Nine Inch Nails Tell a Transmedia Story

Monsters and Critics has what seems to be a nice write up about Trent Reznor’s Nine Inch Nails’ “Internet scavenger hunt,” or what folks like Christie Dena would call transmedia storytelling (she writes about the NIN thing here), in the promotion of their forthcoming record:

‘Year Zero’ came to life in early February when Web-savvy fans discovered that highlighted letters inside words on a NIN tour T-shirt spelled out “I am trying to believe.” Savvy fans added a “.com” to the five words and, voila, located a thought-provoking, eerie Web site. Other associated sites created by 42 Entertainment were soon discovered, including bethehammer.net, anotherversionofthetruth.com and churchofplano.com, where a dark future reigns supreme.

And if dayglo tshirts tied to mysterious (and well-done) websites weren’t enough, there were even drives planted in bathrooms:

According to one post, a male fan, allegedly by happenstance, found a USB drive in a bathroom stall during a NIN concert at the Coliseum in Lisbon, Portugal. This flash drive (yes, Reznor`s idea) contained an MP3 of album track “My Violent Heart.” Additional USB drives were purportedly found in Barcelona and Manchester, England; they included MP3s of album tracks “Me, I`m Not” and “In This Twilight,” respectively.

And the real beauty of this story is that the RIAA promptly demonstrated just how massively clueless they really are:

Excited fans then began swapping and sharing these music files online. Another Web posting alleged that all this activity resulted in entertainment blog Idolator and other sites receiving e-mail from the RIAA, demanding that they remove the MP3s from their sites.

An RIAA representative confirms this, a move that boggles the minds of many. “These . . . idiots are going after a campaign that the label signed off on,” the source says.

The article claims that only songs meant to be leaked through the campaign have actually leaked. There is more and more of this going on (Boston LiteBrites anyone) in television promotion, but I think this is the first time it’s been done to this extent in music. Please right me if I’m wrong on that.

Rolling Stone piece about this, with loads of thoughtful comments, is here.

Update: Billboard‘s original story about this (from which Monsters & Critics seems to have taken the quotes) is here.

NIN fans, if you’re paying attention, comments about this are welcome!

Tape Trading in the Digital Age

I’ve had a half-written post lying around for a long time in which I wanted to reflect on the change from tape trading to torrenting but I’ve never been quite sure what its final point is. This excellent article about bootlegging, in conjunction with a couple of emails I’ve gotten recently from people talking about differential levels of respect for bands that do and don’t allow bootlegging, makes me want to finish that post. The linked article talks about the Woodstock-era Deadhead origins of tape trading, the pros and the cons of it from band and fan perspectives, the bands that play along, the ones that don’t and the legal and ethical issues entailed by both positions.

I was pretty active in tape trading in the 1980s, collecting mostly REM shows, but also a lot of other bands in the ‘college rock’ scene of the early 1980s. I have a dusty drawer full of what are probably now warped cassettes. To be involved in the tape trading scene, you had to really know people who knew people. You couldn’t just hop in as a novice fan and build a good collection. You had to work the social network to get the good stuff. For instance, one of my great coups was when someone in a band (the dBs) gave me the secret address of someone in Chapel Hill, NC who had all kinds of early recordings of southern pop bands and told me to tell him that he’d sent me. Those tapes were treasures when they arrived.

And now you just fire up your torrenting program of choice and bam, all those shows I collected like treasure hunts are right there, in multiple for everyone. I can’t help but feel a little bit like something’s been lost. But maybe that ‘something’ is elitism — I used to get social status for the boots I’d collected, and now I’m just another torrenting geek, and a less obsessive one than many at that. The internet’s made everyone as cool as they want to be.

I also rethink my sense of loss when I realize that despite the easy availability of many recordings, in fact, torrents do not last forever and personal connections still matter. The internet enables us to build more of those connections than we used to. When I got interested in Norwegian band Madrugada, I devoured their records and wanted more. I found a fan community that posted a lot of torrents, with the band’s permission (for more on this and an interview with the webmaster, click over here to an earlier post), and I built myself a nice collection. But some of the very best stuff I got came not from the torrents but from a person on that site who felt bad for me never getting to see them in concert and snail mailed me over a dozen live recordings (from France!). Those cds were treasures when they arrived.

