A few months after the November digital release of Saul Williams' latest album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!, producer Trent Reznor was disheartened.
Reznor, the frontman for Nine Inch Nails, had masterminded a seemingly genius, Radiohead-esque plan for letting listeners obtain Williams' work: They could download it for free, or they could contribute $5 for a higher-quality file. Perhaps not surprisingly, the overwhelming majority of the 150,000 downloaders chose the first option.
"[T]he idea was wrong in my head," Reznor glumly admitted to CNET News in the aftermath, "and for once I've given people too much credit."
Saul Williams performs Monday, March 31, at The Loft.
Yet despite his producer's solemnity, Williams remains positively upbeat about the results of the experiment. The highly regarded spoken-word poet, actor and rapper/singer says the project has introduced thousands of new people to his music and created fervent demand for his current tour.
Plus, the unique arrangement put money into his pocket much faster than a traditional record release would have.
"I would be living off an advance right now, rather than actually living off the proceeds of the album," he says. In fact, paid downloads even spiked a bit immediately after Reznor made his dissatisfaction known. "All of these people were like, 'Oh my God. I loved the album. Now I actually want to go back and pay for it.'"
Though NiggyTardust lacks anything even remotely radio-friendly—other than, perhaps, a cover of U2's "Sunday Bloody Sunday"—it remains a compelling, atmospheric work. An unclassifiable hodgepodge of hip-hop, dance, industrial and rock music, it plays loosely with the concept of David Bowie's The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, exploring racial issues the way Ziggy Stardust delved into gender. The narrative sees the title character fight personal demons within a rocky, hallucinogenic landscape, borrowing themes from Williams' most compelling spoken-word performances.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
"From the start, I remember Trent saying, 'Let's give it away for free,'" Williams says. "At first, I was like, 'This dude is out of his mind!' But then it really started making sense."
Nonetheless, Reznor now appears to have abandoned the idea of releasing entire albums for free. He recently announced that NIN's new collection of instrumental songs, Ghosts I-IV, will be available in a number of different formats at a number of different price points, and that only the first nine tracks can legally be downloaded for free.
Williams, meanwhile, is gearing up for a physical release of NiggyTardust on the Fader label. It will contain about seven new songs, including a new version of "No One Ever Does" called "Pedagogue of Young Gods," and should be available in late spring or early summer. He contends that the new tracks up the ante on an already fairly explosive work: "I don't know if I did it on purpose, but the more I listen to them, the more I realize that I saved the most hard-core, the most dance-y and thought-provoking tracks for the physical release."
Will it sell better than the digital release did? That remains to be seen. But Williams isn't too concerned, using a fairly outlandish metaphor to explain that a project's artistic merit should dwarf any concerns about its financial viability: "Let's say you have the cure for AIDS, for example. Are you going to be really mad that not enough people paid for it? Or are you going to be pleased about the fact that you were able to heal so many people?"