Nine Inch Nails's Download Drama

My generation holds little nostalgia for the dwindling number of "brick and mortar" music stores whose principal purpose, back in the day, was to mark up prices and never seem to have the title you were looking for on hand. Listening, browsing and buying at a discount from huge online inventories suits us fine. We're also in favor of the most talented artists releasing anything they want directly to us via the Internet, all without having to suffer the second-guessing or interference of marketing executives.

So when a musician such as Trent Reznor, the leader of Nine Inch Nails, announced Sunday night that he was cutting out the corporate middle man and releasing nearly two hours of radio-unfriendly instrumental music through his own Web site for a low, low price, I clicked on the "purchase" button without a second thought. Actually, there was a second thought: "Awesome."

Several hours later I was frustrated and disappointed. Not because the music contained on "Ghosts I-IV" was subpar but because I had yet to hear anything at all. Hours after the payment showed up on my credit card's Web site, I was one of thousands sending fruitless e-mails to the musician's overwhelmed customer service team. When a bank is giving you faster online service than the merchant you're trying to pay, you know you're in trouble.

The morning after the music was made (allegedly) available, Reznor posted the following note on his Web site's front page: "The response to this album has been overwhelming, causing our website to slow to a crawl. We THOUGHT we were ready, but … We've been adding more servers to accommodate the unexpected demand and we expect to be running smoothly in the next few hours …"

Fair enough. You can't blame the man for being more popular than he expected. But later that night this message appeared on the band's front page: "YES, WE F***ED UP! We thought we bought enough beer but too many of you showed up for the party. We are fixing the Ghosts site right now, I am told it will be back up 100% in a few hours. In the meantime, you can buy the whole new record at Amazon if you are in the U.S. … We are sorry for the trouble (but you know it's worth it!)"

What he was saying was: sorry if you ordered the album already and still have nothing to show for it, but the good news is that you can go buy it again somewhere else! So I clicked over to and bought the MP3 version of Nine Inch Nails's "Ghosts" for the second time in a day. It was sort of like seeing your candy bar dangle on the last hook of a vending machine spiral and then paying again in order to get two—except buying another set of digital files does not double your overall intake of sweetness. But five minutes after paying through Amazon's MP3 service, I was at least listening to some music.

The double-payment drama reminded me of the bind some Radiohead fans found themselves in last winter, when the group debuted its new record online. While Radiohead's brand spankin' new MP3s downloaded just fine on the first day of sale (Trent, give Thom Yorke a call), fans were crestfallen over the low bitrate, or audio fidelity, of those files. At least Radiohead had instituted a pay-what-you-wish scale for their online gambit. But some fans who had paid CD-style prices out of loyalty found out only a week later that Radiohead would be selling higher-fidelity MP3s and CDs through other retailers in the near future. Much grousing ensued, as hardcore fans wound up buying the music twice: once for the sake of instant gratification and a second time to get proper quality.

On Sunday night Reznor tried to do us all one better by offering an unprecedented degree of consumer choice. His tiered system of payment—$5 for MP3s only, $10 to get the MP3s now as well as the double CD upon its future release, and more expensive fetish sets for the hardcore fans—almost succeeded. The only thing he forgot was make sure people could download the music right after paying. (As of Tuesday morning NIN's Web site declared, "We're back," though my personalized download link was still busted.)

OK, so how is the (increasingly expensive) music? Well, Reznor was right when he claimed this would be worth all the hassle. Making an all-instrumental record has saved him from having to write yet another sheaf of angst-ridden lyrics. In the past many Nine Inch Nails fans simply ignored his bad writing in order to enjoy the texture of the music itself. This time there's no need. "Ghosts I-IV" is cringe-free and all texture, welding banjo, piano, distorted guitars and funky electronics into an ambient pleasure in which no one idea is forced to outstay its welcome in the service of anything so conventional as a "song." It's the kind of absorbing musical experience that the surviving ranks of know-it-all record-store clerks would be pushing on customers, if only they could offer it for sale.