Tuesday, March 4, 2008

The New Distribution Model

Music is undergoing some radical distribution changes lately.

First we had Radiohead's In Rainbows, which was released in a pay-what-you-want fashion via digital download. While the results of Radiohead's experiment are still unknown, we do know that the physical release of In Rainbows in CD and vinyl formats sold 122,000 copies in the first week. While that isn't as well as Hail to the Thief sold in its first week (300,000), it certainly wasn't a flop. And don't forget that Gigwise reported that In Rainbows sold approximately 1.2 million digital downloads, which is significantly more than the debut of Hail to the Thief.

After Radiohead's experiment, Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails revealed that he would release Saul Williams' The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust for free or for $5 for higher quality mp3 files. And now Reznor has taken it a step further with his own Nine Inch Nails release of Ghosts.

First, I want to mention that Ghosts is being licensed under the Creative Commons License, which is a significant departure from current copyright laws that govern most of our culture. The Creative Commons License allows the ability to copy, share, distribute, perform, and display a work. The license also allows any derivative or transgressive works to be made from the original work. All that is required for such freedom is attribution to the original artist, non-commercial use of the original work, and that any derivative or transgressive works be licensed under the Creative Commons License. This kind of license really puts the culture back into the hands of the people and not solely into the hands of authors and producers -- this is how we can encourage creativity while also making creative works financially rewarding.

A four volume music set, Ghosts is being offered through a variety of distribution methods. There's a digital download for the first volume, which has been made available for free. Reznor has also taken it upon himself to upload this first volume to bit torrent, which is revolutionary. Here's what Reznor said on the subject:

Now that we're no longer constrained by a record label, we've decided to personally upload Ghosts I, the first of the four volumes, to various torrent sites, because we believe BitTorrent is a revolutionary digital distribution method, and we believe in finding ways to utilize new technologies instead of fighting them.
I think this would be the first time that a major, mainstream artist has voluntarily uploaded his/her music to bit torrent him/herself.

Alternatively, music fans can purchase the entire set in higher quality mp3 files for $5 via digital download. There are several options for the purchased digital files -- 320 kbps LAME encoded and fully tagged, FLAC lossless, and Apple lossless. All digital files are 100% DRM-free. The digital download also comes with a 40 page PDF file and other digital extras.

The two CD set comes with everything from the $5 digital download plus a double CD in a six panel digipak with a 16 page booklet. Then there's the deluxe CD set, which has all of the above plus a DVD with the multi-track session for all 36 Ghosts tracks in .wav format. This will allow people to easier create derivate and transgressive works from Ghosts. In this set, there's also a Blu-ray disc of the album which has an accompanying exclusive slide show for the music.

Finally, there's was the ultra-deluxe limited edition set (already sold out!), which came with all of the above plus a four LP vinyl box, a book with 48 pages of photographs, and another book with two exclusive Giclee prints. This set was personally signed and numbered by Reznor.

This is quite an amazing array of format options. I think that Reznor's methods are far superior to what Radiohead did first, and I'm really impressed that Reznor is utilizing bit torrent technology (though, I shouldn't be surprised.) This could be the direction that the music industry goes, and I think that it leaves room for existing labels; however, they will have to relinquish some of their existing copyright standards. Reznor's decision to include the DVD of wav files for derivative and transgressive works is at odds with how the industry generally runs itself -- very protectionist and obsessed with content control. Furthermore, Reznor's decision to license under Creative Commons is also at odds with the music industry. If this album is successful, and I think that it's likely to be, I hope that we'll see more artists take similar action.

The RIAA should be pissing its pants right now.

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