Nine Inch Nails – Ghosts: First Fruits of the Label-less Era

nine inch Nails ghosts i-iv

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Halo 26, Ghosts I-IV has just been announced at the nine inch nails website. It’s a collection of 36 instrumental tracks created with no clear agenda, with the entire process being driven by impulse and improvisation.

Of it, Trent says:

We began improvising and let the music decide the direction. Eyes were closed, hands played instruments and it began. Within a matter of days it became clear we were on to something, and a lot of material began appearing. What we thought could be a five song EP became much more. I invited some friends over to join in and we all enjoyed the process of collaborating on this.

Nine Inch Nails takes the Radiohead gambit a step further with this release, offering multiple formats and ordering options. All songs are available immediately for download from Amazon MP3 and

  1. Ghosts volume I (9 tracks) is a completely free download.
  2. All 36 tracks can be downloaded for $5. Provided formats: 320kbps mp3, FLAC lossless and Apple Lossless. Also comes with a 40-page pdf. Paypal is an option for payment, if you want to avoid using credit/debit cards.
  3. For $10, you can get 2 physical cds shipped on April 8 as well as immediate access to the downloads.
  4. $75 gets you the 2 audio cds, a data dvd with multi-track files for remixing, 2 Blu-Ray disc with high-definition 96/24 stereo tracks and visual slide show all bound in a hard-bound slipcase. Also comes with 48-page photographic accompaniment book. You also get access to all the downloadable materials. Ships May 1.
  5. And for the true nin spendthrift, there’s the $300 Limited Edition (limited to 2500 numbered copies). You get everything in the $75 package, plus four vinyl LPs, Glicee prints, and Trent Reznor’s signature. Ships May1, but of course, you get the downloads now.

Ghosts I-IV limited edition
Ghosts I-IV Limited Edition

I’m actively reducing the amount of physical clutter in my house. So as a devotee of digital formats, I’ll probably opt for the $5 version. Apple Lossless is a pretty nice format. Though I expect the NIN online store to be crushed by the demand for the next day or so. If mp3s are your thing, Amazon might be the way to go. You still get all 36 tracks for $5.

UPDATE: is pretty much DOA right now. I’ve actually managed to make a transaction, but the download failed after 100kB. So I’ll have to talk to customer service, since the store is providing “one-time download links.”

UPDATE II: Trent writes at from Hong Kong:

The response to this album has been overwhelming, causing our website to slow to a crawl. We THOUGHT we were ready, but… We’ve been adding more servers to accommodate the unexpected demand and we expect to be running smoothly in the next few hours. In the meantime, if you’ve had any problems with downloads from the Ghosts site, don’t worry – you’ll be able to use your download link again when the site is more stable.

Good to know the early adopters won’t be left in the proverbial cold.

UPDATE III: 24 hours later and the site is humming along nicely. Either the added servers are handling the crush well or demand has slowed or both. I had no trouble using my original download link to retreive the Apple Lossless + bonus files (more than 600 MB), which transfered without any hang ups.


The 36 songs range in length from 1:53 to 5:52 and total a running time of 1 hour 50 minutes. For comparison’s sake, both discs from The Fragile run 1 hour 46 minutes.

My initial impression after a couple listens is that Ghosts I-IV is a series of tone poems that don’t necessarily have any connection to each other. Nine Inch Nails records tend to have a certain “flow” to them that’s largely missing here. Instead, we have, as the album name would suggest, is borderless apparitions of sound and space. Many tracks stop suddenly, like a figment seen in the corner of one’s view that disappears when looked at directly, while others fade away or into the next track.

Stylistically the sound is unmistakeably Nine Inch Nails and the overall feel has more in common with the dark ambient tendrils of Trent’s soundtrack for the Quake computer game and The Fragile (think The Frail) than the apocalyptic paranoia of Year Zero. There is, however, some new ground here. I Ghosts 6 is borderline playful in its demeanor, a quality not usually associated with Nine Inch Nails’ music.

Ghosts has all the qualities of great instrumental music. It works well as background, as white noise with which to block out the world or drift away, but upon close inspection reveals remarkable textures and attention to detail.

But in typical fashion, Ghosts is more than just a listening experience. Each of the 36 songs has its own unique album art, snapshots to accompany the music.

Ghosts is Nine Inch Nails’ first release since the band was freed from its recording contract with Universal last October and its good to see that it is wasting very little time taking advantage of the new-found freedom and utilizing new media and techologies to promote, sell and circulate the music. There’s absolutely no way a record company would have released a double-disc set of what is a essentially musical diversions. And certainly not for a $5 download.

But Trent’s free agent status allows him to do whatever he wants. He can give this thing away, which he actually did: All 36 tracks are released under a Creative Commons license: Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike, meaning that anyone can give away the albums or use the songs as part of any non-commercial project so long as they credit NIN.

Trent says that there will likely be further editions in the Ghosts series. I, for one, will be looking forward to the music and future releases using the model.

High Impact Albums of 2007

In my last post, I detailed the ten albums that earned the highest ratings from me during 2007. But while I did find them each to be fantastic recordings, ratings don’t necessarily reflect popularity. That is to say that the most highly rated albums might not have been the most often played.

