing the download option entirely right on schedule. They established a sub-standard download product, and even then yanked it away when the CD became available. Their intent was clear, and any other reading of those facts seems to be giving them far more of a pass then they deserve. Again, if the labels had done this I don’t think people would have taken it so lightly.

    You shifted your view as looking at the sub-standard product as a “glorified and generous” preview; my point is had they been honest with us and made it clear that’s what it was (as NIN is doing on Piratebay) then I’d have no beef. I also would not have paid for it, because in my view previews should be free.

    As for the decision business-wise, since it’s more in line with the labels’ way of thinking about file downloading you can imagine what I think about it. “Shrewd, cool” business moves do NOT require misleading statements and sub-standard quality. They’ll get no free pass from me on this.

  9. I agree with you that Radiohead didn’t do it right. But Trent failed too…he almost got it but the day of the downloads, the servers crashed and were overloaded for the first 2-3 days! This forced many people to torrent sites and other alternatives to get the album. Granted, server failures aren’t entirely his fault, but you have to make sure that you have the firepower to do this kind of thing.

    With that said, I think Radiohead are getting more criticism than they deserve in this post (and the previous ones related to this). I don’t think they were ever setting out to revolutionize anything. The media built all that up around them. They were just seeing what happens. Maybe being not up front about it was a bit messed up. I only paid 5 bucks but I was still pretty disappointed with the 160kbps quality. But after thinking about it — and the whole bait-and-switch aspect — I still could not think of what Radiohead did as bad…or even “not awesome.”

    I wrote a mostly positive post about the album shortly after its release and one of my visitors posted a comment that ran along similar lines as what you’re saying. This was my response then:

    “I do think that at least part of this was specifically designed to get people to either buy the disc box set or the cd when it is “officially” released as an actual cd. It is a business too after all.

    But I don’t mind at all for the so-called “ulterior” motives because, ulterior motives or not, I see it as Radiohead basically made an album available to us (albeit in somewhat low quality) several months before it was set to come out. I now look at it as a glorified and generous preview anyway (think: iTunes 30 second sample but 52.47 times better). There’s a whole other half of the album that is still yet to be released! (the 8 “bonus” tracks that are included in the disc box set)

    To sum up, I think it was a smart move both business-wise, and band/fan relationship-wise.”

    The album was not really set to be released for several more months. And the only reason why it wasn’t released was because the major labels weren’t budging on their demands to the band — so a contract couldn’t be agreed upon. So Radiohead just came up with something on the fly and decided to just put it out there. Yeah…maybe it was a little messed up of them to not disclose the quality of the downloads. But I think it was at least as much “rookie mistake” as shrewd, cold business move.

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