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Trent Reznor Nails Viral Marketing (Again)

Man crush aside, I have an immense amount of respect for Trent Reznor as a musician and as a businessman. Reznor has proved time and time again that he ‘gets it’, and that with a little ingenuity and innovation, anyone can ‘go it alone’ and be successful. Trent Reznor is renovating the music business industry as more and more artists leave the big name labels in favor of producing and marketing their own music – and he’s leading the path with unique viral marketing that generates buzz, gets the fans involved and interacting with each other, and ultimately leads to huge profits.

Most recently, after hanging things up with Nine Inch Nails, Reznor’s made his way quickly back to the music scene with his wife Mariqueen as the front-runner of the new band, How to Destroy Angels. The band released their (completely free) six-song EP on Tuesday and leading up to the release, Reznor and Co. released audio snippets on their website and short HD video clips of the album’s recording on Vimeo and Youtube. Their first single “A Drowning” was released exclusively on Their first full-length video was originally released on The band has been extremely active on Facebook and Tumblr, taking in fan questions and answering many of them directly.

In short – they are using the web to their advantage. They are a prime example of effective ‘Social’ marketing. They understand that in this day and age, people want to interact and be a part of marketing campaigns. They’re creating a buzz and leaving breadcrumbs that creates an ‘adventure’ for fans to take part in. They understand that a mass-market approach is no longer effective – they’ve clearly spent a lot of time doing market research, considering where their fans are and the best way to target them in their neighborhoods, rather than expecting everyone to come back to them.

And this is nothing new – The last several Nine Inch Nails were marketed in very unique (viral) ways. With Year Zero, the band created a cryptic website with hidden messages, printed t-shirts with secret codes, left flash drives containing the complete album in public restrooms, and used Google Maps to point fans toward free tickets and other items.

Like the new How to Destroy Angels EP, Ghosts and The Slip (two other recent Nine Inch Nails albums) were also released free of charge. Reznor clearly understands the power of ‘free’ – but you’d be kidding yourself if you think he’s not making bank on all of this.

Reznor appreciates the value of providing ‘free’ content (this concept applies to any and all businesses out there). But he’s not giving it all away. With t-shirts, posters, and ‘special’ album releases (With Ghosts, Reznor released a $300+ limited edition version that sold out within the first 24 hours), not to mention the profits from touring and playing live shows – Reznor is using the ‘free’ model to fuel and drive sales – and it’s working brilliantly.

How Trent Reznor “Nails It” with Viral Marketing

  • He understands our ‘pride’ in music: Remember when you used to love that one band before they got big? Now they’re on top 20 and you’re calling them a sell out? We’re all quick to brag about how we loved “X” band “before they got big”. We take ownership and pride in our love for music – and by releasing clues here and there, Reznor is encouraging his fans to ‘discover’ the music and spread the word for him.
  • He embraces the tools and trends: This goes back to the old-school music-sharing debate (think Napster) – while many of the ‘big names’ and labels in the music industry are STILL reluctant to embrace that music IS being shared all over the web, Reznor understands what’s happening out there, and instead of fighting the trend, uses it to his advantage. He’s a big part of the change, and because of this, finds himself two steps ahead of the game.
  • He values the power of community: Trent Reznor knows that his best marketers are you and I. The fans. Not a TV commercial, not banner ads plastered all over the web. He completely understands that we, as consumers, value and respond to the opinions of our peers MUCH more readily than we do a blanket ‘branded’ message. Writing a post like this and linking to the new (free) How to Destroy Angels EP is much more effective than a banner ad in the side bar. It’s common sense, people.
  • He provides something for free, without giving it all away. This is the big one. If you think Reznor is a sucker for providing music at absolutely no cost, you’re nuts. He’s effectively giving something away, but is offering a ton of ‘accessory’ products, not to mention continuing to build upon his massive e-mail list. He’s one smart dude.

What do you think?

Is Trent Reznor in a unique situation due to his long standing Nine Inch Nails fame? Do you need to have that ‘established’ recognition to drive a viral marketing campaign such as this? Can an up-and-coming artist (or business in general) be successful through viral marketing? What examples do you have of other businesses who ‘get it’?

(Photo c/o How to Destroy Angels on Facebook)

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  1. A man without peers at this point. Going in it a lone and knocking it out of the park. Other bands like Radiohead have meekly teased at finding non-traditional ways to market and sell their creations, but only Trent has dived into the water instead of merely dipping their toes in the water. The marketing just enhances what a bad ass musician is. You should really highlight the Year Zero viral campaign, won a few awards if I'm not mistaken, and that was before he was free from Interscope.

