TRENT REZNOR’S home is on the outskirts of Beverly Hills, up a maze of climbing one-lane roads that baffle a rental car’s GPS navigation. It’s perched on a dizzyingly steep slope with a panoramic view of smoggy downtown.
At the moment Mr. Reznor isn’t living there. The place has become a full-scale construction site after a kitchen renovation somehow spread to the entire house. But one room remains neat and dust-free. It’s the studio where Mr. Reznor, recording as Nine Inch Nails, made the two albums he has delivered this year: the instrumental package “Ghosts I-IV” and the latest set of Nine Inch Nails songs, “The Slip,” which was released as a free download from nin.com on May 5.
“This one’s on me,” Mr. Reznor announces on that Web page. The album was downloaded more than a million times before the end of May, according to him. A retail CD version of “The Slip” is due shortly before Nine Inch Nails starts its tour on July 25 in Vancouver.
“Aside from any kind of monetization of it, I’m glad to know that a million people have it on their iPods,” Mr. Reznor said. “If you paid for it, great, but I want everyone to hear it, you know? I want to blow people’s minds.”
He has joined the superstar exodus from major labels. Acts with large audiences and established brands like Radiohead, Madonna and the Eagles no longer need the labels’ star-making clout. They have calculated that they can do better, and have more options, outside the old system.
Now that Mr. Reznor has finished his contract with Interscope Records, he is following his impulses on when to release music. “I don’t have to ask permission,” he said. The situation suits his business sense and his temperament. In “Head Like a Hole,” the climax of countless Nine Inch Nails concerts, he sings, “I’d rather die than give you control.”
Mr. Reznor, 43, is an unlikely combination of recluse, showman, tortured Romantic, workaholic and tech geek — which may just be an effective personality for a musician in the digital age. His songs have become perennial adolescent anthems because they blurt out frustration, fury and self-loathing in a dramatic balance of pop melodies and ominous, lacerating noise. And in conversation, he doesn’t hide negative thoughts. “Fear has governed my life, if I think about it,” he said. “I don’t even know why I’m saying this in an interview situation, but I always feel like I’m not good enough for some reason. I wish that wasn’t the case, but left to my own devices, that voice starts speaking up.”
He wonders, in the songs on “The Slip,” whether he is irrelevant. The music revives Nine Inch Nails’ past, from stomping hard rock to dance-club beats to piano ballad to inexorably building instrumentals. Yet amid walloping drums and distorted guitars — the sounds of angry youth — Mr. Reznor ponders his place in the present. “Start it up again like it matters anymore/I don’t know if it does,” he sings in “1,000,000.” Nine Inch Nails, Mr. Reznor said, is “an aggressive, honest, naked, angry, ugly thing. I don’t hear anybody doing anything like that right now that I’m aware of. Maybe there are, but it doesn’t seem like it’s the flavor of today.”
As a musician and fan, Mr. Reznor is an old-school rocker who is devoted to the album as a creative unit to be savored and pondered as a whole. But he has also reinvented himself as a digital-era adept. Unlike the Eagles and Radiohead he’s not taking years to make albums; he has recognized that while he grew up treating an album like a novel, younger listeners, freely downloading music and setting their iPods on shuffle, are more likely to treat it like a magazine.
Mr. Reznor lets his music travel freely at Internet speed, extending album concepts into parallel online universes. He’s familiar with file-sharing sites and music blogs, including those that irk him by taking potshots at Nine Inch Nails. Playing live, his laptop now replaces pedals and effects. Mr. Reznor even posts online all the raw digital tracks from Nine Inch Nails albums for anyone to remix. “I’m done with them,” he said. “Why not?”
“Ghosts I-IV” grew out of ideas after a 2007 tour, which Mr. Reznor set out to record “with very little forethought,” he said. He released the album in March, making it available in multiple formats, from a bargain downloadable version for $5 to standard CDs and LPs to a luxury $300 limited-edition boxed set of CDs, vinyl, DVDs and artwork. (The 2,500 copies of that set sold out immediately, for a quick gross of $750,000, and now fetch $500 on eBay.)
“The Slip” was knocked out in three weeks of studio time after a month of songwriting. During the sessions he sent one song, “Discipline,” to rock radio stations, which have given it Top 10 airplay. The new music, Mr. Reznor acknowledged, relies more often on reflexes than does an album like “The Fragile” (1999), on which every sound is painstakingly shaped; he said he expects his next project to take more “editorial time.” With “The Slip,” however, he finished recording the songs on a Wednesday and completed mixing, mastering and graphics to release the album five days later. “That was fun,” Mr. Reznor said. “You never could have done that before.”
To release “Ghosts I-IV” and “The Slip” online Mr. Reznor found he needed software to distribute digital files, assemble databases and connect easily with other applications. That too will soon be available free. “We’ve spent the money to make it,” Mr. Reznor said. “Take it.”
Going independent “was a weird feeling,” he said. “It was bittersweet. It was happiness: ‘We’re finally, finally free of this bureaucracy. Oh, no, now what are we going to do?’ ”
Nine Inch Nails’ recent booming, ferocious and desolate sounds emerge from a studio the size of a comfortable living room. It has burgundy brocade curtains over red velvet drapes over plywood-lined walls: soundproofing with a Goth touch. Analog synthesizers and digital keyboards each have their corners, with guitars racked in between. A recording console and speakers take up one full wall, alongside a computer atop a cabinet of hard drives holding sound libraries and albums.
