Okay, let me just say right off the top that I’ve always had a bit of a problem with Trent Reznor. This was purely from an artistic POV. As a huge fan of Ministry’s early industrial output (the landmark records Twitch and The Land of Rape and Honey), I saw Trent’s Pretty Hate Machine as a homogenized version of the Ministry aesthetic. It was as if someone had sawed off all the harsh, jagged edges of a Ministry record. No, let me rephrase that. It was as if someone had taken a basic rock record…you know, verse/chorus/verse stuff…and added a little industrial window dressing.
That the suburbs, malls, and amusement parks were soon littered with suburban kids with NIN logos on their chests and backs was proof positive that Trent Reznor had succeeded in making industrial music palatable for the suburbs. After all, suburban kids wanted to feel “bad-ass” too, but those Ministry records were some scary shit. NIN, on the other hand, was no more frightening than watching The Crow for the hundredth time.
So, yeah, I thought Reznor was a poseur.
That opinion did not change when I saw him have a mini-meltdown at Lollapalooza when his pre-programmed keyboards wouldn’t work. Seriously, Diana Ross, Liza Minnelli, and the rest of their ilk have nothing on this guy.Of course, along the way, the guy actually managed to write “Hurt,” which I heartily believe is a fucking great song, but doing so only made me expect more from the guy. If he was capable of that, then why did we keep getting albums that were, by and large, huge steaming piles of unfulfilled promise?
Because his fans accepted those albums as symbols of musical brilliance, that’s why. Very few artists have a core fan base as easily swayed by blinking lights and ear candy as Reznor’s diehard fans. With every new NIN release, these guys come out of the woodwork, hailing it as yet another masterpiece from the Trent-man. What they don’t tell you is that they hadn’t listened to the previous NIN album for several months. Sure, it sounded great when it first landed in their CD players. Those growling synths, the growling vocals, those kick-ass growling bass lines…those blips and bleeps that added just enough high frequency to all the growling…but where were the songs? The sound of the world falling apart is cool for a few listens, but, after awhile, the mind craves something it can sink its teeth into, like a memorable chorus or melody line.
And that became my biggest problem with Trent — even bigger than the problem I had with him homogenizing the Ministry template and creating industrial rock for misguided frat boys and suburban Gen X’ers.
Whereas Al Jourgenson had murderously abused synths, thereby getting sounds out of them that were justifiably menacing, Trent was using samples of synthesizers being pummeled. His music was supposed to sound like it had come from some mad scientist’s laboratory deep in the bowels of some urban wasteland, but, instead, it sounded like it came from some geek’s laptop from the far reaches of the local Starbucks. NIN’s supposed musical mayhem, upon which the critics and fans could not have thrust more praise, was nothing more than a variety of well-chosen ProTools plug-ins.When Trent chose to make fans pay for his music, he gave them an instrumental album.
When he decided to go the free route, he gave them one that had actual songs, and vocals, but that, in the end, was hastily recorded (over a three-week period) and released. As a result, he said he expects his next project to take more “editorial time.” That’ll be a project where he’ll no doubt ask his fans for money again because, by then, he’ll need it.
After all, the renovations to his mansion tucked safely away in the hills of the 90210 zip code aren’t going to pay for themselves. See, Trent is now an “indie” artist. He’ll be the first one to tell you that, too. Once you make your first million, though, and have worries the likes of whether one sends Jimmy Iovine a Christmas card or a Hanukkah card, you start pining for “indie” status like Michael Douglas must have pined for Catherine Zeta-Jones the moment he saw the “ass-and-lasers” scene in Entrapment.
In other words, he wanted so verrrrry badly to nuzzle up next to that luscious “indie” ass, convinced that it was the promised land. Never mind that being plugged into the major label machine had afforded Reznor a lifestyle the likes of which most “indie” artists can only dream. In true “indie” rebel fashion, Reznor had long bucked the major labels system, likening it to The Death Star, convinced that their sole purpose was to exploit him and suck his soul dry.
To hear him tell it (from a room in his Beverly Hills mansion, no doubt), Reznor has been continually ripped off and taken advantage of by his record company. Poor guy.
