In 2006, to accompany his upcoming Nine Inch Nails album, “Year Zero,” singer and multi-instrumentalist Trent Reznor enlisted the aid of 42 Entertainment to expand his concept of a dystopian future beyond the album. What resulted was an alternative reality game, or ARG, which lasted several months in early 2007. The ARG was comprised of 30 unique Web sites, USB drives left in bathrooms across Europe and an underground “Art Is Resistance” movement, which culminated in a secret concert that was raided by a SWAT team.
Year Zero, while definitely an interesting case study, is equally frustrating. While the techniques used in the project are common of viral marketing, the creative team behind the project did not think of it as a marketing campaign at all. In an article in Wired magazine, Reznor made one thing, “perfectly clear: ‘It's not fucking marketing. I'm not trying to sell anything’.” [Edited something out]
Regardless of the intent behind the project, Year Zero presents itself as an interesting solution to some of the issues facing the music industry. The use of ARGs, pioneered by 42 Entertainment, may very well be a popular technique in the near future to accompany the launches of anything from movies to video games to music. If nothing else, Year Zero is a clear indication that fans of music and other entertainment media are looking for something more than traditional marketing.
42 Entertainment was founded in 2002 by Jordan Weisman, and has been growing and building its reputation as an innovator ever since. 42 Entertainment’s mission, according to their Web site, is to produce the world’s most innovative and immersive entertainment to their distribution partners. 42 Entertainment is an independent producer that develops ground-breaking entertainment experiences for their distribution partners. They also call themselves “the storytellers who pioneer new forms of cross-platform narratives and build powerful online communities, to create highly participatory experiences for our audience.”
42 Entertainment was the first company to produce alternate reality games (ARG), a new genre that only dates back to 2001. ARGs offer an immersive experience to sophisticated users who seek a higher level of engagement from a game, both online and offline. ARGs produced by 42 Entertainment have been used as part of the marketing campaigns for movies such as "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and video games for the Xbox 360 gaming console such as Halo 2. The company’s latest effort was created to promote Warner Bros.' 2008 film "The Dark Knight." ARGs are not typical video games and are more like online scavenger hunts. They utilize Web sites, telephones and other forms of media to offer clues to users to solve a puzzle. ARGs also provide hints at information about the upcoming product. ARGs are excellent ways to promote products, but there is a setback: cost. ARGs are expensive to stage, which is why they've been associated with major corporations. ARGs can cost anywhere from $1 million to $3 million. Web sites such as Gamasutra.com say that although the ARGs are expensive, they are defiantly worth the money.
Another example of an expensive but effective ARG is the Vista OS campaign. In 2007 a global puzzle game, by 42 Entertainment, was created to celebrate the launch of Windows Vista OS. The winner of the game was awarded a trip to outer space. More than 100,000 people registered and tried to solve the online puzzles that gave clues to staged events around the world. Finally, 42 Entertainment’s "Cathy's Book" from 2006 was the first ARG packaged as a multimedia book experience. It used web sites, real phone numbers, and physical clues in the context of a "diary" written by a teenage girl to solve a murder mystery. The book wound up on the New York Times' Children's Bestseller List. ARGs and viral marketing campaigns have been effective with devoted fans willing to invest their time, and who will spread the word across their online and real world communities.
Viral Marketing is one of the marketing strategies introduced in 1996 by a professor in Harvard Business School named Jeffrey Rayport. Viral marketing mainly focuses on spreading the information through social networks by the users creating a great exposure to the message. Like a virus, the message will rapidly be passed among the public by passing the information to others. According to the six principles of Viral Marketing, the marketing begins when the company gives away their product or services for free. This will allow the public to obtain the product effortlessly and increase the number of people consuming the product or service. At the same time, it exploits the motivation and behavior of the public. As the result it becomes a dynamic promotion to introduce the new products to the public. Recently, companies in the music industry have been attempting to apply this marketing strategy to promote the sales of their CDs.
