In addition to screaming his lungs out as frontman for Nine Inch Nails, Trent Reznor has a corporate job – he’s chief creative officer for Beats Music, the new streaming-music service that launched earlier this week. Reznor recently spoke to Rolling Stone about how he landed his Beats gig and his recording plans for this year.
When did Beats Music hire you as chief creative officer and how did it come up?
About two-and-a-half years ago or so. Might be a little longer than that. I’ve been friends with Jimmy [Iovine] since the early Nineties, when he signed Nine Inch Nails to Interscope – we maintained a friendship throughout our artist-label era. A few years ago, he brought me in to check out what he did with Beats Electronics and it was pretty mind-blowing. He asked me to solve a problem with the hardware he’d been having – an interesting riddle to me. I’d hear him speaking excitedly about his concept of a streaming service with curation at the forefront. My eyes lit up. I said, “Hey, in my own world, I agree that a product like that feels like the right move, from a consumer standpoint.” We started executing that. I think I’m the longest employee here now at this point.
How much do you participate in the curation, as far as selecting songs or overseeing playlists or quality control?
I’m not part of the editorial team or the content team. What I’ve done has been more architectural, in terms of “What is this thing? What is the spirit of this thing? How does it look? Let’s really examine every situation in which we listen to music and the shortcomings of current versions, whether it be terrestrial radio or satellite radio or iTunes/iPods.” We’re trying to bring joy to the user and sort through the world’s catalog of music into digestible parcels that considers context where it might be. It reimagines the home stereo as sitting in your pocket rather than on a shelf in your house. It’s coming up with the idea that humans need to be involved in this process and the miracle of algorithms. What we’ve been promised – it seems great, but more often than not it feels like a computer.
Had you spent much time with other streaming services before working on Beats?
I’d used services like Rhapsody. I was excited by the process of Pandora, which I still think is a decent product. Not as great in actuality as it sounds. After the first hour, its weaknesses start to show up. Spotify – I met those guys before they launched in America and was wildly excited about the idea. “Wow, this is all the music in the world, for a flat fee.” They were bragging about the fact they were agnostic – “We’re not here to tell you what to listen to.” Interesting. I’m looking at a black screen, kind of like iTunes. Wonder if Nine Inch Nails is in there. Hey, it is. But as a music fan, I found myself trying to force myself to use it. I didn’t reach for it when I got in the car to drive. It still felt the like I had to do the work to use it. It felt utilitarian.
And that’s when Beats Music came along?
I was in a place like that when the opportunity came up with Jimmy. On my own, I’m not going to try to get funding. It’s more of a daydream. With Jimmy, it’s more likely to become a reality. We kind of wound up in the same place.
What have you learned about working for a tech company?
The most difficult part, for me, was scaling things down to being digestible, really putting on the focus on a few key components that worked really well when they launched, with a road map. Things that wouldn’t make sense to overload the user with. What’s happened with me in the last couple months as I’ve been using a prototype on my phone is that the real strength and integrity of the playlists that we’ve made have become clear to me. . . . I haven’t had that from the other services. Somebody that actually knows what they’re talking about, or there’s a selection of songs that feels like they’re coming from a trusted source. That has real value to me and I think the public is going to pick up on that.
What are Nine Inch Nails’ touring and recording plans for 2014?
We’re leaving to go to tour mid-to-late February, in Australia with Queens [of the Stone Age]. We’ve got dates booked through the end of the summer. A lot of touring ahead. Just started on a new product. Can’t tell you what it is yet. It will take place while touring. New music maybe this fall. Every spare second, and even seconds that aren’t spare, are trying to wrangle this new creation into shape.
Really? What else can you say about the recording project?
That’s more than I should’ve.