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Nine Inch Nails cracks net distribution (maybe)

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Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor has become the latest recording artist to bypass the traditional music distribution machine by releasing a 36-track album over the internet.

The album, titled Ghosts I-IV, is available on the band's official website for prices that range from free to $300 depending on the package. Reznor is giving away the first nine cuts, as 320 kbps MP3 files, along with a 40-page PDF book that covers the entire album. For $5, fans can get the remaining 27 songs and have the option of getting the files in lossless formats including FLAC.

Less than 24 hours after the album became available, the band's website had slowed to a crawl. At time of writing, attempts to download the free package were greeted with an error message indicating the URL was not available. A download of the $5 offering initiated, but at a speed of just 10 kbps, we weren't optimistic we'd be hearing the new tunes anytime soon. (Administrators are racing to add more servers "to accommodate the unexpected demand," according to a note on the site.)

Even still, you've got to admire Reznor for trying to figure out a viable way to stick it to the man. Unlike the much-ballyhooed online release a few months ago of the most recent Radiohead album, the Nine Inch Nails experiment is a lot easier to take seriously. That's because Reznor has made the album available in both lossless and high-bit rate formats. Radiohead's In Rainbows, by contrast, came as only a 160 kbps MP3, which hardly seemed worth the time it took to download it.

Oh, and the album is no longer available as an online download. Radiohead singer Thom Yorke later dismissed a net-only album paradigm, saying people want to buy a tangible object rather than a download. Makes you wonder why Britain's favorite navel gazers bothered in the first place.

Additional packages of the new Nine Inch Nails album that include audio CDs, CDs and DVDs and an autographed "ultra-delux" limited edition set that also comes with vinyl LPs are are priced at $10, $75 and $300 respectively. And just in case this net distribution thing doesn't take off, Ghosts I-IV is also available as a regular CD in retail stores.

Reznor, who split with his record label last year, is decidedly more committed to the net as a distribution platform, even if it doesn't always work the way he had hoped. He has openly embraced music downloading on BitTorrent and has gone so far as planting USB storage devices filled with his songs in restrooms during concerts.

More recently, he produced and helped finance industrial rap artist Saul Williams's The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust, which was also sold as an online download. In that case, however, the entire album was made available for free as 320 kbps mp3 files, or users could pay $5 to have the option of a lossless format.

To Reznor's chagrin, only 18 per cent of people who downloaded it chose the paid option/

The problem then was there wasn't enough of an incentive to spring for the $5 package, given that most people can't hear the difference between an extremely high-bit rate MP3 and a lossless format. By offering a significant amount of additional content in exchange for a mere $5, as he's doing this time around, this latest experiment to cut out the record labels stands the best chance yet. ®

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