Indeed that’s not the case. I took data from the past year and ran it through my Impact report, which measures the relationship between total play counts and the number of songs an album or artist has in my library in order to see who has received the most attention relative to their size

While the results show some significant overlap with the top rated list (of course I listen to what I like), it turns out that being highly rated doesn’t necessarily guarantee a lot of playing. So without further ado, here are the albums that made the biggest splash last year.

1 Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero

Impact Rating: 1072

Showing Trent Reznor at his best, Year Zero received significant airplay throughout the year, enough to earn it the title of “Tunequest’s Most Impactful Album of 2007.”

2 Air – Pocket Symphony

Impact Rating: 1064

I listened to Pocket Symphony in a huge burst after its March release and kinda petered out over the remainder of the year. Still, that initial burst was enough to coast to a second place ranking.

3 Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight

Impact Rating: 1021

Rilo Kiley is one of a handful of musical acts that both the modernista and I actively like. It should be no surprise then that despite its late summer release, Under the Blacklight was in heavy rotation for the duration of autumn, so much so that it claimed the number three spot.

4 The Polish Ambassador – Diplomatic Immunity

Impact Rating: 936

The Ambassador’s debut disc broke into my brain early last year and left a substantial wake in its path. Our intergalactic diplomat’s electrogrooves are really really catchy. In my library for nearly the entire year, Diplomatic Immunity garnered the most play counts of any album I acquired in 2007.

5 Radiohead – In Rainbows

Impact Rating: 355

Radiohead’s revolutionary distribution may have brought the record to my ears, but its quality kept it playing again and again. Though In Rainbows narrowly missed my Top Rated Albums of 2007, it was listened to enough to become the fifth highest impactful album of the year, quite a feat considering the early October release of disc one and the early December release of disc two.

Also of note, here we see a huge drop in impact ratings between places 4 and 5. It’s clear that the top four were the breakaway albums of the year. Those four albums were responsible for 20% of the impact points generated among new aquisitions last year. Which means that either those albums are fantastically good (and they are) or I need to diversify my habits a bit (which I probably do). But hey the ears like what they like.

Moving on:

6 David Arnold: Casino Royale

james bond casino royale 2006

Impact Rating: 338

I’ve been checking in on David Arnold’s film works every so often since the late 90s, when I discovered his score for the original Stargate film. Since then his scores have continued to impress me, especially his work for the James Bond franchise. His composition for Casino Royale, the 2006 re-booting of the Bond character, is perhaps his finest contribution yet. Lush, inviting and full of suspense and action, Casino Royale projects the best of the Bond musical heritage with a suave confidence that’s the hallmark of the character. But it adds its own unique motifs and ambience, keeping it from sounding like a re-hash of John Barry’s seminal soundtracks.

A highlight of the record is I’m The Money, a short 27-second track. But those 27 seconds are filled with the distlled essense of the entire score and they evoke the predominate atmosphere of the film as well, from the exotic and intriguing to the dark and dangerous.

I’m The Money:

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The more I listen to this one, the more I might think it’s the best score of Arnold’s carreer and perhaps the best in the entire James Bond series.

Rounding out the Top Ten Impactful albums of 2007

All the remaining records also appear on my Top Rated 07 list.

7 Susumu Yokota – Symbol Impact Rating: 335
8 Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon Impact Rating: 324
9 The Polish Ambassador – The Phantasmal Farm Impact Rating: 301 (A good year for the Ambassador around here)
10 The Smashing Pumpkins – Zeitgeist Impact Rating: 261

For those would would like a baseline, the average impact for all records acquired in 2007 was 68, while the median was 16. Additional math shows me that the top 20 records were responsible for just more than half the impact ratings generated throughout the year. So I’ve resolved this year to show some more consideration with my musical choices. Last year’s massive influx of new tunes was largely a response to having neglected many new records and trends in music while partaking in the original tunequest. This year I’ve decided to purposefully not seek out too many new records and spend more time with the ones I do get.

So, here’s to tunequest 2008, whatever form it may take.

In Rainbows Diskbox shipped

in Diskbox


No announcement on dead air space or And no rumblings on the net save for this report about one fan receiving it early. But today, Saturday Dec 1, is the last day for Radiohead to make good on its promise to ship the Diskbox version of In Rainbows “before 3rd December 2007.”

So it begs the question: Are the packages in the mail? Will legions of fans worldwide receive early holiday presents in the coming week?

Only time will tell. Let the anticipation build!


radiohead volcano estate
Volcano Estate, an image from the In Rainbows Diskbox.

Update 12/6. The answer of course is yes, Radiohead did begin fulfilling the Diskbox orders as they said they would.

Now the ordeal is over, I’ve taken a step back and have been thinking about the whole In Rainbows experience. While the band is to be commended for its work at changing the contemporary music model, something about the method of release has left me divided. Maybe I’m just coming down from two months of Radiohead excitement, but now that’s I’ve heard the album in its entirety, I’m somewhat disappointed. To be sure, the record is good with its stretches of characteristic brilliance, even if the mood is dour and unwelcoming. It’s funny, for a product titled “In Rainbows” the principal color I associate with it is grey. For some reason though, I’m having a hard time “connecting” with it.