Now, while I understand there are a lot of you out there reading this who aren’t Trent Reznor, please allow me to address Mr. Reznor directly:
Trent, I respect what you’ve accomplished as an artist. But the idea that you are somehow now an “indie” artist is absurd. You’re simply taking a brand that was built with a hefty amount of major label marketing dollars out into the world to capitalize upon the popularity of that brand. While doing so without the benefit of a label like Interscope may mean fewer sales, the up-side is that you don’t have to share the money with them anymore. That’s a pretty big up-side, don’t you think? It’s probably a pretty nice pay raise too, actually.But, you see, the downside is that you also have to pay for shit out of your own pocket nowadays (much different from those recoupable expenses you had with Interscope). Or – light bulb flashes on – you can simply find a different company to fund your vision. You said as much yourself in a recent New York Times interview:“Now just making good music, or great music, isnÁ¢€â„¢t enough,” Mr. Reznor said. “Now I have to sell T-shirts, or I have to choose which whorish association is the least stinky. I donÁ¢€â„¢t really want to be on the side of a bus or in a BlackBerry ad hawking some product that sucks just so I can get my record out. I want to maintain some dignity and self-respect in the process, if thatÁ¢€â„¢s possible these days.”
In other words, the cost of a moveable video screen that changes the tone of a musician’s guitar as it passes in front of them is hellacious. Typical “indie” musician worries, you must be thinking.You’d be wrong, though, Trent.
This particular indie (no quotation marks necessary) musician’s worries run along the lines of figuring out how to pop for a hotel room and afford strings and drumsticks for the rest of the tour to the immediate and long-term budgetary ramifications of adding a second or third color to our tour shirts. Oh yeah, and since my last girlfriend and I broke up, where’s rent coming from?
Truth be told, most truly independent musicians don’t make national news every time they decide to give something away for free. We do it all the fucking time. We play for free if the gig offers the necessary “exposure,” we send out tons of free CDs and swag to prospective booking agents, club owners, record labels, distributors, journalists, bloggers (wait, aren’t bloggers journalists, you ask?), fellow musicians (the customary “rocker swap” wherein we exchange CDs and then never listen to them), cute waitresses (the road is lonely), and we sign deals with indie labels where the potential for seeing dime #1 are nil and both parties know it.
Thus, when indie rockers see a pampered millionaire giving his music away, it tends to rub us the wrong way. It minimizes the sacrifice that indie rockers have been making for years. This is probably a shitty metaphor, but here it goes anyway: imagine some guy who spends his days at the bottom of some off-ramp, cardboard sign in-hand, asking for the kindness of strangers to help him improve upon his own lot in life. Along comes someone with a flashy sign that definitely cost some money — fuck, the dude has even sent out a press release so people will know which off-ramp he’ll be at — and the next thing you know it, the guy with the cardboard sign is left scratching his head.The guy with the flashy sign had probably driven by months earlier in his 2008 black Mercedes, saw someone hand a buck or two to the guy with the cardboard sign, and thought to himself, “Lucky fucker, he gets to keep all that cash and doesn’t have to pay Interscope Records a goddamned dime.”
Pretty soon every off-ramp will have some dude with a flashy sign.
Here’s the kicker: the dude didn’t even pay for the flashy sign with his own money. He got someone else to pay for it. Notice the little “e*trade” logo in the left-hand corner?
How fucking “indie” is that?
My answer: about as “indie” as Fox Searchlight, or Chipotle, or fucking MySpace for that matter.
You wanna truly be indie, Trent?
Sell your next album through CD Baby. Promote the CD and tour with your own cash. If you can’t afford the up-front expense of moveable video screens that change the sound of a musician’s guitar, you go without. If you can’t afford a 50-man crew, you go without. Of course, you’ll still be staying at better hotels than most indie artists can afford, and traveling in nicer buses, but only then will you truly know what it feels like to be indie…and to feel the futility of it all. Futility, you ask? What futility? The futility of making an album that took two years of blood, sweat, & cash available to the world-at-large for whatever price they feel it deserves and, more than likely, ending up with not enough to pay the rent (for just one month even). That futility, Mr. Reznor.
To either prove or disprove my point… Here, in high-quality MP3 format, is my latest album.
The Other Shoe
Drop My Guard
All In Your Mind (long version)
My First Night Without You
Do You Feel Alive?
I Will Surrender
Never Stop Loving You
All In Your Mind (radio edit)
Download, give it a listen, and then donate what it’s worth to you. Anyone giving more than $5 is eligible to receive a retail version of the CD (if they so choose) by simply providing their mailing address with their donation (US residents only). DONATE HERE