I have never believed that trading bootlegs (not selling: trading) takes any money away from anyone. Live recordings can enhance the fan experience dramatically. The flaws in the performance, when there, give us that much more to appreciate about the recorded versions, and the transcendent shows when the songs just flow one into the other and the band plays like one organism do more to enhance attachment to a band than any studio recording ever could.

A new spin on protest music

Here is a profoundly weird little blip on the pop culture radar: Stop Peter Bjorn and John

Peter Bjorn and John, if you don’t know, are an indie Swedish pop band who are having a bit of US success right now with their whistle-happy single Young Folks. The song is from their 3rd record, Writer’s Block, which made a lot of Top 10 lists last year (it made mine too, although I prefer their second record, Falling Out). So anyhow, as the band prepared to come to Austin for SXSW in hopes of breaking the US, or whatever it is one hopes for in times such as that, someone started the Stop Peter Bjorn and John blog. In the first post the anonymous author wrote:

The goal of this blog is simple: to stop the band Peter Bjorn and John from getting any more popular than they already are. Just to be clear, I accept that Peter Bjorn and John are already somewhat popular, and that there can be no undoing this. I merely want for the indie-rock community to take matters into its own hands to ensure that this popularity, at least here in the United States, goes no further.

Why this band in particular? A later post offers an explanation:

Do we want Peter Bjorn and John to be hailed as the standard bearers for a whole genre of music? And the answer is: NO WAY. As I acknowledged in the previous post, “Young Folks” was catchy and harmless, but this band is not a significant band. Peter Bjorn and John must be stopped.

And we can do it. As admittedly cheesy as this may sound, if there’s one thing that blogs (and consumer-generated media more generally) have taught us in the last few years, it’s that those of us who try hard enough really can affect the culture, even if we never get some big cultural institution to back us up. This has been especially true with indie rock.

We make these bands ourselves, online, though our posts, listens, downloads, and links. If we want to take them down, we can. In the case of Peter Bjorn and John, we must.

This week, the blogger admits personal failure and posts a farewell:

To those of you who are turning up right now to protest: I am sorry. This whole campaign against Peter Bjorn and John has pushed me to what I now realize is a total mental and emotional breakdown. I haven’t eaten in forty-eight hours, and the friends I am staying with have basically asked me to get out. I simply can’t carry this burden any longer. I have packed up my car and am leaving town.

I started this blog to take the fight to Peter Bjorn and John. Obviously I can’t claim to have won that fight, but I hope that the fight will continue without me today. Maybe someone reading this right now will decide to make the fight their own. As for those of you who like Peter Bjorn and John, who are raising them up to some sort of demigod status even as we speak — well, you can go ahead and pile on me if you like. Call me names. Gloat. I expect nothing less from you smug indie jackals. Mark my words, though: history will smile on our side, not yours. It’s cold comfort, but it’s all I’ve got right now.

So what is this? People in the comments seem divided: is it a pathetic loser who has picked the oddest of objects to act out against? or is it a viral marketing campaign on their behalf?

Anti-fans are nothing new, though for there to be an activist antifan trying to organize protests against a little Swedish band is certainly a weird one. But viral marketing campaigns in disguise as antifan movements may be something new. Whether intended as a marketing ploy or not, it seems to have gone further toward increasing PB&J’s allure than toward limiting it.

Make your own MySpace

Here’s a funny twist on responding to the limitations of MySpace (a topic which seems to be popping up a lot lately, including this piece in the Atlantic Monthly, my last blog post, and a piece in yesterday’s New York Times). No sooner do I argue that a band’s MySpace site should lead back to their own domain, than my friend Slivka points out that Swedish indie crooner Jens Lekman has taken this more than one step further by recreating his MySpace site on his own domain.