I also can’t seem to find any artistic reason for splitting the release into two CDs. Its total running time is 79:30, just shy of a single CD’s limit. Disc two isn’t especially different than Disc one. In fact, if you listen in iTunes, the transition from Videotape to Mk 1 is virtually seamless. It just stikes me as a bit exploitive I guess. Maybe when the “real” CD is released, all the songs will be on a single disc for those who don’t need the extravagance of the Diskbox. is still taking orders for the Diskbox (made to order), but you only have until December 10 to grab the pay-what-you-want mp3s of the first disc.

Music Store Showdown: iTunes vs Amazon vs eMusic

So Amazon recently threw its hat into the thunderdome of online digital music sales. The store’s big brand name and huge retail operation instantly make it one of the top tier marts for digital music. As Amazon MP3 is seen primarily as a challenger to the iTunes Store’s throne, I originally wanted to do a compare and contrast with that gorilla, but later thought that unfair to eMusic, who consistently claims to be the second largest online store on the net. The iTunes Store has more than enough going for it that an equilibrium will eventually be met with whatever competition comes its way. eMusic, however, might be quite vulnerable to Amazon’s might and muscle.

music Store Showdown

But just how does that muscle shape up?

I took a look at Amazon MP3, trying to gauge its place on the market and judge its strengths and weaknesses compared to its more established rivals. Each service was evaluated using the following criteria:

  • Format & Quality
  • Selection
  • Search & Ease of Use
  • Pricing
  • Artwork and Tagging
  • Free Stuff

Format & Quality

Amazon MP3

As the store’s name suggests, Amazon MP3 provides music in the MP3 format. MP3 is incompatible with any type of rights management and the most notable claim of AMZMP3 is the freedom of the file format it is willing to sell. MP3s, of course, work on virtually all portable devices. Amazon MP3’s also pitches its files as being high quality. The site claims to supply a very healthy bitate of 256kbps for its downloads, but the files I’ve purchased have averaged 214 (VBR) kbps. Though they sound fine to my ears, it is less than the site advertises.

Getting info on the file tells me that it was encoded using LAME 3.97.


Like Amazon, eMusic provides free and open MP3 files and has been doing so since 2003. The MP3s are encoded around 192kbps (VBR) using LAME 3.92. The music sounds great.

The iTunes Store

The iTunes Store has been the spearhead in the adoption of the AAC format, selling AAC encoded files since the store’s 2003 inception. AAC is billed as a successor to MP3 and is particularly noted for sounding better at lower bitrates. At the time of this writing, the iTunes Store is providing two flavors of AAC. The standard encoding is 128kbps, which to its credit sounds pretty good. The store benefits from having the songs encoded from the original master recordings, rather than being ripped from a CD. Throughout much of the store’s history, however, Apple has been forced by its contracts with record labels to include the much-criticized and oft-despised rights management, FairPlay, on all song downloads. Most of the songs it sell come packaged this way.

Recently though, the store has made moves to free its music from those restrictions. The iTunes Plus service sells songs with no DRM attached and doubles the bitrate to 256kbps. There’s a lot of debate about the merits of AAC vs MP3 at higher bitrates, so the benefit of the increase may not be that significant, but surely, it can’t hurt. Currently, about 1/3 of the store’s inventory is offered via iTunes Plus.

Winner: 3-way tie (with edge to Amazon and eMusic). The files supplied by each store, while not lossless, sound quite adequate for the majority of listening applications and music systems. iTunes loses a couple points for the continued existence of FairPlay, but the way things are trending, it probably won’t be around for much longer.

Update 28 March 2009: Apple has announced that by April 2009, 100% of its music content will be DRM-free. It that comes to pass, then there really will be little to debate about format choice. All three stores will be using files that are compatible with a large number and wide range of players and hardware.


Each store likes to boast about its large catalogue. iTunes is by far the largest with about six million songs to choose from. eMusic and Amazon both claim to offer more than two million songs each (Playlistmag says eMusic has 2.7 million UPDATE 11/7: Macworld reports that eMusic now stores 3 million songs in its catalogue, while Amazon’s complete list shows 2,479,112 at the time of this writing). Impressive numbers all around, but catalogue size doesn’t mean squat if it doesn’t have the songs you’re looking for. So, I went through the music libraries of three people and randomly choose 20 songs from each. I then looked for those songs on all three services, giving one point for songs on the album I was searching for or half a point for the song in another context (soundtrack, compilation, greatest hits, etc).

Here are the results:

The iTunes Store is easily the champion in this contest, besting its two rivals combined. Of the 60 songs searched, iTunes scored 46 points, Amazon finished with 20 and eMusic ranked in with 14.5. Within those results, there were only 2 instances where either AMZMP3 or eMusic had a song that iTunes did not and 5 instances where eMusic provided a song that Amazon did not. In total, there were 10 songs that none of the stores carried in their inventory.

But besides the run-of-the-mill catalogue, each store has its selectional perks.

iTunes offers tons of exclusive content, such as its iTunes Originals series, celebrity playlists or the AOL Sessions series.

eMusic has an extensive selection of “eMusic Only” releases, many of them full live concerts. The site also hosts the world’s largest collection of DRM-free music, which eMusic notes come from 20,000+ independent labels. However, the iTunes Store and Amazon are both gaining in that respect. What you won’t find, however, is any of the majors, which is a bit ironic considering that Universal used to own the place.

