Trent Reznor on Apple Music: Other Services 'Left Me Feeling Lacking'

Nine Inch Nails singer on Taylor Swift, creating Beats 1 and reviving the value of music

Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor discusses Beats 1, the radio station he helped launch within Apple Music. Credit: Monica Almeida/NYTimes/Redux

Trent Reznor understands unhappiness. He's sung about his personal feelings on Nine Inch Nails records and dealt with his dissatisfaction with the music business behind the scenes. After spending years on a major label for most of his career, he felt stifled. So he tried to market himself. He put out a coffee table book with his 2008 album Ghosts I – IV and explored other avenues of having a direct relationship with his fans. "I tried a bunch of different things that had varying degrees of success and failure, but all of them, in the end, felt like stunts to me," he tells Rolling Stone. "So my own travels led me to think that subscription [streaming], if it was done right, really would be the best experience for music fans. But my experience with existing services left me feeling a little lacking."

Now Reznor is taking his own stab at a streaming service, with an eye toward connecting with fans, with Apple Music's Beats 1 radio. The singer previously served as the Chief Creative Officer of Beats Music, an extension of Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine's headphones company and, after Apple acquired that company last year, he stayed on to help design its new radio platform. Beats 1, which launches today, features shows by former BBC Radio host Zane Lowe and celebrities including Dr. Dre, Elton John and Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme, among others. It's a way, he says, to make music discovery in the era of streaming more accessible.  

"I think having access to all the music in the world is great, but it then starts to place a burden on what the experience is like navigating through, now that you have access to everything," Reznor explains. "I think that naturally places the burden on having an experience be great. I want that feeling of walking into an independent record shop, if there are still any that exist, like Amoeba [Records], and being delighted by the choices and the way music is presented to you with love and care. It's exciting. And you leave with stuff you wouldn't have dreamed you wanted and you're excited to listen and share it and experience it."

The Nine Inch Nails frontman says he tried to troubleshoot achieving that feeling with Iovine in Beats' first incarnation, but realized he had an opportunity when working with Apple. Ultimately, he drew inspiration from listening to Lowe's BBC show, in which the host would play and talk over records in an excited manner. "In today's streaming, all-access world, sometimes it feels nice to know that there are other people out there and feel like you're tuned into something that communally other people are listening to," Reznor says. With Beats 1, he says he's trying to approximate "when radio was good – which maybe it never was – but in my mind, there was a time when it seemed better than it currently is."

For the singer, it's all part of a larger quest, one he eagerly tells Rolling Stone about as he explains why Beats 1 is so significant to him. "Anything that makes music more important to people is worth it," Reznor says. "Music is my entire life. It's the only thing that I've been good at. I love it. I feel like it's been my best friend. It's something that has always given me focus, it's always made me deal with anything, because I have this soundtrack. And I think that it's something that's become something that happens in the background rather than the foreground in the last 10 years or so. I'd like to nudge it a little closer to the foreground."

What was it about Zane Lowe's show that inspired you with Beats 1?
I started thinking over the last year and a half or so, listening to his show, that it's interesting to be able to hear a whole country tuned into something that was niche-y and edgy enough that it caught my attention next to something super mainstream. But it still kept my attention because Zane's personality and excitement jelled it into something that felt powerful and I realized I was listening to things that I wouldn't if I could just skip through it, or stuff I wouldn't listen to in the first place. The passion of Zane was infectious and I thought, "Man, I wonder if that would work on a global level." I wonder if it's possible if we pumped out the same music around the world, taking this through the lens of Apple. What would that be like? Could we do that in an interesting fashion and could the whole world tune into something?

"I think it's going to be an interesting experiment. But it's one that we're going into uncompromised."

What was the process like building the Beats 1 team?
So the first call was to Zane to see if we could get him involved in this. And that call was really saying, "Hey Zane, would you be interested in not only broadcasting to the world but really providing the DNA and creative direction behind all the programming and making something that you would want to listen to at any waking moment?"

And that's what he did. He assembled a team and we thought about the many details and complications of broadcasting worldwide and the clock issues and what time of day around the world, and what kind of content seemed to be interesting. What we didn't do was look at research and say that, "Hey, in North America most people between the ages of 14 and 19 listen to rhythmic pop, so let's ignore that." And we started saying to ourselves like, "What would actually be cool? And not niche-y and elitist cool."