  2. Trent is as innovative with his business strategy as he is with his music. Perhaps I'm a biased source having 44 hours of music he is in and has produced in my iTunes, but he definitely has it right.

    Trent took it one step further, hosts THOUSANDS of remixes of his work, some made by him, some fan made – and at the time of writing this, has 1000 listeners (but I've seen it as high as 3000 often). This is like NIN-only radio, and since they have thousands and thousands of remixes in every style, there's always something fresh. Lounge music, 8-bit synthesized, techno, rock…'s the music you love that keeps on re-inventing itself.

    See Trent goes one step further here and you failed to mention it – Trent doesn't only give the music away for free, he often provides the full lossless multi-tracks he MADE the music from. He uploads the studio files and anybody in the world can download, remix, and then upload it to his site and have others listen, rate, review, and share that remix with others. It's brilliant.

    Yes I can go out to the store and purchase How to Destroy Angels next month like any other band. But I can get the album free today, and for 2$ I can get it in better-than-CD-quality. No other bands do that. No other bands release free multitracks for fans to remix.

    wait lets pull back again – Trent contributed 8GB of video footage to his own fan-produced LiveDVD for the last tour he did. His video contract fell through to he invited fans to bring camcorders to the show and capture it. Then he hired his own crew to capture 3 shows in HD and uploaded those. Then his loyal fans mixed their own LiveDVD and put it up for free download.

    See Trent doesn't treat us like 'consumers' or even like 'fans' – he treats us like we're PART of Nine Inch Nails, the whole community isn't a 'them&us' dichotomy, it's a participatory lifestyle that goes beyond just music.

    Take a look at his iPhone app – he's empowering NIN fans with the tools needed to communicate with each other:

    I think any band that embraces the attitude that this is a creative culture, that this is no-longer a 'read-only' culture of consumers but rather a community of content-creators, will have success in the future. Name one person who listens to music who DOESNT have access to a computer. Using that omputer and freely available tools (audacity, GIMP, Ardour, Cinelerra and plenty more) we can easily create artwork, produce music/remixes, and edit/produce videos. Never before in history has content-creation been so easily attainable, and Trent Reznor gets that.

    The problem with the music/movie industry is that they punish their most loyal supporters and and don't understand the internet. The ONLY time you see an anti-piracy ad that you can't skip on a DVD is when you've legally bought it – those messages don't show up on pirated copies. The longer you treat your informed fans as ignorant consumers the less likely they are to give you money.

  3. Although I believe that Reznor's status has helped with his social media marketing, I don't think it's impossible for an unknown to pull of the same feat. It would take more time for an unknown, but it could be done.

    As you said, the point now is not to sell albums; they're too easily duplicated. The goal is to sell merchandise that cannot be duplicated as easily and distributed as freely. And the good news — the more people who have easy access to your music, the more people who are willing to pay to see you in concert. Although concerts can be recorded and bootlegs can be distributed, the actual experience of a live show cannot be duplicated. The concerts I've been to have been far more memorable and intimate than anything I could watch on DVD or listen to on MP3 or CD.

    People may see Reznor as a musical genius, but he's also one hell of an entrepreneur.

  4. It is intriguing to see someone break the molds and do things so much differently. I had never heard of Trent before your post, not being a huge fan of NIN. They were just never quite my cup of tea.

    I think I may download this though. It sounds pretty good!

  5. Trent Reznor is a genius. Even if you don't like NIN, you still have to appreciate their stage presence. Not only does he understand the power of free, he also knows that music isn't about the music (at least not at first). People become passionate about bands from what they see. We don't go to concerts because of the quality of the music. If you want quality sound it is better to stay home and listen to the CD.

    We like bands for the visual show they give as well as the experience of enjoying it live with others. Reznor manages to extend that experience online by allowing fans to remix content. I love seeing bands that I would never listen to, just because that experience is powerful. I also listen to great musicians that I would never pay to see in concert because they are too boring. Guess which group makes more money? Reznor knows.

  6. On one of your questions, Matt:

    I think that Trent has a serious leg up on everyone else because he's already a big-time musician, but I think his marketing mastery would work for anyone – even a small indie band trying to get their name out.

