Trent Reznor: Challenging corporate giants in music streaming + why that's important

Trent Reznor is at it again: Calling out corporations and encouraging people to apply their critical thinking skills and be a little less ripoff-oriented in business-as-usual. What a weirdo!
Joe Walsh & Friends Present James Gang "One Last Ride" VetsAid 2022
Joe Walsh & Friends Present James Gang "One Last Ride" VetsAid 2022 / R. Diamond/GettyImages

[For purposes of full disclosure, I am technically a rinky-dink musician who has music on streaming services. So you'll have to take me at my word when I say that's not the sole reason I am writing this piece.]

It will strike a discordant note with some, but Trent Reznor, the frontman of Nine Inch Nails and occasional controversy-stirrer, has vehemently criticized Spotify and Apple Music for what he considers their dismal payouts to music rights holders. In a conversation with GQ magazine, the pioneer of industrial rock expressed his frustration, suggesting the (in his view) abysmal compensation from streaming services has critically wounded a whole stratum of artists, rendering being an artist financially unsustainable.

Sure, someone might say Mr. Reznor is just being a moody goth (or whatever), but he's not the only artist to rail against streaming services, over this issue or that. None other than the literally seismic Taylor Swift (decidedly not as goth-y) refused to make her 2017 Reputation album accessible on streaming services and had her music removed from Spotify in 2014. Ouch!

Reznor suggests streaming is a boon if you're someone like Drake, but a bust if you're in the league of Grizzly Bear (referring to the band, not the lovable yet deadly animal). In the interview, Trent discusses the music industry and how it fails to pair with the aphorism popularized by John F. Kennedy that "a rising tide lifts all boats." And let's face it: Trent is correct that the notion of 'All boats rise' has had ample time to prove itself, and it's clear that not all boats ascend. Some remain stuck, as Trent suggests, unable to generate income through any means, and that's detrimental to the artistic landscape.

Sure, we may romanticize the idea of the "starving artist," but what would happen if fewer artists were, you know, starving? People may love obscure or niche artists sometimes, but maybe there can be a nice medium-spot between having integrity in the gutter and being a total sellout behemoth at the top.

Trent Reznor on Apple

Reznor didn't hold back on his disappointment with Apple either, where he had hoped for a more equitable payout system given their substantial resources (and, presumably, an ability to accurately calculate numbers). However, he noted that various political entanglements and label dynamics hindered any significant change. Instead of opportunities for success cascading down through technology, it often seems to look like a mere trickle, at least for many artists.

Momentous success seems intended as the exception rather than the rule, especially as the music industry looks increasingly centralized and Disney-fied (or any other term one might use to describe increased, overbearing corporate control, complete with artists who seem like they were designed in a Mickey Mouse lab).

Reflecting on the broader consumer attitude towards music consumption, Reznor remarked that he's come to realize that people simply want music to flow effortlessly, without concerning themselves with the romantic ideals he once believed were paramount. Indeed, the music industry has long been accused of sapping the "soul" out of music, at least gradually over time, and that could certainly be reflected in consumers as well as big business itself.

The future of Nine Inch Nails

In the interview, Reznor also touched upon the hiatus Nine Inch Nails has taken from live performances since late 2022. It almost seems to pair (albeit indirectly) with his views about streaming making creativity for smaller artists "unsustainable." He admitted grappling with uncertainties about the message a tour would convey at this juncture.

Despite Nine Inch Nails' ability to deliver compelling performances and brainstorming new production ideas, he didn't feel a compelling urge to hit the road. Reznor credited his rejuvenated interest in Nine Inch Nails to his collaborative work with longtime partner Atticus Ross on soundtracks, which injected fresh energy into the band's creative spirit.

Discussing future endeavors, Ross expressed enthusiasm about embarking on their next musical venture. The conversation also revisited Nine Inch Nails' surprise release of two albums in March 2020, Ghosts V: Together and Ghosts VI: Locusts, described as distinct soundscapes for different mindsets. Before this, the duo had unveiled a series of records over three years, followed by a tour.

More about streaming

Besides his musical pursuits, Reznor's interview delved into his stint as chief creative officer at Beats Music, later acquired by Apple, and his subsequent departure. He revealed grappling with conflicting feelings and the disillusionment he experienced navigating corporate dynamics, ultimately reaffirming his identity as an artist. Reflecting on the journey, he expressed gratitude for the insights gained but underscored his unwavering commitment to his artistic calling.

My own message to these corporate giants is relatively simple: Instead of spending money on PR to "humanize" your business to the public, how about you just go ahead and be more human? Be more empathetic with artists and consumers. If you can afford a better payout to musicians, then, within reason, go ahead and give them a bit more.

The bigger implications here

If you're in a corporate tower and wondering why some people criticize business so much, maybe remember the words of MLK: "… I am convinced that men hate each other because they fear each other. They fear each other because they don’t know each other, and they don’t know each other because they don’t communicate with each other, and they don’t communicate with each other because they are separated from each other."

Sure, MLK may have been mostly addressing racists in that quote, but that issue ultimately deals with one of the same dynamics that gets corporations in trouble: Power differentials. Is there a power differential between most artists, consumers, and corporations? Absolutely, and by intent of design.

Still, the more a business seems to genuinely practice empathy, the less need there is for any phony-baloney advertising campaigns. People will just automatically assume you're not out there ripping people off if, well, you're never ripping people off! Until that happens, expect people to occasionally call out corporations for their perceived flaws, and then some. They are not immune to criticism, and often enough deserve it, too.

If you are in a corporate tower, you can improve your reputation better by taking genuine, concrete steps, not just cringe-inducing ads. Similarly, people want to be able to watch TV shows on Amazon without feeling like they are contributing to human rights abuses.

So yes, Amazon, you should probably let your factory workers leave if there is an oncoming tornado. And yes, Amazon, you should voluntarily build adequate storm shelters in your factories if you are going to attempt to compel your workers to stay there during an expected tornado outbreak, and not treat doing so as a bad idea or some violation of your rights. And yes, I say this as a subscriber to Amazon Music and Amazon Prime.