In contrast to eMusic and iTunes, Amazon MP3 is lacking in the exclusives department. There’s no “Amazon Presents…” or the like, just search-and-download. In a notable coup, however, AMZMP3 is the first and only store to offer digital downloads of Radiohead’s albums (plus one single for the completeists out there). Though the band’s label, EMI, also participates in Apple’s iTunes Plus program, Radiohead only wants to sell complete albums, which violate Apple’s policy to offer track-only purchases. Thus, OK Computer at Amazon, but not at iTunes. Update 3 June 2008: Radiohead’s complete catalog is now also available DRM-free from iTunes.

Winner: Each store offers a reason to shop there, but at the end of the day, it’s the iTunes Store that will most likely be selling what you’re looking to buy.

Search & Ease of Use


In typical Apple fashion, the iTunes Store screams ease of use.

The storefront is built into the iTunes desktop app, making for one stop shopping. Apple has gone to great lengths to integrate the offline library management functions of the program with the online sales environment. The ubiquitous “iTunes Store” arrows and the “Minibrowser” might be a little intrusive, but those can be turned off.

Once in the store, finding songs/albums/artists is trivial; just type it into the search bar, though most of the time you have to sort through movies/tv shows/podcasts/etc in the results. The store does a pretty good job of segregating the various types of media. iTunes falters when it comes to the exploratory level. In the four years since its launch, I’ve never found it all that comfortable or appealing to browse the place for an extended period of time.

Like almost all online shoppes, the iTunes Store allows users to leave feedback, ratings and comments about albums. It also provides rudimentary recommendations in the form of “People who bought X also bought Y.” Users can also contribute to the store via iMixes, compilations put together by individuals and submitted to the store. However, the presentation is pretty sparse and there’s minimal “social aspects” to them, i.e. you can see what another person has rated or look at their iMixes, but you can’t “befriend” them or interact or see recommendations based on tastes you might have in common.

Once purchased, songs download straight into your library. It’s seamless. But be sure to make a backup of everything you buy. Apple only allows you to download the song one time, though if a catastrophic event wipes out your collection, the store does permit an unpublicized one-time re-download of your purchase history.

Some songs, usually determined by length, are not available as a single download, but must be purchased as part of an album. That can be a drag when you just want the one song.


eMusic’s storefront is HTML-based. The store can be accessed and songs downloaded from any web browser. Recently though, the company released eMusic Remote as a way to integrate the online store with the desktop. The app runs on Mac/Win/Lin and is based on the Mozilla browser. Think: iTunes-Store-inside-Firefox. eMusic Remote provides an easy way to navigate the store and manage downloads, which can automatically be added to your iTunes library, should you so desire.

The site’s search feature could use some vast improvements. Often, the results it returns are far too many, especially for simple queries, and they don’t seem to be prioritized and are not sub-sortable. Sometimes, I find it easier to do a Google site search instead:

Previewing music comes in the form of downloadable m4u playlist files, which can be opened by iTunes or Quicktime Player. The process can be tedious for single tracks, but is really quite nice for checking out complete albums. Though, I’d rather they switched to Flash-based, in-browser previewing. UPDATE 04/17/08: Hooray! eMusic recently switched to an in-browser sample preview system. It greatly improves the ability to get a taste for a song/band/album before deciding to buy.

In contrast to iTunes, eMusic’s social aspects are more robust. While similar in theory to what iTunes does, the execution is better. Each album’s page shows any reviews that members have written; that’s not special. But, where iTunes says “People who bought X also bought Y,” eMusic is more specific, giving recommendations based on what a handful of particular fans also enjoy. These make great springboards for further exploration.

Also, an album’s page shows which users’ ‘playlists’ it appears on. Akin to iMixes, a user playlist can be whatever the author wants it to be. A playlist can be as simple as someone’s public bookmarks, or as indepth and voluminous as “80+ Reasons Why Japan Rules,” much like Amazon’s Listmania.

One of the best music discovery tools I’ve run across on any platform is eMusic’s Neighbors screen. It shows fellow music fans with similar tastes. Hover over a shared artist and get recommendations based on that artist. On my current screen, based on my interest in Mogwai, I have five neighbors telling me to check out Cat Power, Of Montreal, and eight other artists. Using this tool, I’ve found a number of new and interesting bands based on my intersections with my musical neighbors.

eMusic, unlike iTunes, offers no restrictions on the number of times you can download a purchase. Hard drive melt? Just log into your history a grab it again. Also, unlike iTunes, eMusic has no restriction on songs based on length. There are no “album only” purchases. Every song, even a 30 minute opus, is available as a single purchase.

emusic neighbors
eMusic Neighbors screen

Amazon MP3

AMZMP3, like eMusic, is browser-based with both direct download for singles and a desktop app for grabbing albums. The company knows how to run a web store, and its expertise shows. If results are available, a search will return a list of artists, albums and song that match. Songs can be previewed immediately via a nifty on-page Flash-based system, or more details on the album can found on the album’s page, which integrates the feedback, reviews and ratings from the physical CD’s entry in the vast AMZ database.