The Music Industry:
The music industry in the 21st century has been encountering a severe problem with online piracy and file-sharing. The increasing rate of file-sharing has been blamed in part for the decline of CD sales and tumbling the music industry’s revenue. The Australian Recording Industry Association found that CD sales in Australia were also down 12.23 percent in 2007. This decline of sales was mainly caused from the rapid transition of recorded CD to digital music file. According to Business Day.com, approximately 2,680 record stores closed in the US by the end of 2005. Furthermore, large record companies have laid-off thousands of employees. For example, to cope with the failing market and falling record sales, EMI Records, laid-off more than 1,500 employees through 2008. While CD retailers and music stores have declined, sellers of online and digital music have become more dominant. By 2009, online music stores, such as iTunes and Amazon.com, owned 29.1 percent of sales of music market.
In order to counterattack this crisis of illegal downloading and music piracy, the music industry attempted to add an access control technology called Digital Rights Management (DRM). DRM limited the consumers to copy their music file to transfer to other media devices. For example, Apple’s iTunes has applied DRM to every music and movie file they sold at their Web site. This prohibits the users from creating back-ups for the DVD’s and music downloaded from the music store.
Nine Inch Nails:
Nine Inch Nails is a band that is largely the work of front-man Trent Reznor. Reznor began writing and recording music under the name Nine Inch Nails in 1988. His first full-length album, “Pretty Hate Machine,” was released in 1989. After the release of the first album, Reznor put together a touring band, and began touring aside popular alternative rock bands and collecting a growing fan base. Nine Inch Nails was also featured in the first Lollapalooza tour in 1991. By the time 2007’s “Year Zero” was scheduled to hit, Nine Inch Nails had become incredibly popular. According to All Music Guide, “Nine Inch Nails were the most popular industrial group ever and were largely responsible for bringing the music to a mass audience." The style pushed by Reznor and Nine Inch Nails had become so influential that in addition to spawning acts like Marylin Manson and Filter, even renowned artists like Guns N’ Roses’ Axl Rose had fired his band and attempted to emulate the industrial rock sound in 1999.
The album “Year Zero” would be Nine Inch Nails’ fifth studio production. As opposed to the five-year gaps that were privy to the previous four albums, “Year Zero” would be released just two years after the chart-topping (No. 1 on The Billboard Top 200 in 2005 and 2005; No. 1 on Top Internet Albums and No. 2 on Top Canadian Albums in 2005) “With Teeth” (2005). The album would also represent the end of Reznor’s contractual obligation to Universal Music Group. Reznor’s anger with his record label resulted in his criticizing the label shortly after the release of “Year Zero,” writing: “As the climate grows more and more desperate for record labels, their answer to their mostly self-inflicted wounds seems to be to screw the consumer over even more.” Reznor continued to state that a label representative responded to his inquiries about the higher prices for “Year Zero” over-seas with: “'It's because we know you have a real core audience that will pay whatever it costs when you put something out - you know, true fans. It's the pop stuff we have to discount to get people to buy.' So... I guess as a reward for being a 'true fan' you get ripped off."
Reznor has also spoken out against the compact disc format and Digital Rights Management-protected music. In an article in The Guardian, Reznor said, “"The medium of the CD is outdated and irrelevant. It's really painfully obvious what people want - DRM-free music they can do what they want with. If the greedy record industry would embrace that concept I truly think people would pay for music and consume more of it.” Reznor’s disdain for the record industry’s strategy of right-protected music and a CD format served as a reason and justification for the intentional leaking of editable songs on USB flash drives. Reznor said, “As to what I'm looking to gain from doing this, I'm not really sure. . . it just seemed like something I'd want as a fan."
Timeline of Events:
The Year Zero project involved 30 Web sites, strategically placed USB drives, hidden messages and a movement of itself. The following is a timeline of the events that occured (some were left out, as they were not quite as important):
February 12, 2007
Fans deciphered a t-shirt where certain letters were highlighted. These letters spelled out “I am trying to believe” which led to a Web site http://www.iamtryingtobelieve.com/. Other Web sites were found by tracking similar Internet Protocol (IP) addresses and referencing the album’s track list. These Web sites included: http://www.anotherversionofthetruth.com/, http://www.bethehammer.net/, http://www.105thairbornecrusaders.com/ and http://www.churchofplano.com/.
February 14, 2007
A USB flash drive containing an mp3 of “My Violent Heart” was found in a bathroom at a concert in Portugal. By reading the file through a spectrograph, the static at the end of the song actually showed the picture of a hand reaching down from the sky, which would be known as “The Presence.”
February 19, 2007
A second USB flash drive containing the song “Me I’m Not” and a second mp3 of static was found in a bathroom at a concert in Spain. When the static track was put through a spectrograph, it spelled out the phone number 1-216-333-1810.
