Trent Reznor & David Byrne On DIY vs Major Labels

Destroy-angelsA talk Sunday night featuring David Byrne and Trent Reznor included an interesting discussion of the business options facing musicians today. Due to Trent Reznor's recent deal with Columbia Records for How to destroy angels_ coverage has focused on DIY vs Major Labels. However both artists shared the stance that the current landscape is not about label deals vs DIY but about choosing the right path and the right deals for the artist in question.

Trent Reznor and David Byrne Discuss Major Labels and DIY

Trent Reznor's recent announcements that his band How to destroy angels_ had "formally partnered with Columbia Records for our next series of releases" and that he is working with Beats By Dre has some wondering about Reznor's commitment to DIY approaches. But in a recent dialogue with David Byrne (in conversation with USC's Josh Kun) both artists make it clear that the choices today are not between signing with a label or going it alone. Musicians now have a broader array of choices and can make decisions based on the needs of their art and career.

The above video is said to capture part of the discussion between David Byrne, Trent Reznor and Josh Kun focused on major labels vs. DIY and the choices facing today's musicians. Comments below are from the video.

Trent Reznor on experiencing the limits of DIY marketing and distribution:

"In the last tour we're playing Prague. We're walking around. We're playing that night in Prague but I see flyers up for Radiohead that's playing the same place we're playing six months from now. And I walk into the record shop and there isn't a section that says Nine Inch Nails. And there's no kind of presence that we're even there because I start to realize the last few years all we've done, Mr. Twitter Big Shot with my bunch of followers, it's preaching to that choir of people."

What Reznor liked about self-releasing:

"The great part of self-releasing has been controlling your own destiny. Nobody having any approval. Finishing a song at midnight and putting it out the next day. Getting fans excited with no leak because you have the only copy and you uploaded it and you hit publish. Wow, that's fun. It felt great particularly after a long career in the weirdness of labels."

Trent Reznor on making the decision to work with a major label:

"It was…to have a team of people that are better at that [marketing and distribution] than I am worldwide…that felt like it was worth slicing the pie up monetarily. Our main agenda at the moment was to make people aware of it in the right context versus a little bit more money we might or might not make."

"And so far it's been pleasantly pleasant. Having people that actually kind of know what they're talking about. Having a team, it's been nice."

David Byrne on emerging musicians and the team approach:

"I've been reading interviews with younger more emerging musicians…they would rather have a team, whether it's a record company or whatever, that is going to help them get to that point where people know who they are…And, as you said, You make a judgement, they make a judgement."

"Ok, it's worth it to give up some percentage of the money you get, you get more money if you did it yourself, but maybe it's worth it to give some of that up if you're going to get people who really believe in what you're doing to help get it out there. Of course, if you make that gamble and it turns out those people don't really believe in what you're doing and they kind of bail out on you you're kind of screwed."

David Byrne on the view that musicians can make more if they do it themselves rather than sign with a label:

"I might have believed that at one point…I don't need this kind of bloated system. I will make more money per item sold. There's truth to that but there's also truth to the fact that if there's people helping you out then the tradeoff can be worth it."

"And now there's lots of different models that a musician can take. It's not like this is the way the record business works, this is the way the contract is, take it or leave it, that's it. Now there's a whole spectrum of things that can be done."

Trent Reznor on current options and the limits of his experiments as examples:

"There are options now. I know when I was experimenting, I was catching some complaints that "well that works for you because you came from the record label system"…Well, yeah, cause I'm trying to figure it out for me right now. I wasn't trying to say this is going to work for the unknown artist…I've tried to share every bit of information I've learned in the process and maybe you can, as the unknown artist/new guy apply some of that information."

"But really I haven't figured it out…I'm trying to solve problems primarily with my own interests in mind. How to get my music out, be an artist, explore different options."

Trent Reznor's advice for emerging artists:

"Thinking about where you want to end up directly affects the right path to get there. If it's mainstream radio play then probably a label's the best route to get there or a powerful manager."

Much of this section of the discussion between Trent Reznor and David Byrne focused on finding the right business structure for an artist at a particular stage of their career. To some degree they seem to be saying that instead of outsourcing the parts they don't do well, they both prefer working with labels. Of course, that option works better for these two as established artists than for emerging musicians.

