Is Trent Reznor the Future of Music?

I’ve often argued in private that the distribution model employed by Trent Reznor, who has helmed Nine Inch Nails since the late 80s, is paving the way for future of the music industry. But rather than make the argument at length, I’ll defer to Mike Masnick, the genius behind TechDirt.

I find all of this fairly convincing, but it’s not a knockout case. For one thing, despite Masnick’s claim that smaller artists can make use of the CwF formula too, they’re unlikely to come even close to NIN’s returns without pre-existing access to a Reznor-size fanbase. Reznor, I think, is something of a special case in the music world. As both a mainstream star and a genuine artist, he’s uniquely appealing, and he’s had twenty years or so to build that appeal into a large cult following. Moreover, for much of that time, he had the backing of a big label. Masnick is right that Reznor’s being incredibly innovative, but Reznor’s aided by the strong position from which he started — and the major-label cash that got him there.

On a lesser note, I was also not particularly moved by Masnick’s notion that Reznor’s lavishly produced stage shows make him some sort of standout: Expensive stage shows with lights and video are fairly common amongst artists of Reznor’s sales-caliber. It would be a surprise if Reznor didn’t put on an elaborate production.

Still, there’s a lot to like in Reznor’s obsessive focus on cultivating fan interest. The fact that he’s even managed to pull it off without the aid of a label is even more promising. Here’s hoping for a future in which all music is free — and business is booming anyway.

UPDATE: One person who is not the future of music, despite the occasional suggestions by the New York Times Magazine and others that he might be, is Rick Rubin. Rick Rubin, in fact, is only the future of Rick Rubinism, which, while similar, is an altogether different thing than music.

UPDATE 2: Masnick responds in the comments. I agree that the success of unknowns like Jonathan Coulton, who claims to make about $60,000 a year as a pop singer selling his music on the web, suggests that there are financial opportunities for smaller acts. Still, I suspect that the opportunities to achieve even a middle-class income are fairly few right now, and I think that any look at Reznor’s success shouldn’t underplay the substantial value of his prior fame and years of label backing. That said, I largely agree with Masnick that, questions about its universality aside, Reznor’s model probably represents the best hope for the future of the music biz so far.