    Here's an example (though on a very small scale): I discovered a great band called Gatsbys American Dream (now defunct, unfortunately) a couple of months ago. I wanted to spread the word out among kids in my school, so, for a friend's English project, I inserted a song by Gatsbys in production (it was a video), so everyone from the class would hear it when it was played for a class. Some loved it, and immediately got their hands on Gatsbys's stuff. Then they told their friends about Gatsbys, and so the word-of-mouth spreads. There are people who I've heard listening to Gatsbys that I don't even talk to, so it's pretty effective.

    Bottom line: if marketing strategies work for Reznor, they can work for anyone. Yeah, he already has a big audience, but it's likely that an indie band with a cult following could make it go viral and land themselves massive exposure.

    I just want to see more bands do this…

  7. He's amazing in all senses of the term. But I'm using this forum to profess my profound disappointment that he is married. I am too for that matter, but it's a great loss to the world :)

    Brilliant music, brilliant business strategy, he knows how to stay relevant even when the majority of the population is plugging their ears with Gaga and Miley Cyrus. Only one of those is actually acceptable as a form of music.

  8. You hit all the key points here, Matt. It's Reznor approach that has turned me into a raving super fan.

    I buy the swag. I pay top dollar for premium content. I was even one of the lucky few that had a chance to meet Trent and the band during the Eric De La Cruz charity drive. A chance to head backstage, watch a private soundcheck, have dinner with the band, watch the concert from the stage, record the whole thing AND give money to charity? It was the best $500 I ever spent.

    There is a great video floating around on YouTube that dives a little deeper into the whole NIN business model. It's worth a watch if you had 15 minutes of free time.

  9. I think the music industry – the big labels are what GM was just a few years ago. Everyone knew they weren't doing too well, but no one would admit it. And that's what the music industry is doing. Trying to hold on to their glory days by suing everyone and everything.

    What Trent is doing is SO important, because artists like him, and things that Radiohead is doing and other big artists that are beginning to move away from labels and market their own music will pave the way for the next generation of artists. And the new success model for an upcoming musician will no longer be “Get signed by a label and get big” but it will be “get popular and get big.” That's what really at the core of this, and this is what I personally am so excited about.

    Crap, almost wish I didn't give up playing my alto sax.

  10. Great post. Good thing I sent you that link when I did, huh? ;)

    Trent Reznor and Radiohead are the best at this game. I also think most DJs (Armin van Buuren, Above and Beyond, Matt Darey, David Akermanis, etc.) are also great at this type of marketing by giving fans an hour or two of free music via podcast every WEEK.

  11. Hi Matt:

    Thanks for sharing this post. I wouldn't call myself a passionate NIN fan (though I do remember and really loving Pretty Hate Machine when it came out)…but I do enjoy how Trent is promoting the new band. I think it's awesome and a lot of the 80's metal bands and musicians need to take note. I think it really helps to have a following, even if its a small passionate group, in order to pull this off. Also, I think it really takes creativity in order to stand out from the clutter…whether it be a group of musicians or someone in a job search. Thanks for this insightful post!

  12. Great post, Matt. You should check out (a close personal friend and fellow Emma client). He's set up a record label with the “music as a gift” model and he's seen bands that would normally be selling several thousand albums turn upwards or tens of thousands of downloads. And since the old music industry model, well, didn't work, Reznor and the folks at Come & Live are seemingly the brilliant minds of today.

  13. Yes, I am forever grateful to you for pointing out that link. What do you think of the How to Destroy Angels album?

    You're spot on with the DJ piece as well – a lot of folks are realizing that giving some content away is good business practice. Besides, artists barely make anything on pure record sales, the real profit is in the accessories, ticket sales, etc.

  14. Hey Tim.

    My earliest memory of NIN was sneaking around watching the video of 'Closer' when I was a kid on MTV. My folks would hear the intro and come running to turn the video off (it was a little disturbing for an 8 year old).

    Trent Reznor is a great musician, yes, but has also become a brilliant businessman. Thanks for the comment!

  15. Thanks Floreta. For those who may be reading this saying 'What the heck is Purple Cow'? – Here's a brief description pulled from Seth Godin's website –> “The idea is pretty simple–find a small group that cares, give them something remarkable and make it easy to tell their friends (the folks who don't care as much).”

    Read more here about Purple Cow Marketing:

  16. Hey Patrick – good to hear from you my friend. I trust all is well down in Nashville? I took a brief look at Come & Live and it looks like a great concept. Proving once again that by 'giving it away' you're not really 'giving it (all) away'. Cheers!

