When Nine Inch Nails rock star Trent Reznor decided to go into DIY music publishing in 2008, he became a freetard poster child overnight. For the project, Reznor bypassed The Man to release a long instrumental album under the NIN banner in a variety of formats: some tracks were given away for free, $5 bought you a compressed digital version, while vinyl options ranged from $10 to $300.
It was a nice experiment for a mature artist to undertake. The fanatical anti-copyright blog Techdirt, which specialises in explaining in a million different ways why other people's sound recordings should be given away, was one of many who lauded the effort.
But now Reznor has had enough - and he's signed to Sony Music label Columbia. The label will release an EP by Reznor's band How To Destroy Angels, and (likely) the project's full-length album.
"Complete independent releasing has its great points but also comes with shortcomings," Reznor says on his Facebook page.
Reznor always made an odd poster child for freetards. He's never pandered to fashionable opinion, he has always had thoughtful critiques of commercial music strategies, and has never undervalued his own music as a publicity stunt. Reznor agreed, for example, with the point that going fully DIY was a luxury only established recording artists could enjoy.
It's also a regressive move. One frequently overlooked aspect of the major label model is that successful artists subsidise the less successful - a kind of socialism, if you like.
"Under the old-school record label system most artists had a much higher effective royalty rate than the contracts would lead you to believe," Cracker and Camper Van Beethoven front man David Lowery explained in testimony to the US Congress. Lowery told politicians: "This was directly a result of this socialistic risk-sharing, revenue-sharing scheme that record companies devised. It was directly the result of the record companies financing the recording of albums through its system of advances."
So long as your act didn't recoup its advance, you could enjoy a career for years with the best-sellers effectively subsidising you.
DIY has worked for successful artists in the later stage of their careers - because they don't have to share it with younger bands - and acts serving specialist audiences such as Black Metal, Lowery noted.
Of course the key here is choice - and making sure all our artists have lots of good choices available to them. The most successful artist in the world last year is signed to a tiny independent label (XL) for her recordings, and to an 800lb gorilla to handle her music publishing.
Whether we'll continue to get such choices in a post-Universal-EMI merger world remains to be seen. What's for certain is that the tech blogosphere's noisiest ideologues couldn't really care less what choices artists have - so long as they give away their work for free. ®