Trent Reznor’s latest album, Year Zero, paints a bleak portrait of a near-future police state America that has crumbled under the weight of its own excess and vanity; not so pretty now, the citizens are being terrorized and experimented on by their own government. With gritty imagery, shocking sounds and theme Web sites, there’s nothing thinly veiled about the album’s subject matter as commentary on today’s political and social climate in the US.
It’s an incredible spectacle setting the stage for a spectacular album release. And there hasn’t been a stitch of traditional marketing to promote it. It’s here that you see Reznor’s paranoid vision of big brother and digital control isn’t just a sci-fi-fueled cautionary fable of what’s to come, but rather the very tools he’s using to get the music out and heard. The advertising has been a stealth initiative, spread word of mouth through the internet by fans and savvy media outlets. The traditional label channels and methods are being bypassed.
The campaign is taking the form of an alternate reality game (ARG), a blossoming gaming activity that attempts to tell a narrative within the context and bounds of real life. Media and communication mediums are often manipulated to contain or be part of puzzles that relate to the story. For Nine Inch Nails, there’s been coded messages embedded on tour t-shirts, secret images, cryptic strings of numbers on web pages, automated e-mail responders from brainwashed truth-seekers and chilling wire-tapped phone calls.
On February 14, the song “My Violent Heart” was “leaked” when a concert attendee found a flash drive that had been “accidently discarded” in a bathroom stall in Lisbon. The song was distributed widely on the web and features Reznor’s spoken word calm over soothing bass and beats before abruptly giving way to a militaristic call to arms over distorted guitars and synth stabs. Running the song through spectrum analysis on computer audio editing software turns the static heard at the end into an image that may be the album cover or a clue to the ARG’s reference of a mysterious force known as The Presence. The effect is similar to Aphex Twin’s secret image embedded within Come to Daddy in the late 90s.
In the following weeks, more clues were revealed. Another flash drive was found containing two files: the quietly smothering and claustrophobic “Me, I’m Not” and another mp3 file of chirps entitled “2432”. Analysis of that song decodes a phone number leading to the above mentioned phone recording.
LA radio station KROQ suddenly played the forthcoming “Suvivalism” twice; a quick and energetic rocker with an unexpectedly bouncy chorus. A flash drive was found containing a video for the song, featuring an apartment complex’s many units being monitored by closed circuit television.
On February 25th, during the live broadcast of the Academy Awards, another USB drive was found containing the track “In This Twilight” and an image that led, with no small amount of irony, to the Web site www.hollywoodinmemoriam.org. The song features beautiful vocals from a usually abrasive or whispering Reznor over chunks of sonic debris scraping through the heavy beat.
Soon after that, fans and ARG players alike found themselves clicking to www.artisresistance.com for downloadable stickers, stencils and desktop images. “Survivalism” was released in Apple’s Garageband format to be remixed, modified and redistributed.
As digital music distribution becomes de facto, it’s this kind of creativity that allows a artist to achieve a vision that was once limited to album graphics, music videos and stage shows; it’s this kind of power that allows artists to reclaim control of their own music and how it reaches their audience. With so much of the album being released in a controlled way, Reznor is positioning his music like a brand. Underneath all the story, technology, and even the music, the real war is revealed. And the battle is just getting started.