Liberation From the Music Business as Usual

Is NiggyTardust a Success?

Upon going to the website niggytardust.com, you’ll see two options. One says “I want to directly support the artists involved in the creation of this music ($5).” The other reads “I’m not concerned about that. I just want the music (Free).” Clicking on either will get you an electronic version of Saul Williams’ The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!

The announcement that NiggyTardust would be released in direct-to-download format came right on the heels of the release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows. That album went platinum within three days of hitting the web in a similar format. Williams, though well respected in the slam poetry and alternative hip-hop scenes, is hardly the household name of Radiohead. This makes Niggy all the more brave. It is a test on whether musicians can do without the ever parasitic record industry.

It was a test fervently taken up by Nine Inch Nails brain Trent Reznor, who was on board as Williams’ producer for this project. The teaming up of these two is a meeting of minds from two different ends of the spectrum. Williams is the consummate hip-hop poet who has never shied away from articulating both the pain and promise of rap. Reznor is the intense studio virtuoso whose albums gave industrial music a new lease on life in the 1990s.

When he hasn’t been chastising Bush and Fox News, Reznor’s been trashing his label. This past summer he became so fed up with Universal Music Group that he started telling fans to steal his albums, either online or straight from the store.

So it comes as little surprise that the direct-to-download release of NiggyTardust would come at Reznor’s urging. “From the start, I remember Trent saying ‘let’s give it away for free,’” Williams recalled in a recent interview. “At first I was like ‘this dude is out of his mind.’ But then it really started making sense, and, of course, with Radiohead doing it, we were like ‘what the fuck? The idea we had was great, and we should really follow it through.’”

The idea would undoubtedly be a gamble. Radiohead, having already sold millions of albums, had little trouble bringing the mountain to Moses. Would Williams and Reznor be as successful?

This was, in essence, the question asked in an early January Salon.com article, written two months after NiggyTardust’s release. The article cited a post on Reznor’s website stating that while over 150,000 people have downloaded the album, less than 29,000 opted to pay the five dollars. As the post points out, that’s about 4,000 less than went out and bought Williams’ previous album three years ago.

It’s hard to say that the percentage of people who paid isn’t low. Reznor himself admits that the numbers are “troubling.” There are things to keep in mind, though. Firstly, not a dime of those 150,000 people’s money for this is in the hands of Sony, EMI and the like. All went to Williams and Reznor to recoup recording and online costs.

Secondly, it would be somewhat crass to view an experiment like this solely in terms of money and raw numbers. Williams and Reznor are both unique voices that could never fit into the cookie cutters on which the music industry makes its bank. This album is an attempt to show what is possible artistically outside those shallow interests. At that, it succeeds brilliantly.

For one thing, NiggyTardust blatantly defies any easy label. Williams himself is hesitant to fit it into any genre: “Gosh, I don’t know, ghetto gothic? I guess I’d characterize it as hard-core dance. I don’t know if I’d include spoken word in it actually. It’s so danceable. I have a lot to say, but I wanted to find a way to say it that didn’t get in the way of me dancing my ass off.”

Williams understands how this album breaks the mold. His confrontational-yet-playful brand of slam poetry could easily land the record in the rap section of any record store (albeit among the best in any record store), were it not for Reznor’s own contribution. Overdriven guitars, keys, temple-pounding drumbeats and abstract samples all blend into a mesmerizing soundscape that is more trademark NIN than anything else. It’s most definitely a weird mix with Williams’ firebrand rants against everything from racism to the modern hip-hop nation, but the end result is something unique.

Song’s like “Black History Month,” “Convict Colony” and “Break” invoke a kind of controlled chaos that mimics both monotony and repressed rage at the same time. The distorted backgrounds make Williams out to be the lone voice of sanity in a world quickly careening toward the edge of oblivion. Williams has always played this role with fearless ease and good humor. His politics have always been stylishly worn on his sleeve, and this album is no exception.

Pulling heavily from Public Enemy, “Tr(n)igger” would inevitably provoke a tsk-tsk from the censors. There’s no mistake that it’s Chuck D’s powerful vocals declaring “from the hand of a nigger, pull the trigger,” while Williams’ forceful voice bounces overhead about ghettoes and bombs falling on Lebanon. What Williams has done is put the post-Imus backlash on its head. He puts it in the context of war, racism and poverty, a world that can only provoke outrage and frustration.

Yet both artists take time on this album to show off some surprising versatility. “Scared Money” incorporates an Afrobeat sound, complete with sampled horns and congas. The intimate “No One Ever Does” is little else besides quiet keyboards and Williams’ singing.

