Nine Inch Nails does digital distribution right

— 4:57 PM on March 4, 2008

As an owner of every full-length Radiohead CD, and even a couple of singles, I should have been more excited when the band released its latest In Rainbows album online late last year. However, despite all the hype, the convenience of digital delivery, and the band's novel name-your-own price approach, I couldn't bring myself to give it a shot. Why? Because although Radiohead did the right thing by releasing In Rainbows in DRM-free MP3 format, they managed to sully the album by encoding tracks at a paltry 160kbps.

Now I know some have argued that 160kbps is plenty for music, especially if you're listening through cheap speakers or headphones. The sheer number of people I see walking around with Apple's horrible iPod buds hanging from their ears is as clear an indication as any that sound quality doesn't mean a lot to most folks. But it matters to me, and it should have mattered to anyone trying to define a new music distribution model. Bandwidth is cheap and storage even cheaper, leaving little room to rationalize why In Rainbows wasn't offered at a higher bitrate or with a lossless download option.

I did pick up In Rainbows eventually, paying $10 for the CD when it finally arrived on store shelves. So I missed out on naming my own price, and I contributed to the profits of the music industry establishment, but I also didn't have to sacrifice sound quality. For music that I will no doubt listen to for years, if not decades to come, that's a trade-off I can live with.

But one I shouldn't have to.

Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor apparently agrees. On Sunday he quietly released a 36-track instrumental collection and "soundtrack for daydreams" dubbed Ghosts I-IV with a new digital distribution approach of his own. The first nine tracks, or Ghosts I, are available free of charge on BitTorrent (amusingly through The Pirate Bay) in DRM-free 320kbps MP3 format—a free demo, if you will, and one smartly available with the highest possible MP3 bitrate.

For those seeking all 36 tracks, Ghosts can be found in one of four flavors. The first and probably most popular option is a $5 digital download available in one of three formats: DRM-free 320kbps MP3, FLAC Lossless, or Apple Lossless. For those who prefer physical media, a $10 option includes both a digital download in the format of your choosing and a double-CD with the very same tracks that will be mailed out in early April. A $75 deluxe edition is also available that adds a DVD with full multi-track audio files for each song and a Blu-ray disc with 24-bit/96kHz high definition audio backed by a slideshow. There was even a limited edition release available at launch, but its 2500 copies have since sold out.

This is what digital music distribution should look like: high quality recordings straight from the artist with the option to purchase additional physical media. There's more to the digital download than just audio tracks, too. Cover art is included alongside a 40-page PDF of additional artwork, desktop wallpapers in standard and widescreen formats, and even a number of promotional web graphics, one of which I've used above. Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that Ghosts I-IV is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 license that allows sharing and remixing.

Unfortunately, the Ghosts release wasn't without problems.'s servers were apparently overwhelmed by three times the amount of traffic that was anticipated, making it difficult to place an order and nearly impossible to get a download to start, let alone finish. Reznor eventually pulled the plug and took the Ghosts servers offline for several hours to beef things up, and that's apparently done the trick. I was able to download my FLAC copy this morning without a hitch.

Since I have just about every Nine Inch Nails album and single ever released, I ponied up the $10 to get a copy of the CD, as well. Amusingly, shipping and handling to The Great White North actually came out to $13—a price I'm more than happy to pay to support such a thoughtful approach to online music distribution.

Ghosts actually isn't Reznor's first stab at digital distribution; he released Saul Williams' The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust online late last year, giving downloaders the option of paying $5 for the album or nothing at all. Reznor later revealed download and sales figures showing that only 18% of folks actually paid for the album—a figure he called "disheartening." This willingness to publish sales data is encouraging, though, especially since Radiohead refuses to do the same for its In Rainbows experiment. I can only hope that the Ghosts release proves more successful, if not financially, then in advancing a digital distribution model that gives consumers more and better choices than they'd find on store shelves or through traditional online music services like iTunes. If no one else, at least I'm sold.

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