Likewise, if MP3s are available, the option to buy them appear on the actual physical CD’s page. A useful gimmick that doesn’t seem to be in place though is, “Buy a CD, download MP3 immediately” type bundles. I suspect that would result in a fair amount of up-selling.

Getting the actual music files is straightforward enough. For single songs, click the “Buy MP3” button, confirm payment and a single MP3 will be all yours for the downloadin’. Whole albums require the Amazon MP3 Downloader program. When purchasing an album, a reference file is downloaded to the desktop. That reference file tells the Downloader which album to retrieve. Then the music begins to flow. When finished, the app will auto add to iTunes if requested. The process requires a couple extra steps, but it works.

Like iTunes, some music at AMZMP3 is album only, though it’s hard to know what or why. Those Radiohead albums for example, no individual songs can be purchased. The length of the song isn’t necessarily a factor. There are some 17 and 18 minute-long Mogwai tracks available separately, while at least one 11 minute Sonic Youth song is album only. Adding to the confusion is the store’s somewhat perplexing price structure.

Overall though, the site is still considered to be “public beta,” so we can guess that it will improve with time.

Winner: Each services is pretty much on par with the others on the ease-of-use front. None have a particularly show-stopping difficulty. iTunes gets points for the all-in-one solution, while Amazon is a known quantity that now extends to MP3 sales. eMusic’s search can be challenging, but its re-download policy and music discovery tools make it very appealing to the adventurous.


The iTunes Store charges a flat $0.99 per song for individual tracks. Albums cost the sum of all songs, or $9.99, whichever is lower. It’s the same way throughout the store; there are no variations.

Unlike iTunes, Amazon charges a variable price for downloads. At launch, Amazon’s typical price per song is $0.89, though some are $0.99. Most complete albums run $4.95 to $9.99, though I’ve not figured out how those prices are computed. Sonic Youth’s A Thousand Leaves is 11 songs at $0.99 each or $7.97 for the whole album, a difference of $2.92. Pink Floyd’s The Wall is currently $8.99 for all 26 songs ($0.35 vs $0.99 a piece), whereas Dark Side of the Moon has some songs for $0.89, others for $0.99, or $7.99 for the album, a difference of only $0.62. It doesn’t make much sense, but in some cases, you might find a better deal than the iTunes Store.

eMusic’s business model is different than the pay-per-track services of Amazon and iTunes. Similar to the Netflix model, subscribers pay for a membership plan to access a certain number of downloads per 30-day cycle, rather than paying for songs individually. In my case, I pay $14.95 for 50 downloads every thirty days. If I download all 50 songs, I end up spending just $0.30 per song. There are more extensive bulk plans that will bring the price down to $0.25 per song. Also, the length of the song doesn’t matter; a 30 minute epic track costs just one download credit, as does a 30 second interlude.

Maximizing the value of one’s subscription requires diligence however. It’s never happened to me personally, but if one forgets or is too busy to retrieve their current downloads, well then, they get squat for their $15. In my case, the worst I’ve ever done is have 6 credits left at the end of the cycle. I’m usually plagued by the *other* subscription conundrum: Wanting a 10-song album, with only four credits until the next refresh. Most of the time, I solve this dilemma by grabbing the first four songs, bookmarking the album in my “save for later” area, then return first thing after the refresh (I have an iCal reminder tell me when it’s time). Alternately, I find eMusic to be an inexpensive way of exploring classical music.

Winner: On price alone, eMusic wins, provided you take full advantage of your subscription. With the $14.95 plan, you’ll be on par with iTunes as long as you download at least 15 songs per cycle. At this time, Amazon is also undercutting iTunes on price. This could change after the honeymoon period, as more popular songs might be priced higher than $0.99, but for now, iTunes is the loser on the money factor.

Artwork and Tagging

Songs from all three stores come with comprehensive ID3 tags, providing song name, artists, album, genre, etc. AMZMP3 provides high-quality album art embedded in the file, while iTunes supplies it in a separate sidecar file. eMusic will download a jpeg along with the MP3s, but it must be manually added to the files. eMusic’s jpeg however is a pitifully small 150 x 150 pixels. so I either use iTunes to retrieve the album cover or search for better art using sloth radio. UPDATE: 4 Dec 2008: However, a recent redesign of the site does provide high-quality album art in the browser. It must still be manually added to the music files, but at least it’s right there when you download an album.

Winner: Slight edge to Amazon for embedding the art, slight knock to eMusic for making me work to find better art.

Free Stuff

The iTunes Store provides free content across its entire product line, from TV episodes to movie clips to sample audiobook chapters and of course, music, not a day goes by without some kind of freebie posted and available for consumption. Most notable is the Single of the Week, which changes every Tuesday. There are entire websites devoted to tracking the latest zero cost offerings at the store.

Likewise, eMusic also offers free downloads. You don’t even need to be a customer to snag them. eMusic offers two types of freebies. One, the Daily Download is updated every day. Other, long term free tracks are kept in their own part of the site. At the time of this writing, there are roughly 70 tracks up for the taking. Since eMusic caters to those outside the mainstream, most of the free tracks are from the relatively obscure, so if you’re looking to explore a bit, here’s a chance to do so without spending a cent.