Perhaps the most intriguing song would be the one the album is named after. Of all the tracks that might make the major labels balk, “NiggyTardust” is first and foremost. Throughout the song Williams constructs the title character as a mockery of the modern circus of big-business hip-hop. There’s even a thinly veiled jab at 50 Cent (“you can call him Curtis”). Williams’ parody is topped off by the acerbically witty chorus: “When I say Niggy, you say nothin’. Niggy… Niggy…” It’s a funny song that, in its own twisted way, speaks some truth that the BET’s and P. Diddies would rather ignore.

Perhaps it goes without saying that you won’t normally hear all this on MTV. That’s ultimately what makes NiggyTardust an important album; the example it sets for musicians and fans sick of the music business-as-usual. As long as music is reduced to mere commodity in this system, then the creativity of artists and musicians can only be limited. But outside the realms of profit-shares and marketability, there’s an alternative where that same creativity can find a voice. NiggyTardust is an early example of what that alternative might look like.

Alexander Billet, a music journalist and solidarity activist in Chicago, runs the website Rebel Frequencies. He is a frequent contributor to SocialistWorker.org, Dissident Voice, ZNet and the Electronic Intifada. He has also appeared in TheNation.com, Z Magazine, New Politics and the International Socialist Review. His first book, "Sounds of Liberation: Music In the Age of Crisis and Resistance," is expected out in the fall; you can donate to the project on Kickstarter. He can be reached at rebelfrequencies@gmail.com Read other articles by Alexander.

11 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Phil said on January 21st, 2008 at 2:43pm #

    while over 150,000 people have downloaded the album, [fewer] than 29,000 opted to pay the five dollars.

    Y’know, this would have been a golden opportunity to also look at how this profit (small though it may be precentage-wise) compares to the money Williams would have made from those same sales under a label deal.

  2. Alexander Billet said on January 21st, 2008 at 3:00pm #

    I honestly don’t know the break-down of how much Williams made off each copy sold, as for sure a large percentage went to Reznor and to studio and online costs, but it does bear mentioning that most major labels pay about 15% of each album sale to their artists. That’s paltry!

    There’s a the possibility of more people paying for the album than 29,000 if it were released in a traditional CD format, given that around 33,000 paid for his prior 2004 release. But it’s almost certain that he wouldn’t made as much if this were released on a major.

  3. Phil said on January 21st, 2008 at 5:17pm #

    True enough; I always prefer CDs myself as well. But a big part of the reason I found the whole pay-if-you-want approach interesting is the likelihood that it could possibly make the artist *more* than the usual route, considering just how much of the average CD sale goes into record-company coffers (as you pointed out). I wish there was a way to see some of the numbers, e.g. the results of the Radiohead experiment….

  4. Siegfried Starbust said on January 21st, 2008 at 6:59pm #

    “As long as music is reduced to mere commodity in this system, then the creativity of artists and musicians can only be limited. ”
    There are lots of artists working outside the ‘system’, and there has been for a long time. People who are interested can find unique and inspired music in the genre of their choice without too much difficulty. I’ve been doing this since I was in highschool in the 1970′s. Currently I’m getting great leads on out there sounds from http://www.dustedmagazine.com/ and http://www.digitalisindustries.com/foxyd/index.php

    Trent Reznor is the Bon Jovi of industrial music.

  5. Sunil Sharma said on January 21st, 2008 at 11:41pm #

    Alex,

    I think 15% royalties to artists on major labels is the high-end, reserved for the likes of top tier folk like U2, etc. I think 10-12% is the going rate for lesser tier artists — which indeed sucks either way. Still, I don’t think the numbers for Niggy are bad three months after release. For Williams to make the over $100,000 he’s pulled in thus far the old fashioned way (not counting Reznor’s cut and the pay for whichever other musicians appeared), he would have had to sell well over 100,000 CDs.

    Personally, I prefer CDs too. I like the physicality of the item, as well as the artwork and liner notes. Still, what Radiohead and Williams are doing with the pay-if-you-want option is an exciting development. And as a professional musician myself, anything that pricks the recording industry majors is a commendable.

  6. Alexander Billet said on January 22nd, 2008 at 6:44am #

    Sunil’s right. 15% is the high end. That’s something that never ceases to amaze me. Right here we have the perfect example of what exploitation looks like. Pretty damn good case for a world without bosses, don’t you think?

  7. Gary Lapon said on January 22nd, 2008 at 12:54pm #

    It’s my understanding that most artists make the bulk of their money playing shows. This model allows those who aren’t willing to buy a CD to listen, and if the music is any good a number of them will likely go to a concert, putting more money into the artist’s pocket.

    In terms of what such a model could mean for the future, I think that if this form of distribution picks up steam and becomes more prevalant it will likely lead to a creative break from the album as we know it. Freed from the physical or corporate constraints involved with producing vinyl or a CD, only convention binds musicians to the 10-to-20-song album format. I can imagine listeners being allowed more insight into the evolution of the creative process, with songs being released in smaller chunks and at varying intervals. There is also the possibility for listeners to participate, offering their feedback in order that the musician might respond with an altered or new track.

