Competing with Free

Fans of Nine Inch Nails should instantly recognize the photo above. It is the set from their Lights in the Sky tour. The final show of the North American leg took place in Las Vegas. It was not their greatest show as that title is reserved for Woodstock ’94. But, it still kicked all sorts of ass. Talk about going out with a bang! While die-hard NIN fans will point out that the band continued touring into 2009 with NIN/JA and Wave Goodbye, I still consider Lights In The Sky their last major tour while they were still a five piece.

The set was designed by Roy Bennett and features state-of-the-art lighting, LED fixtures, and live rendering. Most noticeable in the photo above are three gigantic LED screens. Two of which are “stealth” screens that can be raised or lowered in front the band. The third screen is positioned behind the band. Combined with an array of special effects, the result is a sight to behold. See it in action in this video (the song is “Terrible Lie” and it’s one of my favorites).

But enough of my metalhead rambling. While Lights in the Sky was nothing short of amazing, perhaps more important were the events surrounding the tour.

The title of this post is something that’s been talked about numerous times in the past when discussing internet piracy. I’m no business expert, nor am I one of the those industry insiders. I’m just a bum blogger. But even bum bloggers know a failing business model when they see it. The music industry and the anime industry are two very different entities. Yet they both face the same problem: competing with free.

How does one compete with free? The way I see it, there’s the stupid way which involves screwing people over and then there’s the hard way which involves changing the business model to fit the market. I’ll just leave it at that. Ultimately, I can’t tell companies what to do. But, what I can do is tell you a story. Hopefully, one that is inspiring and one that is a change of pace from the usual doom and gloom of “industry-is-dying” finger-pointing rhetoric.

It was the early 90s. The glam and thrash acts of the 80s had come and gone. Grunge had somehow made theatrics “uncool.” GNR, Crüe, and Metallica were out. Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Pearl Jam were in. But just when everyone thought metal was dead, it was reborn in an underground movement known today as “industrial.”

I recall watching the news one day many years ago. They were reporting on some concert in Madison Square Garden. I saw people going crazy on stage, lights flashing everywhere, instruments getting destroyed, a strange looking dude with a shit ton of lipstick and eyeliner (whom I would later come to know as Marilyn Manson), and in the center of it all was Trent Reznor in his prime.

Before he started winning Oscars, Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor was busy mashing the living daylights out of his keyboard and synth. But even before that, he had to start somewhere. As a janitor in Cleveland’s Right Track Studio, Reznor convinced the owner to let him use the studio during after-hours. His demos, which he recorded by himself, eventually landed him his first major record deal. In 1989, Pretty Hate Machine was released and thus Nine Inch Nails was born.

Skip ahead to the turn of the millennium. Cobaine is dead. Grunge is history. Popular music is being overrun with the latest teen sensations. Post-grunge and Nu Metal aren’t helping much either. The music industry is becoming increasingly volatile with one-hit wonders coming and going overnight. For better or worse, the internet is about to revolutionize the way business is done and record labels who’ve made a pretty penny under the old model are disinclined to change.

Around this time, Nine Inch Nails became somewhat of a sensation amongst the alternative crowd. The band was successful, but not popular per se. As an artist, Reznor employed a philosophy of zero compromise which often lead to disputes with record labels. The Broken EP, released in 1992, was recorded following a feud with then-record label TVT over artistic differences. Following the split, Reznor eventually signed with Interscope. Then in 2007 there was this incident. That same year, Reznor parted ways with Interscope once and for all.

What follows is summed up rather nicely in this 15-minute video.


I really like the formula the speaker uses to illustrate the model. Whether it’s a widely known formula or one man’s observation, I’m not entirely sure. What I do know is that it was unprecedented at the time. Suddenly, the fans are the core focus. Build a connection with fans and given them a reason to buy. A new method of brand building. One that doesn’t require a record label, frivolous lawsuits, or annoying copyright. True, it puts much more pressure on the artists. But if the music is good and the effort is genuine, then I believe it’s worth it in the end.

There can be no better example than what fans of Nine Inch Nails accomplished following the Lights in the Sky tour. The video mentions it briefly. Throughout the history of NIN, major tours are usually accompanied by a corresponding live album release. This was the case with the Self Destruct Tour 1994-1996 (Closure), the Fragility Tour 2000 (AATCHB), and the Live: With Teeth Tour 2006 (BYIT). However, likely due to their recent split with Interscope, Lights in the Sky did not have an official live album release planned. Now if it were up to Axl Rose or Prince, concert footage recorded by fans would never see the light of day. Reznor, on the other hand, granted fans complete freedom to upload and share recorded concert footage. He even uploaded several hundred gigabytes worth of his own footage onto torrent trackers with a message that said “I’ll bet some fans could assemble something pretty cool.”

And they did:


On December 25th, 2009, a group of fans released Another Version of the Truth, totalling three hours and absolutely free. The band was thrilled. The end product was as much a result of the continuous hard work of the artists as it was the music that inspired it. It just goes to show how important it is to maintain a connection with fans. This could not have been possible anywhere else.

I’m a fan of music and anime. I do not want to see either industry die. But I think I’m with a lot of people when I say things can’t stay the same either. While there’s no telling what the perfect solution is going be, it’s rather comforting to know that there are success stories out there.

The story of Trent Reznor paints major record labels as the “bad guy.” However, I don’t see the anime industry (at least the American side of it) as the bad guy in all this. While record labels are suing left and right for more money on top of their already-hefty profits. Anime distributors are struggling to stay in business period. As fans we can at least do our part by not buying into the shows that suck while at the same time supporting the shows we like. And to be perfectly honest, the good to crap ratio of anime far outweigh the good to crap ratio of today’s popular music.

One of my long-term goals is to eventually own all the anime series from my Top 10 list. So far I have 0/10 as my annual college student income is about $20,000 in the red.

Also, new Van Halen album comes first. :D

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