I’ve not found much zero cost music at AMZMP3. There’s certainly no breakout section saying “Free Downloads Here.” However, the list of every available MP3, sorted by price, reveals a total of 36 songs available free of charge. The store is young, so who knows what kind of free stuff is planned for it.

Winner: Each store has something to give away, but eMusic gains an edge by not even requiring an account to download it. iTunes has a lot of variety, plus the entire podcast directory and iTunes U, so mucho bonus points there. Amazon lags at a distant third.


In terms of service, the stores are fairly evenly matched. Some foibles here and there, but, hey, nobody’s perfect. Amazon is a worthy contender and an appealling place to look when you just have to have a song right now. eMusic pretty much rules for those who enjoy exploring off the beaten path. But if you want to be absolutely sure to find the songs you’re looking for, iTunes can’t be beat. You just might have to pay a premium for the convenience and hope it’s not poisoned with DRM.

Personally, I find each to be a fine service and I see no reason to exclude any of them from my music-buying arsenal. In fact, I look forward to using Amazon a little more. And maybe, just maybe, the pressure will drive those other two companies to improve their digital music services.

Note: In the interest of disclosure, you should be aware that tunequest acts as an affiliate for two of the stores mentioned in this article. They send me a pittance whenever I send them a customer. However, that relationship in no way changes my opinion of each company. The fact is that I would not have chosen to become affiliated were I not already impressed with the services in the first place. They each have their strengths and weaknesses.

Radiohead – In Raindows: Ethos and ambiance

Via this 9rules note:



I haven’t placed an order for In Rainbows yet because I was waiting to find out the quality and format of the digital files. With this news I’m a little disappointed. Sure, 160kbps is quite *acceptable* but I consider 192kbps to be my minimum bitrate for MP3 (or did before I started encoding into AAC). Still, I assume the tracks are coming straight from the masters, so they’re bound to be decent. Even so, 160kbps seems like a strangely small format in this day in age.

All in all though, what this experience amounts to is a controlled (and profitable) “leak” for the band. Whether they succeed in up-selling the Discbox or traditional CD remains to be seen. Personally, I’m still debating whether there’s a Discbox with my name on it.

In any case, I’m sure the album will be fantastic. This is Radiohead we’re talking about.

Also strangely, the mp3s don’t come with any cover art included, though they otherwise have good ID3 tags (except for genre). Two images I’ve run across so far are this one, which looks like it could be from one of the vinyl sleeves:

in rainbows cover

And this one, which looks like it’s taken from the In Rainbows website:

in rainbows cover


Update 10/10: Having found out the format, I went ahead downloaded the album. I’m just glad I didn’t pre-pay a large amount for it. If I’m going to pay retail price for a record, I’m going to expect to be able to encode it at whatever quality I want. Having listened, the files sound fine in my ear buds and are certainly enjoyable enough for now, so I’m not going to make any further deal of it.

Albums by Radiohead always take a little while to grow on you. While they are never disappointing on the first listen, it takes some time before the gems are evident. I’m sure I won’t know quite what I think about In Rainbows for some time, but here are my first thoughts.

In Rainbows is perhaps the smallest departure in style in the band’s history, feeling like a continuation of the Hail to the Thief ethos, but with Amnesiac’s dour ambiance. Overall, the sense I get from the album is unambitious, but not staid. It is music of and for people who are weary. Of what, who knows? But true to the Radiohead mind-set, a detached alienation pervades the entire elaborated experience. To be sure, the music itself is as intricate as is to be expected, it just feels smaller and more straight-forward. There are no grand exclamations like Karma Police, mind-bending riffs like My Iron Lung or voyages into the unknown like Idioteque.

The other thing that strikes me right off the bat is that, for a rock band, this album doesn’t feature much in the way of rock. I don’t necessarily call that a bad thing. In fact, In Rainbows sounds so good as a whole that a massive rock song would feel totally out of place. It’s just unfortunate for me because Radiohead jams are some of my favorite things. I think they make up for it though with some down-right inspired percussion.

Initial song-by-song impressions:

15 Steps
A glitchy Bjork-like intro powers Thom Yorke’s trademark, though nearly unintelligible, falsetto in this up-tempo opener. The percussion here is the most interesting part, with the live drums providing body to the emphasized synth beats.

Dirty distorted riffs, straight-end drums and wailing electronics make me want to dance on top of a haunted house.

This slow proto-waltz is mesmerizing in its stripped down simplicity.

Weird Fishes/Arpeggi
Gloriously clean arpeggios and a galloping rhythm make this one an early contender as my favorite from the album.

All I Need
A somber piano ballad builds to brilliant crescendo.

Faust Arp
A cello accentuates more arpeggios, this time played by a Spanish guitar, on this mellow tune. It’s possibly the most tender song in all of Radiohead’s repertoire.

Rounds out an elegiac trio of songs. All I Need, Faust Arp and Reckoner feel like they could easily meander by, unnoticed in a dream or on a dark foggy night, if they weren’t so captivating.

House of Cards
Thom’s vocals echo through the emptiness on what could be the B-side to Knives Out (if Knives Out didn’t already have b-sides).

