On Sunday, May 4th, Trent Reznor was putting the finishing touches on a new Nine Inch Nails album in his Los Angeles studio. Around 9:30 p.m., after listening to the 10 tracks one last time, he sent them electronically to the company that manages his Website. Just after midnight, The Slip – a raw, straight-up rock record heavy on live drums, guitar and piano – appeared as a free download at NIN.com, along with a message from Reznor: "Thank you for your continued and loyal support over the years – this one's on me."
The Slip arrived just two months after NIN released the instrumental Ghosts I-IV on their Website and seven months after Reznor left his longtime label, Interscope. "This is the most fun we've ever had," says NIN manager Jim Guerinot. "We've had 19 years of training that you put a record together, you deliver it and then you wait."
The surprise release follows similar moves by the Raconteurs and Radiohead – and is the kind of thing Reznor has long wanted to do. Two weeks before the album came out, he released a single, "Discipline," to radio. Instead of hiring a radio-promotion team to push the song, Reznor simply e-mailed it to programmers around the country. "We got it and immediately put it on the air," says Shane Cox, program director for WNFZ in Knoxville, Tennessee. "When I heard about the band's plan, I wondered how it would work without the label pitch, label promotion, label marketing, but it seems to work much quicker." The dark, danceable tune, Reznor's most commercial single in years, has hit Number Nine on the alternative-rock chart.
Even after releasing the single, the band hadn't announced that it would be releasing The Slip. While labels typically build up to an album release with multiple singles and a major press push, Reznor has chosen to get music out as soon as he finishes it. "Internet searches peak around the leak, not around the single or the album," says Guerinot, who says physical copies of The Slip will hit stores in July. "By the time the album comes out, it's done."
And without major-label constraints, Reznor has taken high fidelity to new heights. The Slip is available in three levels of sound quality: 320 kbps MP3S, CD-quality lossless files and high-res WAV files that have twice the fidelity of CDs. "It's so high-resolution, it's not even useful to most people, but for his audiophile fans, it satiates their desire to have the highest quality possible," says Craig Johnston, a programmer for Sudjam, the tech company that maintains the Nine Inch Nails site. "The audio quality has absolutely been the top priority, and everything revolves around that." (And as he's done in the past, Reznor has made multitrack versions of the songs available for fans to remix.)
Guerinot – who also manages Gwen Stefani and the Offspring – expects more acts to follow NIN's lead. "Big artists are becoming available to do this," he says. "Those who don't have to deal with labels are responding to their fan bases instead."
This story is from the May 29th, 2008 issue of Rolling Stone.