Creators Breaking Tradition

I think Nine Inch Nails is a perfect example of what can be done when creators break the traditional distribution models.

When their contract with their label ended, they went digital, offering both physical CDs and MP3 downloads unencumbered by DRM and copy protection schemes. Now you can download their latest album for free (in multiple formats!), they take advantage of online tools, they designed their own iPhone app, created virtual reality games for their fans, and yet they’re still turning a profit.

Here’s a great quote from the iPhone app article:

“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.”

Reznor knows the music is his bread and butter, that if he doesn’t turn a profit somehow he couldn’t afford to keep pushing out music like he does. Yet he understands that the digital market and the Interent completely changes things. How is it the distributors — the record labels, the publishers, the movie studios — are having so much trouble figuring this out? The music, books and movies — the creators’ properties — are their bread and butter, yet they guard the end product more jealously than the creators themselves.

Sure, Metallica sued Napster. The creators don’t all get it. Iron Maiden, on the other hand, encourage their fans to record their shows and share the recordings with as many of their friends as they can. Iron Maiden knows it’s all about earning mindshare, about earning those ears and eyeballs, to build success. Radiohead played with a digital distribution model as well, and despite mixed results, they saw 1.2 million downloads and the physical CD still debuted at number one on US and UK charts.

In the publishing world, I again mention Cory Doctorow. It blows me away that he can give away all of his books for free in every digital format you can imagine, yet his sales are still strong enough that Tor Books is willing to publish his work in hardcover. This runs counterintuitive to most publishers’ ways of thinking where it’s assumed that if someone can get a book for free, it will be detrimental to sales. Instead, it appears that the increased mindshare actually results in more word of mouth and, in turn, more sales (or at least downloads don’t negatively affect profit).

I recently learned Wil Wheaton’s latest book is available through Lulu, a print on demand service, in both digital and paperback formats. While POD and self publishing have been acceptable in the comics realm for some time, it’s generally frowned upon in the prose world. I’m curious to see how his numbers are looking.

The big question, of course, is how these guys are able to pull it off.

Something they all have in common is trust. They’ve built relationships with their fans over a long period of time, and they earned their ears and eyeballs long before they went digital. They already had fans lined up and eager to get their hands on their new creations. (Incidentally, it’s a good example of the 1000 True Fans theory.)

So where does that leave the rest of us?

Good question. These are interesting times to be a creator.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.

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