In the latest issue of Bob Lefsetz’ consistently brilliant Lefsetz Letter, which I agree with wholeheartedly about 90% of the time, and almost always amazes me with the pure energy that pops out of the thing, he writes about the fact that Trent Reznor has taken Radiohead one step further and is just releasing his latest album for free. I’m not even a big Nine Inch Nails fan and I think that’s pretty goddam cool.
Lefsetz goes on to compare somebody like Trent Reznor to somebody like Mariah Carey — one is a legitimate artist (as I said, I’m not a big fan, but still, there’s no doubt that the cat would be making music whether it paid the bills or not), and the other is the product of careful marketing and other folks’ songwriting and puppeteering producers, and probably equally the product of some trainer somewhere who finally got her to lose that last twenty pounds (come on, it’s not coincidence that that’s happened in concert with the latest big “comeback”). One can afford to release his album for free because he’s got fans, people who care about his music, the actual music, not the ringtone or the video, people who will come to see him play live, who will buy his next album or single, no matter how it’s released. The other has people who will buy whatever is being pimped to them that day/week/month. Can anybody sing a Mariah Carey song for me? Not the one with ODB on it? I couldn’t hum the first bit of a Mariah Carey song, and that’s because there are no Mariah Carey songs. There are songs that Mariah Carey sings all over, melismas up and down during, but none that she actually created, that have any kind of Mariah Carey soul in them. She might as well have bought them off eBay.
So Mariah Carey will never release a free album, for for Reznor, it actually kind of makes sense. Lefsetz takes it one step further:
“It’s not about free music. And it’s not about piracy. It’s about the democratization of access. About the rising power of the audience. Don’t pay attention to the mainstream pundits. They’re just looking to save their jobs, no different from Universal Music or Sony BMG. They want it the way it’s always been. But it’s never going to be that way again.”
It’s interesting, but I’m not sure whether it’s all the way true. It’s kind of what we thought Napster had done, five or six years ago. That turned out to be a different animal altogether.
I think what he’s talking about is the Grateful Dead model, actually, where you focus on music and touring and you let go of royalties and hit records. The Dead let anybody who wanted to come on in and tape a show, then hand off as many tapes as they wanted to all their friends. That’s fucking viral marketing, and those hippies were doing it since the 70s. That’s how you spread the word. Not through ringtones and copyright lawyers. That’s why people were going on tour with the Dead, city to city, year to year. You think anybody is looking to follow Ashleigh Simpson around the country?
You can say what you want about the music and the patchouli and the whole hippie scene, but holy shit, those hippies went and made up a business model that just might work in the twenty first century, and that’s more than you can say for anybody else.