  17. Haha, us 'Altos' gotta stick together my friend!

    Like you said – the record industry is in serious turmoil right now – it's the same concept (or similar to) self publishing. More and more people are going at it alone because they can maintain control, they have all the rights, and marketing yourself is easier than ever with the continuing rise in technological innovation, Social Media, etc. Going with a 'big name' publisher may mean a more immediate and wide reach, but how many times have we seen go from indy to big name and completely 'sell out' in order to sell records – and how many times have we ween artists leave a big name to fly solo and suddenly, their music is re-born?

    It will be very interesting to see where the music industry is 5-10 years from now…

  18. Year Zero was an incredible marketing plan – so much going on around the release of that album, and, at the end of the day, he backed it up with great music. Marketing is that much easier when the quality of what you're putting out there is top-notch.

  19. Great, great, great write up – to say the least. I LOVE how they have taken an open-source direction with the provision of their music over the last several years. I am an avid visitor of and have a ton of the remixes (some of which are amazing) on my Ipod. At the end of the day, what Trent has done is what any business should be taking note of. He's created a completely interactive community if fans who love the music, but more importantly, love the overall experience of BEING A FAN. You'd be hard-pressed to find a better example of what he's been able to accomplish…

  20. “The more people who have access to your music, the more people willing to pay to see you in concert” – Seems obvious, but still, so many artists out there don't get it (although I think more are catching on). Trent Reznor is a model for success in what an individual can accomplish. Yes, I think his status has really helped leverage everything here – but as is with anything else, someone has to step ahead and be the innovator for the rest to follow. I think what he's doing is only the beginning of the complete shake-up of the music industry. It won't be long before more and more catch on and follow suit.

  21. I always used to think Nine Inch Nails was this 'devil music' that only insane gothic people listened to (that's what Media told us when we were kids) – luckily eventually you outgrow the media stereotypes put on people and I VERY much appreciate what Trent Reznor has accomplished both as a musician and as a business-man. If you downloaded this, would love to hear what you thought…

  22. Agreed 100% John. Reznor get is – and live? Nine Inch Nails is insane – from the actual performance to the insane light display on stage, it's a hell of a time – I'm sure it was insane in a different way 'back in the day' as Trent has very much mellowed since the days of old, but they are by far one of, if not the best band I've seen live. As you said,the man really is a genius in a multitude of ways.

  23. Are we now going to fight over who loves him more? Haha – would it be weird if I said I was disappointed he was married too? Yeah, probably a little weird. Couldn't have said it better myself here Lindsey – brilliant 'strategy' all around and there's not a song I don't like by them. It's rare in this day and age to find artists that still appreciate the music for the experience and emotion surrounding it. Reznor really understands the connection people attach to the music and art that they love.

  24. A friend of mine put it like this: “Each song is not great, but as a collection, it's good.” I agree. Hopefully we'll see more soon and it will be even better.

  25. I am also a XX fan who really like this! I also like XX, and purchase lots of it every time, like-minded friends can have a look ,we can communicate by the way~~

  26. I agree 100% Alex. The first time I listened (as I do with any album) was from start to finish – and as a complete set it's pretty awesome stuff. Individually, I agree, it's good but it's not loaded with singles or anything :)

  27. I love “discovering” new artists as I believe most of us music-philes do. I actually ran across your blog while researching how to combine my “old school” print marketing methods with new social media marketing methods to develop a highly efficient and effective strategy for a friend’s band. Your points bring to mind something I noticed one of my “discoveries” doing in her social media. She has been posting a little game in the evenings on her FB and Twitter asking people questions about her videos and lyrics and if they have the correct answer, they are automatically registered to win a free CD. She has done this nightly for at least a week or two that I’ve noticed. Now, I haven’t replied yet, but now that I see it reminding me over and over for what seems like about a week, I am considering that maybe the odds are good I would win a free CD. Problem is, I already own her album. LOL. She also puts up YouTube videos of her singing both unplugged in her living room, professional scripted videos, and lyrics to her songs. Sometimes she even posts tips for how a female fan can style her hair like hers. As her fame is growing, she posts the articles and fans feel like they “know” her and feel special. Most recently, she had her first baby…and we all got to see video of her going to her first sono appointment, finding out the sex, and celebrating the good news. She is goofy and fun and has the personality for this…so it just WORKS! I think whatever a band does to take advantage of social media should be specifically tailored to their fan base and the band’s personality. Thank you for such an insightful article. Now hopefully, I can convince MY CLIENT BAND (always the HARDEST part of the job isn’t it?) to trust me and go with my unorthodox ideas. ;)