.

Zero's Heroes: Nine Inch Nails Get Cryptic

42 Entertainment and the mystery surrounding Nine Inch Nails' 'Year Zero'

April 19, 2007
Nine Inch Nails' 'Year Zero'
Nine Inch Nails' 'Year Zero'

At first it seems like any other YouTube video. Someone's pointing the camera out a car window as a desert landscape rolls by. But then thunder crashes, and what appears to be a giant hand made of black smoke reaches down from the sky.

The only clue to the clip's provenance is a road sign that flashes past so quickly you have to hit PAUSE to make it out: I AM TRYING TO BELIEVE. There's no music, no credits. Nothing to indicate that it is, in fact, a teaser for Nine Inch Nails' new album, Year Zero. The clip, and dozens of other online clues, form the latest salvo in a burgeoning new style of promo called alternate-reality gaming (ARG). Part scavenger hunt, part online game, these elaborate puzzles are created by a clandestine startup called 42 Entertainment. The goal: to blend fiction and reality in ways that engage a new generation of fans.

Just don't call it marketing. "The term 'marketing' sure is a frustrating one for me," NIN mastermind Trent Reznor recently blogged. (He and reps from 42 Entertainment declined to be interviewed.) "What you are now starting to experience is 'year Zero,' " Reznor wrote. "It's not some kind of gimmick to get you to buy a record – it is the art form . . . and we're just getting started."

Based in Pasadena, California, and the Bay Area, 42 Entertainment sports an all-star team of marketing and gaming vets whose experience runs from Procter & Gamble product launches to designing rides for Disneyland. ARG, they believe, is the next frontier – and their mind-bending online campaigns for the likes of DreamWorks, Microsoft and Disney are often more compelling than the products being pushed.

"The eighteen-to-thirty-five-year-old demo has grown up in a marketing-saturated environment and has developed a sophisticated set of tools for avoiding the vast majority of marketing messages," Jordan Weisman, 42's co-founder, has said. "As a rule of thumb, the bigger the neon sign, the faster they'll run the other way. So the premise here was, instead of shouting, go the opposite way and whisper."

Year Zero's strange life started in February, when a fan noticed that his NIN concert shirt had the words I AM TRYING TO BELIEVE encoded on the back. A quick Googling revealed a Web site of the same name. The site warns of Parepin, a drug put into the water supply by the feds that may be causing you to see stuff like a giant hand descending from the sky (photos included). E-mail the Webmaster and you get an auto-response in which he inexplicably changes tune: "It is now clear to me that Parepin is a completely safe and effective agent. I'm drinking the water. So should you."

Cryptic new Web sites keep popping up online, elaborating on the conspiracy. There are phone numbers to dial, wiretap transcripts to decipher. At NIN concerts in Portugal and England, fans found computer memory sticks in bathroom stalls containing Year Zero songs. The clues are coming at such a rate that there's a Wikipedia entry and forums of NIN nerds teaming up to keep track.

"It engages fans to the point where they can actually feel like they are an important part of the marketing of the album," says Mike Swindley, the twenty-four-year-old administrator of the NIN fan site Echoing the Sound. "It makes me feel like I'm fifteen again."

For Reznor, a lifelong gamer, that's the idea. As a kid, he drew early inspiration from video games, once going so far as to pry off the back of an Asteroids machine just to peer inside. Since then, he composed the soundtrack for the game Quake and stopped recording The Fragile to play Halo upon its release. "It put me back a few days," he said at the time. "But what's a few days when there's something important to do?"

Some pioneers warn that ARG can get too geeky for its own good. "The most difficult thing is striking the balance between accessibility and making it too complicated," says Mike Benson, executive vice president of marketing for ABC, which ran the Lost Experience online game to promote its hit show last year.

"ARG law has always been to not let anybody know you're doing ARG," says Jesse Alexander, co-executive producer of NBC's Heroes, which is currently developing a game. "I think that keeps a lot of people from playing. So we are actively trying to lower the barrier of entry [by] being open about what we're doing – to get more than the usual D&D-type guy involved."

With the Year Zero buzz growing, Reznor has proved that harnessing the power of music geeks may be victory enough.

This story is from the April 19th, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

prev
Music Main Next

blog comments powered by Disqus
Daily Newsletter

Get the latest RS news in your inbox.

Sign up to receive the Rolling Stone newsletter and special offers from RS and its
marketing partners.

X

We may use your e-mail address to send you the newsletter and offers that may interest you, on behalf of Rolling Stone and its partners. For more information please read our Privacy Policy.

Song Stories

“Promiscuous”

Nelly Furtado with Timbaland | 2006

This club-oriented single featuring Timbaland, who produced Nelly Furtado's third album, Loose, was Furtado’s sexy return after the Canadian singer's exploration of her Portuguese heritage on Folklore. "In the studio, initially I didn’t know if I could do it, 'cause Timbaland wrote that chorus," Furtado said. "I'm like, 'That's cool, but I don't know if I'm ready to do full-out club.'" The flirty lyrics are a dance between a guy and girl, each knowing they will end up in bed together but still playing the game. "Tim and I called it 'The BlackBerry Song,' she said, "because everything we say in the song you could text-message to somebody."

More Song Stories entries »
 
www.expandtheroom.com