How Much Is Music Worth?

Yesterday, I waffled about the music collection that includes the 21 Nine Inch Nails records we’ve paid for. Today I’m going to talk about the one that was free. It also features a pretty awesome (presumably fan-made) video with NIN as the Village People!

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“You think 925 is a lot?” observed my colleague, discussing yesterday’s post. “We have 5,000 CDs.

OK, so that’s a lot.

“Well,” she explained, “They were only about five pounds each.”

Music these days is cheap. This is a good thing in many ways, because it makes music more accessible. Music fans have essentially divided themselves in two: those who buy music and those who don’t.

Back in the old days *creak*, you either bought a record – again, for around six pounds for a vinyl album – or you taped it off a friend. There were singles you bought and singles you taped off the radio. That was how you decided its value: you’d either put up with the crackling hiss of poor-quality audiocassette or shell out for the real thing. New music was discovered through the radio, cover-mount giveaways with magazines, or home-taped compilation cassettes.

Of course, the scale of the non-purchasing was small: on average, each album would be shared between two or three people – not the 20,000 you might get on a torrent site. If you taped an album, you’d at least give it a listen, not shove it on a CD somewhere and forget it existed.

That’s the trouble with these days. I remember the first time I did it. In the days before Napster et al, my husband’s friend had a huge hard-drive full of songs he had ripped from CDs, and invited us to load up a CD-R full of free music. I grabbed two albums and a ton of miscellaneous tracks.

I realised something very strange quite early on: that I wasn’t happy with my home-burned versions of the albums I liked. I wanted to have that sense of ownership that comes with buying a record: I bought them both almost right away. I also felt guilty about what I regarded as theft.

As for the miscellaneous tracks, stripped from the context of the albums to which they belonged – or to the lovingly-assembled tracklisting of a compilation tape – they felt literally worthless. I didn’t even bother to listen to them. I have played that CD-R twice in a full decade. Any of the tracks I gave a damn about, I just bought the album.

For some reason, I get on fine with digital downloads. I think it’s the pain of purchase. Not the hassle of purchase – Amazon’s one-click checkout system is a godsend, and the bane of drunken impulse-purchasers everywhere. (Kanye West? Really?) Nope, I mean the old-fashioned bittersweet transaction of parting with hard-earned cash to enjoy the fruits of another’s labour. My sweat buys your sweat.  (They really need to fix that aircon.) The thrill of online shopping is every bit as tangible as buying something in a store: the price of a cup of tea buys me a song; I can have an hour’s music for an hour’s (minimum) wage.

When you get something free that is not a personal gift, you don’t value it. It is, quite literally, worthless. Through this, we have utterly devalued music. Those who don’t buy music often download tens of thousands of tracks which they don’t bother to listen to and certainly don’t love. There’s no appreciation there. No value. They haven’t sacrificed even the tiniest bit to own it. For me, a music purchase is a choice I’ve made between that album and a video game; that album and a lipstick; that album and a new pair of shoes. My Skechers are so worn through that they’re tearing up my socks and blistering my soles, but my ears are happier than ever.

What’s really making me happy lately is Nine Inch Nails’ 2008 album, The Slip. It was given away as a free download – crucially labeled as “a gift” from Trent Reznor to reward his fans for their many years of devotion.

On the one hand, it was extremely generous. The release is certainly the best thing since With Teeth, and a considerably better record.

On the other hand, it was necessary.

Most bands do not get to f*** up as much as Nine Inch Nails. If actors are only ever as big as their last movie, it’s certainly true of bands. One bad album is all it takes to derail a career, and most acts never recover. NIN have been incredibly lucky to have done as well as they have.

Of course, Trent Reznor’s story has always been a miracle tale. He was a janitor in a recording studio and, inspired by JG Thirlwell’s DIY philosophy with Foetus, begged the studio owner to let him use the facilities in his own time. Playing most of the instruments himself,  Reznor recorded Pretty Hate Machine and agreed a 50% split with TVT records. It spent over two years in the charts.

Following an acrimonious split with the label, NIN followed up the unexpected success with Broken, The Downward Spiral and The Fragile: each a finer masterpiece than the last. NIN had sold millions of records, achieved worldwide fame, even been lampooned by The Muppets … and then Reznor’s typical rock star excesses got the better of him and it was all over.

Five years on, With Teeth came out, and it had three good songs. They’d have been OK fillers on The Downward Spiral. The rest of the album was bilge. Dispensing with labels altogether, Reznor released Year Zero in 2007 and Ghosts I–IV in 2008. I listened to each of them once and had absolutely no desire ever to hear them again. I have a generally low opinion of Pitchfork, but I have to agree with its assessment of the latter: “nearly every one of the untitled instrumental sketches here feels emaciated and half-finished”. As far as I was concerned, NIN were over.

You have to put this in the context that in 1993, every inch of my school locker was plastered in pictures of Reznor. I loved the guy; I worshipped him. When I picked up his biography in 1995, I berated the girl in WH Smith for having the audacity not to know who he was. Certainly everyone in the NIN shirts in my Sixth Form college owned a copy of The Downward Spiral.

So, in short, I was disillusioned. It would have taken a lot for me to listen to NIN again, and that’s what he gave us with The Slip.

It’s no Pretty Hate Machine or Broken, and certainly no Downward Spiral, but it sits comfortably between The Fragile and With Teeth in Reznor’s oeuvre. What Reznor has suffered with for well over a decade is Tarantinoesque bloat. The Fragile was a perfect album filled out to span two discs, and The Slip is a bloody fantastic EP that doesn’t quite amount to an album. There’s one truly great song (Head Down) and at least two more obvious singles (Discipline, the first single release, and Echoplex) – plus at least two more songs that are very catchy and hummable. So, like the Broken EP, he could have released six great songs with two hidden fillers leaving us sated and adoring – instead of a merely adequate full-length album.

Still, you can’t look a gift horse in the mouth, and that’s rather the point. So what is the value of The Slip? Would I have bought it?

I’m sure I would have picked it up if it was cheap enough. I’d pay a fiver for it, sure, but would have felt ripped off if it had come out right after The Fragile and I’d have paid £12. Someone forking out for all three of the previous albums might have felt bloody-well owed a decent freebie. Either way, credit where it’s due – and I’m one of those people who paid £1 to download In Rainbows and then bought the retail version because “it was worth it”.

What has this Radiohead-style online experimentation given Reznor? Not riches, certainly – two million downloads have not made him a wealthier man. The benefit to NIN of The Slip is much more subtle: it’s bought Reznor his dignity back. He put the band on hiatus the following year, going out on a suitable high, knowing that Nine Inch Nails can always be remembered as a superlative band, responsible for two decades of truly wonderful music.

The Slip was eventually released as a physical CD, and a disappointing 98,000 copies have been sold. I’ll probably buy one because I love being able to touch and hold a sleeve and pore over the artwork, because I like to reward a job well done, and because – to me – it’s worth it.

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http://theslip.nin.com/

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