    On the other hand, the big record companies might figure out a way to take over the medium. We’ll see what happens.

  8. hp said on January 22nd, 2008 at 2:59pm #

    Sure is a lot of money to be made and spent on what is basically 90% grade B crappola music. These days every Tom Dick and Mary with a guitar and an ear ring attempts to astound us with their two bit yelpings of mundane mutterings.
    Face it, these light weights are not Hendrix, Dylan, Santana or the Mahavishnu Orchestra. They are for the most part two bit amateurs pumped up by advertising and a virtually hypnotically brainwashed know nothing generation of materialistic meatheads.
    I never would have thought it would be possible to so abuse music..

  9. Paul said on January 22nd, 2008 at 5:48pm #

    There seem two major aspects of this. The first is the issue of compensation: download for free vs. paying for the music, which is really a corollary of the general question: What is music? How do we recognize it, value it, obtain it etc. What role does music play in society? The majority of people surveyed think music should be free. I think so too. I also think medicine and dental care should be free.

    The issue is not how to become liberated from the corporate model. Persons wishing to do that could start today and simply never buy, trade or listen to music produced by corporate conglomerates. Even more to the point, as seems almost obvious the “corporate model” is at present a dying dinosaur dedicated to dutifully trying to “protect” the corpse they have created out of what was once referred to as the “music business.”

    At issue instead is the creation of a new model-new improved and somehow impervious to the same type of very real and very deliberate corporate manipulation and censorship that has affected all other aspects of American life. This is a tall order but would seem a requirement, if we want any reasonable amount of access to music that has not passed through a variety of corporate filters on its path to us.

    I applaud all reasonable experimental efforts to forge new models for assigning a value to music that is not tied to its ability to sell products, or to mesmerize a sleepy horde of “consumers.” As a musician, I have a personal stake in the outcome of such experiments. But the fundamental issues involved are not addressed comprehensively here, because the issues are systemic.

    What is really happening in the present case is that artists that now or at one time or another were associated with record companies, are trying to liberate themselves from the record companies by dragging their audiences with them to the internet. The hope is that they can derive enough support from internet sales to have viable careers, pay their mortgages and feed their families, just like most other people in America hope for. I wish them well. But even if they attain liberation for themselves, the enabling factor will certainly have been the massive corporate exposure that brought them to the attention of millions in the first place. Even if they succeed, the need for a model for the transition to a newer, better somehow more meaningful relationship between musicians, music and society has not been addressed. To address it systemically would require a much broader discussion, like the ongoing one that happens all the time on Dissident Voice.

    If the internet can play a role in a kind of real transition to a healthier music scene, and provide opportunity for new artists with more interesting things to do with their music than corporate conformity requires, I think it will be as a result of somehow focusing attention on new unknown and non-corporate artists that can manage to produce good music.

    But it is very important to remember that almost everyone in America would love to liberate himself or herself from some form of corporate domination or another. Everyone wants a meaningful job, financial security, and the freedom to speak their minds. I suggest that “supporting” musicians is an effective use of time and money only when the artists are willing to support the community.

    It is of no value to obtain liberation from corporate control unless it is used to express perspectives that are contrary to the prevailing corporate culture.

    Meanwhile, if artists that were once corporate sponsored can make a transition to a sphere where they can make musical and artistic statements of social and political relevance, so much the better. I applaud Saul Williams and Reznor and wish them well. I will not be downloading the music for free, nor can I afford to buy it. If we could all get our teeth fixed for free, maybe I could feel good about downloading their music for free.

  10. Chris Crass said on January 24th, 2008 at 2:26pm #

    29,000 * $5 = $145,000
    Minus recording costs (probably about $30k), Reznor’s cut (doubtful it’s less than $60k) and whatever tangential costs (let’s say $10k), that’s $45,000, give or take.
    33,000 * $20 = $660,000
    Minus the record company’s take (~90%/$594,000), promotional costs (~5%/$33,000) and again those tangential costs (probably $20k), it comes out to $13,000.
    Looks like DIY wins the day. I’m not just pulling these numbers out of my ass, either. Steve Albini wrote a somewhat famous rant on this subject awhile back. http://www.negativland.com/albini.html

  11. Alexander Billet said on January 24th, 2008 at 3:48pm #

    Everyone–and I mean EVERYONE– should read that Albini piece. It’s a short but brilliant layout of how the industry really works.

    One of the things it goes over (and this is in response to Gary) is how most artists are actually forced to pay for most, if not all, the cost of touring out of their advance. So no, artists don’t make a hell of a lot from playing shows normally, unless you can pack arenas.

    Throw that in with everything else we’ve already discussed and most artists are lucky if they’re not in debt to their label after their second album!

    In short, the music industry is just as exploitative as any other industry, and most artists are just as exploited.