Are you worried about how it will be received?
It is a gamble in wondering if the world wants to tune into something that we believe is just excellent and challenging and sometimes comfortable and sometimes pushing the boundaries. And I'm genuinely really impressed and blown away with what Zane and company have come up with. It makes me think this decision of empowering Zane and doing this is wildly exciting and I think it complements what we're trying to do with the music service and as a part of it bridges the pieces together.

When you feel like listening to music, we're hoping it makes you think, "Let me tune into Apple and see what's happening. I want to deep-dive down into my own path or I want to kick back and be turned on by something." And each one is a piece of that puzzle that I think is really interesting and am proud to be involved with.

"It's certainly been worth my time taking time off from Nine Inch Nails to focus on trying to make this experience great."

Other than Zane's show, what programs are you most excited about?
I haven't even heard the entire lineup, but I've been talking with my friend Josh Homme and I know he's excited about his show. And I was just listening to samples of Dre's show, which is really cool. And I educated myself on Julie Adenuga, who I wasn't familiar with and I'm looking forward to see what she's up to.

I think it's going to be an interesting experiment. But it's one that we're going into uncompromised, and that's what I'm really proud of. I like that a company that is as successful and big and powerful and wide-reaching as Apple would have the faith in our artistic vision that we collectively have to try something that's not going out with, "Well, we wish we would have done this," but, "This is really what we think is the coolest thing we could do is." And I mean it's certainly been worth my time taking time off from Nine Inch Nails to focus on trying to make this experience great.

How do you see Beats 1 radio evolving?
I'm certain that it will mutate and naturally evolve. As we see how the recipes take to the world – what works, what doesn't work – we're not going into with a stern edict, "This is what it is, too bad." It's a very fluid thing and it's gonna be interesting to see what happens.

When you were thinking about Spotify, Pandora and other digital services, what did you want to get away from?
In general, as I learned more about technology companies and how they work, you start to feel the soul of through products and things that companies put out. What I mean by that is the idea of accessing and having all the music in the world available on your phone in your pocket all the time anywhere you go, that's fantastic. And companies have done that, and that blew my mind when I first saw that was possible – on Spotify, actually. It felt local. I was in awe about that miracle of technology. But that was replaced with a sense of, "I now have access to everything." It would be nice if I felt like it was music I was looking for, or getting turned onto, rather than, "It could be auto parts."

How important is the idea of curation in the service?
When you hear the word "curation," which is being thrown about by pretty much everyone, there is a difference between saying, "Here's a ton of playlists that we've done," and a sense of quality that comes from, say, Amoeba [Records] where I walk in there and look at the staff recommendations. [With Amoeba] I can tell that somebody – a collection of people whose lives revolve around music – spent a lot of time curating that list. And when I walk into the reggae section, which I don't know that much about but I'm interested in the dub section, I can see that people have curated and presented that stuff in ways that make it a more exciting starting point for me to get into and it weeds out stuff that's more difficult.

The demo I saw seemed more focus on human selections than algorithms.
That aspect of treating music like art is important. And we've tried to do that everywhere that you come across music in Apple Music. When you listen to a radio station here, every song has been chosen by somebody. When your recommendations pop up "For You," that wasn't based on some tag that came into the system; it was based on editors sitting and saying, "We like this subgenre of hip-hop which branches off into these artists which branch off into these artists," and paying attention to the actual behavior in the app. And we believe that the result ends up being something that feels better. It makes music feel more personal and it raises it up a notch into something what it deserves, rather than a big-box-retailer feel, like, "Here's the stuff, pick what you want." And some people will say that none of that matters, but it does to us and we are proud of the love and care that we are treating music with.

Over the past year, Taylor Swift has sparked a lot of discussion about streaming. Can you see her side of things?
Speaking as an artist now, I've found myself in the last several years in a position where I'd wake up often and think, "Am I on the right side of this argument?" But the way I see it, I take pride in being an artist and I also take pride in being a fan.