But it also illustrates that neither Reznor nor Byrne are stuck in ideological stances that hinder them from making the right deal based on practical needs and opportunities.

More: The Heist: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis Take DIY Route To iTunes #1

Hypebot Senior Contributor Clyde Smith (Twitter/App.net) blogs about music crowdfunding at Crowdfunding For Musicians (@CrowdfundingM). To suggest topics for Hypebot, contact: clyde(at)fluxresearch(dot)com.

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  1. I know the quotes may be out of context, but I’m not sure why Reznor thinks he needed to sign to a major label to get the “team” he’s talking about. Unless he doesn’t have the money or doesn’t want to spend his own money (which I get), he could have hired a fantastic tour marketing company in each territory to make sure advertising was done (I could easily recommend one for him in the US as I’m sure many biz pros could). Beyond that, isn’t Radiohead an independent artist that made territory deals for distribution?
    Again, if he really cared about having a bin card in a record store (Record stores are still prevalent in Czech Rep., I guess), then he could have hired a retail marketing company and bought price and positioning. As long as he has a sales history–which he does–any store that caters to his audience will take his money. He doesn’t have to be major-affiliated. Maybe Walmart’s an exception.
    Personally, I think he’s interested in going to radio with his new band and thought a major was his best shot at that–and he’s right. Then again, unless you’re talking CHR airplay, you can get significant commercial airplay on an indie at Rock, Active and Alternative (one recent example: AWOL Nation on Red Bull).

  2. The two biggest things I took from this interview was that even experienced, well known musicians have a hard time figuring out what works for them when supporting a new album and that it doesn’t necessarily works for emerging artists. This is great to hear from musicians of their caliber. I read articles every day that feature ways and practices to be successful, but they aren’t necessarily written by anyone who has cold, hard facts that what they’re preaching actually works. Hearing Reznor admit that not even he has managed to market and promote tours in a productive degree that meets his standards is enlightening. There are more options and avenues now than ever before for musicians to become known and successful, but the major labels still hold most of the keys to the kingdom. The conclusion is that this is a disappointing news for ever DIY musician out there.
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  3. If he’s going to hire different companies for different aspects of promoting his music and tours in different parts of the world, it would be cheaper to sign with ONE label and give it its agreed-upon cut, obviously.
    Hypebot and others need to publish the ENTIRE transcript to avoid anything being taken out of context.

  4. Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on how much is recoupable in his deal, what kind of royalty rate he’s getting and if he’s giving up a percentage of income streams outside of recorded music sales (ie, 360, 270 or 180 deal).

  5. The article expresses the troubles emerging bands are facing right now. To hear established acts like Trent say they’ve been having problems is disappointing but good to know. It certainly helps my band look at other options instead of completely DIY. However, most established indie bands have a label backing such as wind up, ato, xl recordings, beggar group etc. So labels seem to be a very important part of a artist career still. There’s not to many “Righteous Babe” (Ani Difranco) stories nowadays. It certainly help me look at things differently now.

  6. The DIY path, while admirable, has always had its flaws. There is no one that can do it all themselves. And if they haven’t realized it yet, they will down the line. They will find it a difficult balance to practice, rehearse, perform, book, market, blog, podcast, etc. etc. to further their career. A team is a great thing to have inside or outside of a label situation.

  7. I agree with the first comment. From what I have heard Reznor say so far he has basically been complaining about the marketing efforts that need to go into promoting and album and a tour. I currently work in marketing, though in the b2b sector and i find it that no matter how specific or technical or seemingly inaccessible your product is, there is always something digital agency that will be happy to take the contract and do a thorough job in promoting it. I can perfectly understand why a musician might want to focus on what he does best, namely making music, but what I don’t understand is why it needs to be a record company that has to take over the rest of the tasks in today’s heavily digitized environment. Especially in Reznor ‘s case, why not knock on the door of your average digital creative agency and make a contract as you would if you were selling soap? 🙂 Compared to some of the stuff that people sell and promote online nowadays, music is actually not that hard. Especially when you already have a community to build on, as is the case with Reznor.

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