Jigsaw Falling Into Place
The tempo finally picks back up on what it the most direct pop song on the record. It could be Sit Down. Stand Up’s little brother.

A boy and his piano ponder the persistence of media and the cruel march of time. A bit of a downer to end the album on.

All in all a great album to listen to, though you might want to save for a soundtrack on a rainy day or you find yourself in too good of a mood.

Here’s a fan-vid featuring Weird Fishes/Arpeggi:

Radiohead – In Rainbows – Weird Fishes_Arpeggi

Yeah What They Said 10/09: “Change is in the air” edition

Links to interesting stories and opinions. Right now, let’s take a look at the music industry double whammy of Radiohead + nine inch nails’ decisions to abandon convention:

What price did you choose?
Informal survey and comments about the prices people are willing to pay for In Rainbows.

Radiohead generation believes music is free
Premiere Radiohead site ateaseweb looks at various press reactions to the In Rainbows announcement.

Happiness In Slavery No More: Nine Inch Nails Goes Record Label Free
ParisLemon takes a look at Trent Reznor’s forward-thinking with regards to music marketing strategies and factors the death of DRM into the future of music.

Oasis And Others Jumping On Radiohead Bandwagon?
Mog speculates about other bands following the direct approach. So does nymag.

Tuesday Business Links
More Post-Radiohead Items: Terra Firma Wants Fresh Ideas, Value Of Recorded Music Debated
Business-related insight from an industry insider.

And, because I usually post a video or two with these things, here’s Radiohead playing Videotape at Bonnaroo 2006:

Radiohead – Videotape – Bonnaroo 6-17-06

plus Trent tell fans to screw his record label and steal his music:

"Steal it!" – Trent Reznor is honest and logical.

Johnny Greenwood – Bodysong: Accessible Abstracts

Johnny Greenwood - Bodysong

get bodysong at amazon

All the recent Radiohead hoopla reminded me about the band’s other driving creative force: Johnny Greenwood. He’s the lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist responsible for a lot of those awesome riffs that Radiohead fans love oh-so-much (he tied with fellow band member Ed O’Brien as Rolling Stones’ 59th and 60th greatest guitar players of all time). Besides his work in a rock band, Greenwood also composes music of a more classical nature. In fact, he’s been the BBC’s composer in residence since 2004.

His first solo release is Bodysong, the score to the 2003 film of the same name. I remember reading a little about it when it came out, but have just now gotten around to giving it a serious listen. Overall, the album’s style is aligned with contemporary classical, but its exact nature is hard to pin down. It sweeps between orchestral strings, flighty jazz and mellow ambiance while maintaining a cohesive identity.

Unlike what is typically thought of as abstract/avant-garde music where the art derives from the sculpting of sound that isn’t necessarily pleasant to listen to, Bodysong is largely recognizable as traditional music, though not with much pop sensibility. The music here is compelling, if not particularly catchy.

In the case of many of the score’s more mellow tracks, it’s tempting to describe them as “soundscapes,” like a minimalist rising and fadings of tones. But the work here shows too much structure to be classified that way, with rhythm and percussion giving form to the formless. Greenwood’s compositions are abstract without being inaccessible.

Of the thirteen tracks on the disc, Convergence and Splitter are the two highlights. Convergence takes a page from Steve Reich’s book, feature overlapping layers of pure percussion that mesmerizingly diverge and converge with each other. It’s hard to not try a pick out the various patterns. Splitter, on the other hand, is a freeform jazz piece that could easily be using the same New Orleans jazz band from Amnesiac’s Life in a Glass House.

One of the more interesting results of Bodysong is how it reinforces the idea that Radiohead really is a functioning unit. Johnny’s influence on the band’s music is readily apparent in the soft piano of the album’s opener as well as in the various electronic interjections.

Overall however, I was quite surprised by how listenable Bodysong is, despite being what should be “difficult but rewarding.”

And a multi-track sampler from the film:

Jonny Greenwood – Bodysong

What Radiohead’s In Rainbows says about the state of the music industry

Radiohead buzz jumps 1300%

It’s been nearly forty-eight hours have passed since Radiohead’s surprise announcement set off an explosion of fandom around the web. Indeed, Blogpulse shows a more than 1300% increase in the number of posts mentioning the band from September 29 to October 1. Of course, a new Radiohead album is big news, especially after a four year wait, but the real source of conversation is the band’s decision to allow variable pricing of In Rainbows. Much of the commentary revolves around how this is a shot across the bow of the record labels.

In Rainbows is Radiohead’s first record since fulfilling their recording contract. That is to say that there was no record label involvement in the financing, production, marketing or distribution of the album. It’s yet another sign of the changing economics of the music industry in the digital era. Besides the usual “labels are dinosaurs” meme being bandied about, the aspect that strikes me the most about the In Rainbows announcement is the complete element of surprise.

It’s almost inconceivable that one of the world’s most watched band’s most anticipated albums could be sprung so suddenly on an unsuspecting populace.