When you find yourself on a record label, pissed off at fans who are [illegally] listening to your record and are excited about it, you ask yourself, "Why am I pissed off?" Well, they didn't wait two weeks to buy it on a piece of plastic that they don't want, or they didn't wait two weeks to have to download it officially from a place that they feel charges too much. And it's different than pulling up to a show in Mexico City where there's 100,000 T-shirts being sold. It feels like you're getting ripped off.

"It is a gamble in wondering if the world wants to tune into something that we believe is just excellent and challenging."

Do you consider Beats 1 the next step in reviving a tangible value to music?
These are people that just want to hear your music and are excited about it. I thought there has to be a better way to engage fans that maybe record companies can't see or can't adapt quick enough to figure out, 'cause the music business is and has been in a state of complete disruption with technology and file sharing and all that is a cause of that. So as a fan, I do believe that, "What could beat having access to all the music in the world delivered easily to you and elegantly in a way that inspires discovery?" That sounds like the right thing to me, and I think there should be a fee to that and I don't think music should be free.

Most artists, especially older ones, would agree with that.
As an artist, there's the difficult transition from realizing that where you used to sell an item that you got X amount for – those days are over. And the toothpaste is not going to go back in the tube. And people aren't going to suddenly want to buy CDs again and feel good about overpaying for them. That's a fact. Most of my peers have swallowed the bitter pill that I have swallowed, which is that you don't make a lot of money selling music these days. It's just the way it is. I don't think that's the way it should be, but that is the way it is. So I'm excited to accept that.

Where do you see streaming music fitting in this paradigm?
I believe that streaming is here. Let's see if I can help carve out a way that it can be great for artists. And certainly I'm on the side of getting them paid and I'm also on the side of providing them with tools that artists need to reach an audience that they've never been able to reach before. The "Connect" portion of Apple Music focuses on empowering the artists to reach anyone that's bought their music in the iTunes store and reach people who've had music in their iTunes library – that's a huge number – and to be able to self-publish. You can upload a new single. You can upload a demo. You can upload interesting artifacts from the past; you can attach that to albums in your catalog, creating a live bonus addition of catalog material.

There's a lot of interesting things that you can do. And there's a lot of stuff coming that are providing tools that haven't existed as elegantly and as unified as we're doing it. That feels like a worthwhile thing to me to invest my time. And providing a place where the fan can be turned on to music in a way that feels sincere and feels genuine, surrounded by people that actually love music and know it and present it in a way that's engaging – and to the artist, having access to larger and different audience than they've ever had before, as well as the empowerment tools to engage that audience – that feels worth my time.

"I've been messing around with music. It's what I call 'laboratory time.'"

How soon will you, as an artist, be putting new music up on Apple Music's "Connect" or on Beats?
When the service goes live, the first thing I've put up is something I couldn't have done or wouldn't have done anywhere else, which is the entire album The Fragile as an instrumental-outtakes compilation that plays like a regular album but sounds very different without my voice in the way. And there's different arrangements to certain songs and oddly that makes for a different, complementary music experience. So that'll be there as soon as you download the app, you'll see that in, on my Connect page.

Are you working on new music?
Yeah, I've been messing around with some things. And I went through a period of "tour, tour, tour." Things right after another, with scores and what I've been doing whilst working on Apple music here is what I call "laboratory time," more experiments without any definite agenda. It's not for a thing, it's not a record I'm trying to finish in a month. It's more just feeling around in the dark and seeing what sounds interesting. It's nice to do that every few years to try and reinvent and discover and try to learn about yourself and what feels exciting to you as an artist.

I enjoyed your Instagram of the spider on a mixing knob.
It was not fun to run into that guy.

Going slightly off-topic, Marilyn Manson recently did a Reddit AMA in which a Redditor quoted you calling him "a dopey clown" in 2009. Do you still feel that way about him?
No, I mean, I really haven't thought much about that guy. I wish him the best and we were good friends at one point in the past, and we became not such good friends. People change, and I don't go around carrying it on my shoulders at all. So I have said many, many stupid things in my career. That wasn't as bad as some, so I'm glad that you focused on that one. Notice, I didn't deny saying that or my feeling didn't change.