What bullhorn Trent Reznor and cabaret-queen Amanda Palmer can teach artists about going it alone and the fan/artist relationship
If you watch the internets, you may have seen some recent link love going out to Nine Inch Nails Trent Reznor and Dresden Dolls Amanda Palmer, both fast becoming poster boy/girl for “artists on their own.”
Reznor was featured in Wired unveiling the new NIN iPhone app and explaining his strategy for NIN.com and how to monetize his growing fan database. The singer has been untethered from his label Interscope for almost two years.
Palmer, using slightly less finesse but with great clarity, was featured in an industry pundit’s newsletter explaining her attempts to wrangle free from her label while simultaneously exalting life without the middleman.
While both posts are a must read for any artist contemplating how to make money on their own, here’s a quick analysis with some accompanying quotes.
First, Reznor’s thinking of the fan first:
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t think music should be free,” Reznor says. “But the climate is such that it’s impossible for me to change that, because the record labels have established a sense of mistrust. So everything we’ve tried to do has been from the point of view of, ‘What would I want if I were a fan? How would I want to be treated?’ Now let’s work back from that. Let’s find a way for that to make sense and monetize it.”
Second, he’s tweaking off-the-shelf tools rather than building new:
Over the past year, NIN.com has quietly evolved into a series of interlocking services designed to deliver maximum benefit to the fans at minimal expense to the artist. To build it out, Reznor decided to use off-the-shelf resources — Blogger, Twitter, FeedBurner, Flickr, YouTube — rather than trying to duplicate what other people had already created. “They’re going to do a better job than we are,” he explains, “and they’re going to have a lot more resources to put into it.”
Third, he’s using a Freemium model to make money:
To cover the costs of recording and distributing the album, Reznor also offered The Slip as a limited-edition CD for $10. Even as he urged fans to download and share the album online, he sold 250,000 numbered copies of the CD. The album is also available on iTunes for $9.90. “So we managed to permeate the marketplace,” Reznor says, “and we also managed to monetize the album.”
Finally, he recognizes that his database is his new core asset:
The one part of NIN.com that Reznor had custom-built is the piece that sits at the center of it all: the database of fan info that has been harvested from the registration process that’s required to take full advantage of the site. That database, created by Sudjam, is what makes the tie-ins with Flickr and YouTube work, but it’s also given Reznor 2 million e-mail addresses — which adds up to a pretty powerful distribution network.
This line from Peter Jenner, once manager to The Clash and Pink Floyd, sums it up:
“There’s an enormous value in having a relationship with your fans,” he says. “More value even than in selling your records. I think old Trent’s a sharp cookie.”
Palmer’s open letter is much shorter, but equally studded with insights.
First, she’s recognizing that a middleman is just that: someone between her and her fans:
i had to EXPLAIN to the so-called “head of digital media” of roadrunner australia WHAT TWITTER WAS. and his brush-off that “it hasn’t caught on here yet” was ABSURD because the next day i twittered that i was doing an impromptu gathering in a public park and 12 hours later, 150 underage fans – who couldn’t attend the show – showed up to get their records signed.
Second, she’s seen the power of direct engagement:
i brought a troupe of back-up actors/dancers on the tour (we were only playing 300-1000 seaters) and had no money to pay them, so we passed the hat into the crowd every night. each performer walked from each show with about $200 in cash. the fans TOOK CARE OF THEM. they brought us dinner every night, gave us places to sleep. (i couldn’t afford to put up that many people in hotels). all sans label, all using email and twitter. the fans followed the adventure. they LOVED HELPING.
Finally, she’s understanding the value of Freemium:
the times they are a-changing fucking dramatically, when pong-twittering with trent reznor means way more to your fan-base/business than whether or not the record is in fucking stores (and in my case, it ain’t in fucking stores).
While there’s a whack of business lessons here for established and emerging artists, what stuck with us most was Palmer’s final comment and how it captures the fan/artist connection:
my fans hung out with me all day on twitter today while i unpacked weird tour shit, fan art, gifts and paraphernalia that usually just ends up in my closet or in the trash and took pictures of it for them.
Indeed, the times they are-a-changin’.