Radiohead fans have known that there would be a new album “soon,” but a specific time frame was unknown. In fact, until as recently as week ago (Sept. 25) the Wikipedia page for the album maintained that it was to be released in 2008. There were no details other than suspected track titles and new songs played at live shows. We didn’t even know the album’s title until the other day. The fact that the band can say, “Hey it’s done and can be yours in a little more than a week,” that’s the real game changer here.

Consider the case with the band’s previous album, 2003’s Hail to the Thief. Whereas we’d heard nary a peep about In Rainbows, a surprisingly robust unmastered version of Hail to the Thief was leaked on the net TWO MONTHS before the official release date. Albums by other artists regularly appear on the net well ahead of their scheduled release date. Now, there’s the argument that leaked albums aren’t exactly a bad thing, but that’s not the point here.

The point is about control.

Now this is pure speculation, but it seems to me that without the involvement of record label personnel, Radiohead has been able to work in a more secured and isolated environment. Fewer spoons in the pot, so to speak, means fewer opportunities for unscrupulous individuals to make off with recorded materials. When there are so few people working closely on a project, I imagine that there’s much more loyalty and devotion as a whole and fewer people who feel that what they are doing is simply a job.

Added security and more artistic control? Chalk that up as another advantage to not working with a record label.

Of course, like Trent Reznor telling fans to steal his music, Radiohead can get away with this scheme because they’re a known quantity, having already benefitted from ten years of record label backing from a time when record labels were essential to lasting success. In 1997, there’s no way that OK Computer could have become one of the greatest albums ever released without the support of a major label. The media landscape of the late 90s was such that sufficient money to go big could only be found at a major corporation (EMI in Radiohead’s case).

Having generated all that cultural capital with the help of EMI’s resources and having a fan base that is already legion, there’s not much the band has to do at this point to stir up excitement. However, while they have generated the biggest buzz, Radiohead is not the first to distribute “donation-ware” music. Athens, Ga-based label Quote Unquote Records has been working in that fashion since 2006, billing itself at the first donation-based record label. And certainly there have been individual artists with Paypal buttons on their site, asking for contributions in exchange for free downloads. Though, it’s hard to find evidence on how financially successful that approach has been for the relatively obscure.

With a big name artist popularizing the idea, direct-to-consumer sales and personal value pricing are just more cracks in the business model of the record industry.

Historically, labels served the artists by putting money down to help promote, produce and distribute physical media. Throughout the 20th century, it was very expensive to shoot a music video and get posters printed and pay for studio time and hire recording technicians. The mass-production of thousands or millions of vinyl, cassettes or compact discs didn’t come cheap either. It’s impossible to have a record go platinum without manufacturing at least one million copies of it. The upfront money to do that was essentially on loan in the hopes that public interest in the artist would recoup costs and generate a healthy profit.

But since the boom of the MP3 and the increasing affordability and sophistication of “pro-am” music production, that system has been changing. Compared to even ten years ago, it’s exponentially cheaper to record, promote and distribute music using desktop computers and the Internet. Programs like Apple’s GarageBand make it relatively simple for actual garage bands or bedroom auteurs to create compelling, professional sounding music.

Add YouTube and music blogs (such as tunequest) to the mix and artists have a lot promotional muscle at their disposal. Top it off with low-cost DIY and pay-what-you-want digital distribution and the question becomes, “Who needs labels?”

Radiohead announces “In Rainbows.” Released Oct. 10. Download for whatever price you want to pay.

radiohead in rainbows

A very brief post at dead air space, the official Radiohead blog, informs the world that the band’s first album in four years will be available for mass experiencing in ten days:

Hello everyone.

Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days;

We’ve called it In Rainbows.

Love from us all.

radiohead discbox
In Rainbows Discbox

The post links to the In Rainbows store site, which features a neat animated background with a couple options for pre-ordering the record.

The first is a physical “Discbox” version that includes the both a compact disc of In Rainbows, two vinyl records, a second cd with additional new songs, artwork and booklets and comes packaged in hardback book form. The entire set runs £40.00 (roughly USD$80) and isn’t expected to ship until December. Buyers, however, will receive access to digital downloads of the album on 10/10.

The package looks pretty cool, but eighty bucks is a bit steep for an album, even one from Radiohead. Fortunately, Radiohead is as innovative in their business practices as they are in their music. Showing that the band “gets it” in the new millennial music world, a basic download version of In Rainbows will also be available on 10/10. But get this, there’s no set price for it; you can pay whatever you want. The checkout screen brings up an empty field where you put in how much you’re willing to give (in British Pounds and Pence) in exchange for ten new Radiohead songs. “It’s up to you,” the band says, “No really, it’s up to you.”

radiohead set your own price

An iTunes-like rate of $0.99 per song converts to £4.84 for the entire album and that seems quite fair. The only thing that’s not mentioned is the format and bitrate of the downloads. MP3, AAC, FLAC, other rights-managed or not? 128 kbps, 256 kbps? Radiohead, I’m sure, has come up with an equitable solution.

Also, at the end of the year though, I would love to see a chart of the range of prices people are wiling to pay. That would be fascinating look at the value consumers place on downloadable music.

For a preview, here’s a live version of track 5: All I Need, recorded in Chicago, June 2006:

Radiohead: All I Need- Chicago 6/20/06

Additional live previews were compiled by Rawkblog this past July. Download away.