One subpage of his main website is a direct rip of his MySpace site. The two pages look nearly identical, except for that on the jenslekman.com one it says:

MySpace was never the way I wanted to communicate with you. So I’ve kidnapped the HTML code to my own domain and all the links here will lead you out of the labyrinth. I hope you enjoy a breath of fresh air as much as I do.

Much Love

// Jens

Very clever, I gotta say, and I am right behind him for seeking a means of communicating with fans outside the corporate garden. Although what good this particular strategy does beyond a joke that makes a statement I’m not sure, especially since the MySpace site does not contain any message to the effect that MySpace isn’t how he wants to communicate with his fans. But a joke that makes a statement isn’t such a bad thing.

I saw Lekman on tour about a year ago, and toward the end of the night he stepped away from the microphone and sang a couple of songs in front of it. And then in the encore he just walked out into the bar and found a spot he liked and sang his heart out at the top of his lungs. I’m not moved by his music, but it was neat to see someone who just wanted to sing for the people who love him. So given that, I’m not surprised to see him eschewing Murdoch Mediation.

Update: A lot of people land here because they searched “make your own myspace.” I feel kind of bad about that cuz you’re not going to find much help here. Maybe this site is more like what you were looking for.

MySpace vs. Websites

It seems it is becoming trendier than ever for bands to assume MySpace as a proxy for the internet and just move all their self-branding, fan-reaching, media-distributing on there. This is something I have ranted against here and here. And now I’m going to rant a little more triggered by this article about a band called Knock Knock Ginger (never heard them) in which one of them says:

“If I hear of a band, MySpace is probably the first place I go. For instance, a girl from Italy recently ordered our album and she was like, ‘I really like Canadian bands, can you recommend me some?’ And I just ended up sending her 10 MySpace links. I mean, I don’t even go to websites anymore. It has almost become the new demo.

“I mean, I don’t even go to websites anymore?”

Is this really something bands (and others) want to be pushing?

As I’ve said before, I think it’s pretty obvious that unless you are trying to avoid notice, you need to have a MySpace presence. With the amount of web traffic going through there, it’s a must. For sure.

But you should also have presence in other spaces as well. And all of those spaces, in my view, should lead users back to YOUR OWN SPACE. The one YOU own. The one no one else can wrest from your control, redesign without your permission, change the rules for, etc etc etc.

So it was with considerable delight that I read this astute piece in The Atlantic Monthly adding fuel to my fire:

Already, the most popular users, like the legendarily pneumatic Tila Tequila—friend to more than 1.5 million MySpacers—are realizing that their future is in guiding people off MySpace to their own, more robust, fully customizable personal pages. Indeed, the third rail of social media may ultimately come down to that most old-media of issues: ownership. MySpace may sell the idea of itself as being without boundaries, but in fact the digital mayhem lives within a tightly controlled environment. MySpace does not let users network meaningfully with people outside its walls, and it does not let them import some functionality that promotes or drives revenue to other corporations; for example, those newly popular “widgets” that contain text or video feeds, or games. MySpace has legitimate security reasons for prohibiting the Flash-based widgets, but the effect is also to eliminate a way for corporate competitors to lure users out of the MySpace environment. And MySpace recently announced it will no longer allow users to post videos that contain copyrighted material—hello, YouTube—much as it was already filtering out some major-label music.

Most important, users like Tila Tequila do not profit directly from the traffic they generate for the site. Indeed, the value of MySpace and the other 2.0 sites is built on their ability to monetize—through ad sales and marketing, among other streams—the traffic generated by their users. The tacit trade-off is free Web hosting, tools, and distribution. This trade-off is not in itself unfair. But, as with IM, the value proposition does not remain constant. The walled-garden attributes of MySpace and Facebook, like those of the subscriber-era AOL, can quickly become liabilities. And as the value of social-media tools becomes inevitably unsexy and commoditized, it may be only a matter of time before the Tila Tequilas of the world, inspiration for millions of page views, decide they might as well go elsewhere.

All of these social media are wonderful tools for artists to display their wares, show off their connections with other bands, and build and maintain relationships with their audience, but every band ought to have a home base that is entirely within their own purview and offers more than fans can get on any other site.