Since Mr. Reznor owns the studio, recording costs are mostly payments to engineers, visual artists and a handful of guest musicians — low enough to keep him self-sufficient. The setup is central to Mr. Reznor’s new phase as a free agent. “This is ground zero,” he told a visitor.
Mr. Reznor has no global solution for how to sustain a long-term career as a recording musician, much less start one, when listeners take free digital music for granted. “It’s all out there,” he added. “I don’t agree that it should be free, but it is free, and you can either accept it or you can put your head in the sand.”
He knows what he doesn’t want to do: make his music a marketing accessory. “Now just making good music, or great music, isn’t enough,” Mr. Reznor said. “Now I have to sell T-shirts, or I have to choose which whorish association is the least stinky. I don’t really want to be on the side of a bus or in a BlackBerry ad hawking some product that sucks just so I can get my record out. I want to maintain some dignity and self-respect in the process, if that’s possible these days.”
Nine Inch Nails was a multimillion-selling band throughout the 1990s and has steadily replenished one of rock’s most loyal followings, filling arenas on tour.
Last year Mr. Reznor produced and bankrolled an album for the socially conscious hip-hop poet Saul Williams, “The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust.” When record labels didn’t want it, Mr. Reznor put it online: free to the first 100,000 downloaders as good-quality MP3 files or $5 for more high-fidelity files. He had thought that fans would willingly pay the price of a latte to support musicians directly. But fewer than 20 percent did so. “I think I was just naïve.”
At the time he called the project a failure, but he has reconsidered. “The numbers of the people that paid for that record, versus the people that paid for his last record, were greater,” he said. “He made infinitely more money from that record than he did from his other one. It increased his name value probably tenfold. At the end of the day, counting free downloads, it was probably five or six or seven times higher than the amount sold on his last record. I don’t know how you could look at that as a failure.”
Mr. Reznor had a head start at being a digital do-it-yourselfer. He has recorded most of Nine Inch Nails’ music virtually alone as a studio band. Under his recording contract at Interscope, Mr. Reznor maintained full control, submitting finished master recordings, artwork, ads and videos to the label. His last Interscope album, “Year Zero,” used its $2 million budget to go further, extending its vision of a dystopian future to elaborately linked materials online and off- for fans to find and decode. Mr. Reznor has been working with Lawrence Bender, Quentin Tarantino’s longtime producing partner, to create a cable TV series to tell the entire story.
Now Mr. Reznor is more immersed than ever in every detail. Over a few days in Los Angeles in mid-May he was not only rehearsing his latest live band but also minutely plotting its stage production.
Before the full band’s first rehearsal, at a complex in Burbank, Mr. Reznor had an hourlong conference call with Moment Factory, a high-tech production company in Montreal. Mr. Reznor’s eye for technology keeps colliding with his budget. “I don’t make any money because I spend it on the production,” he said. “But I can’t afford to go lose money to play shows.”
With his longtime graphics co-conspirator, Rob Sheridan, at his side and an e-mail memo on his Mac laptop screen, Mr. Reznor went through a prospective set list, song by song, with Moment Factory, explaining where three giant video screens would be and which disorienting effects he wanted from the programmers and hardware makers — like being able to move a video frame across a musician that also changed the sound of his guitar. “What I’m trying to do is use the stage as an interactive instrument,” Mr. Reznor said. “I’m in the world of science fiction now.”
Nine Inch Nails has been on the arena circuit since the mid-1990s. As Mr. Reznor’s audience grew, so did his ambitions and his self-destructive side: alcoholism and heroin addiction. He went through rehab in 1997, but he backslid as he labored over “The Fragile” for two years. “ ‘The Fragile’ ended me,” he said.
After the tour for “The Fragile,” Mr. Reznor went silent for half a decade. He has been sober, he said, since 2001, but he did not release another album until “With Teeth” in 2005. He had feared that without his addictions he’d no longer be creative; he had also feared obsolescence. “I know how old I am,” he said. “I’m not trying to fool anybody.”
There was other turbulence: dueling lawsuits with his first manager, during which Mr. Reznor realized he had unthinkingly agreed to commissions of 20 percent of his gross earnings, not the customary net. In 2005 a jury awarded him $2.85 million in lost earnings and damages. “With Teeth,” which he said sounds “very cautious” to him now, gave him a new start and has sold half a million copies amid plummeting CD sales.
“These days I work too much, I think, because it makes me feel good,” Mr. Reznor said. “I don’t know how to do that in a relationship. I don’t have a family. I’d like to have one. I just haven’t somehow gotten around to it yet. But I know that if I work, it’s likely I’ll come up with something I’m proud of and that gives me a sense of worth. Not for money or fame — it’s, I feel good about it. So like any good addict, if I find something that feels good, if that feels good, maybe doing twice as much feels twice as, you know. ...”
His day was just beginning. There was a photo shoot, a band rehearsal, more stage plotting. “Make me look cool,” he said by way of goodbye. He caught himself, and laughed.