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Paywhatchulike, paynada: two ways to say “free”

on September 17, 2009, 1:00pm

Lately the paradigm of artists doling out free goods has had the usual combatant hearsay; two key players in the land of “paywhatchulike” are Trent Reznor and the band Radiohead. Let us review the current pleas from both parties and see what the beef is all about, shall we?

Trent Reznor, upon releasing the phenomenal YEARZEROREMIXED album, fulfilled his contractual obligations with Interscope Records. After creating a much-heralded virtual reality tie-in to 2007′s Year Zero, Reznor began showing more and more interest in the realm of digital landscapes by offering remix opportunities to listeners, free album downloads, and implementing a pay-what-you-want schematic in regards to poet/artist Saul Williams and his third record, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust!. This idea was in many ways similar to Radiohead’s earlier concept involving its album, In Rainbows.

Argument for Radiohead: Niggy Tardust! was pulled from free download after 100,000 opted for that method; unlike Radiohead, who never set a price but gave freedom of choice, Niggy Tardust! gave an option of either pay $5 and support the artist or download for free (my my, those guilt trips).

Argument for Reznor: Williams had only two prior studio releases compared to Radiohead’s lengthy back catalog, so the well-established Radiohead had means to pull off such an idea with a wider audience; Radiohead did not need any support, for it has been proven that people will still buy Radiohead’s CDs and will still clamor for concert tickets — meaning one could misconstrue the band’s attempt as a publicity stunt, which some believe is the case.

In hindsight one could claim any argument is null and void. Reznor’s immaturity is finally showing due to the embittered attitude he shows toward Radiohead, the band who made the move to “paywhatchulike” first.  It is also imperative to note that both Reznor and Radiohead were with major labels throughout the majority of their careers (despite Reznor’s multiple confrontations around Broken [EP], etc.), and a colloquial kick at label intrusion boils down to spoiled brats biting the hand that fed them. Each act has sufficient talent and nobody is siding with the major labels on what constitutes “feeding,” but is this not all a bit silly?

Niggy Tardust! ended up selling more than any of Saul Williams’ prior releases so one should be thankful — and if by comparison In Rainbows sold more, it is because Radiohead is a better known act and that should have been expected. Trent Reznor is a great businessman and his brute honesty and fan service makes him a force to be reckoned with in music, but he has to understand that from the mass perspective both him and Radiohead currently represent artists who experimented with an idea and did not get the desired results.  Who cares which album sold better or who made “paywhatchulike” appear more like publicity than sincere groundbreaking?

Trent Reznor spoke to The A.V. Club (via TwentyFourBit) on matters concerning this selling construct and his spat with Radiohead:

“At the end of the day, when you saw what [Radiohead] did in terms of them signing with a record label and selling a record, it felt like a step backward, and it felt like it was just more of a stunt than any kind of real formula for people to survive in the same era”

“The thing that I learned from Radiohead is, I don’t want to ask you what you think it’s worth. ‘Hey, I just worked a year on this thing.’ ‘Well, that’s worth 10 cents.’ ‘Hey, fuck you!’”

We are glad that you learned something, Reznor — even if it took taking your own spin on it and seeing for yourself that given the choice between free music and supporting the artist, humanity reigns and we find ourselves back at uTorrent or whatever the drug might be. To both Reznor and Radiohead, experiments were hit or miss and in the big picture, you missed so get over it okay? Frankly we all suggest, if an artist really wants to make money in the music business these days without compromising character, here’s some advice:

- Concerts. Touring one’s ass off, performing with real passion, and selling merchandise at prices only true fans and minute-made suckers would pay (take a lesson from Fugazi and go DIY, if you have to).

- Packaging. “Paywhatchulike” is as much a fad as Napster post-Ulrich; besides giving away stuff that was meant to be free anyway (remix masters, EPs), hock shit the old fashioned way and give people things in your album they cannot get through piracy (case and point: Peeping Tom).  It also does not hurt to sell the albums at affordable prices, which is probably why Niggy Tardust! managed to survive this stupid charade.

- Be Humble. If the Kanye Wests, David Lee Roths, and Wilburs of the world have taught us anything, bravado is all well and good but remember that fans make your money. We will buy your product if we like it and we think you truly put yourself into it; do not make excuses for your stunts, it is akin to leaving your car door unlocked in the ghettos of [insert city here] (I am told this is illegal in some states now).

- Be Honest. We as the masses might degrade artists we do not like for parading their personal politics before live audiences (case and point: Bono), but honesty is nothing to scoff at. If you have an issue to raise or a cause to back, be straight up and act like you talk. We would rather have a rich artist who does the world some good than a rich artist who says one thing and does another, and that includes avoiding false hype.

Recently it was reported that the Smashing Pumpkins (aka Billy Corgan) are trying on a new idea called “paynada” by giving away about 40 songs over the course of a year or so. While no one can argue getting free stuff period without any options is certainly generous — and something about Reznor we all still love — “paynada” is only worthwhile when it comes from an artist we respect. Sorry Corgan, but no matter how many coats of faux Gish you layer on, it is still your solo record revisited, so why not just say “Here is some free Corgan material”? Is it so hard to be honest with yourself? Maybe when that happens, this writer will be inclined to give you a second chance.

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