February 22, 2007
Fliers leading to the Web site http://www.artisresistance.com/ are handed out at a concert in France.
February 25, 2007
A third USB flash drive containing the song “In This Twilight” and a second file with an image of a Hollywood sign was found in a bathroom at a concert in England. The image of the Hollywood sign would lead to http://www.hollywoodinmemoriam.com/.
March 7, 2007
A USB drive containing the video to Year Zero’s first single, “Survivalism,” was distributed at a concert in England. The video led to discovery of the Web sites: http://www.thewaterturnedtoblood.net/, http://www.judsonogram.net/ and http://www.cedocore.com/.
March 11, 2007
Fliers with directions to a billboard under a bridge were handed out at a concert in England. The billboard led to discovery of http://www.operationswamp0000.net/ and http://www.operationchipsweep.net/.
Lithographs were handed out at a party to people who had pre-ordered the album, leading to discovery of http://www.themailstrom.com/.
E-mails sent out to fans, leading to discovery of http://www.thepriceoftreason.net/.
April 13, 2007
There is an “Art Is Resistance” meeting in Los Angeles. Kits containing cell phones, bandannas, buttons and other things are handed out to those attending.
April 13-25, 2007
Year Zero is released in Europe (13), Australia (14), the UK (16), the United States (17) and Japan (25).
April 18, 2007
Fans are invited to a free concert in Los Angeles via the free cell phones from the “Art Is Resistance” kits. The concert is raided by a fake SWAT team, and the events are videotaped.
April 27, 2007
Fans who received free cell phones from the Art Is Resistance kits receive a phone call which leads to http://www.hourofarrival.net/.
May, 2007 – Present
Trent Reznor had intended the Year Zero project to last for at least two albums. Although there was a remix album released later in 2007, “Y34RZ3R0R3M1X3D,” the campaign went “cold” at the end of April with the discovery of the 30th and final Web site. According to an interview in Wired, which represented the end of media silence about the Year Zero project from 42 Entertainment, “’I don't know if the audience was ready for it to end," says Susan Bonds, the president of 42 Entertainment. ‘But we always expected to pick it up again.’ Reznor, after all, had conceived Year Zero as a two-part album. ‘Those phones are still out there," she adds. "The minutes have expired. But we could buy new minutes at any point.’”
We have evaluated the adequacy of Nine Inch Nail and 42 Entertainment’s background information on the current plunge of music industry by researching the tactics that they used. Trent Reznor intentionally leaked his new songs by leaving the USB flash drives in the bathrooms during the tour in Europe. He did this intentionally because of his dislike of the DRM policy that restricts fans from having the level of freedom with music that he felt they desired. Additionally, 42 Entertainments utilization of a broad spectrum of media, including Web sites, phone messages, automated e-mails and word-of-mouth shows an understanding of the development of viral marketing.
Number of messages sent to media and activities designed:
We did not find a single press release about the Year Zero campaign. However, 42 Entertainment created 30 Web sites that fans would be led to if clues were properly followed. There were 3 active phone numbers that the fans could call to lead them to other clues. There were also an undisclosed number of t-shirts, flyers, and flash drives that were used during the campaign that acted as hidden clues and messages.
Number of messages placed and activities implemented:
The results in LexisNexis after searching for “Year Zero” were:
Newspapers – 791
Magazines & Journals – 107
Industry Trade Press – 94
The results in LexisNexis after searching for “Nine Inch Nails Year Zero” were:
Newspapers – 161
Magazines & Journals – 46
Industry Trade Press – 48
The newspapers that covered the Year Zero campaign were from all over the world. Publications from Australia to Korea and back wanted to know the news and updates about this innovative campaign. Several major newspaper publications in the United States, including The New York Times, USA Today and the Los Angeles Times picked up the story. However, the magazines, journals and Industry Trade Press that covered this campaign were mainly music-based publications, such as Rolling Stone and Wired.
Number who received/attended messages and activities:
The number of people who received/attended these messages is uncertain. There were an estimated 3.5 million people a part the “Resistance Movement” and countless fans involved with figuring out hidden clues, messages, and puzzles.
The campaign made a huge impact among the loyal fan of Nine Inch Nails and also to general fans of music. The album, “Year Zero” ranked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and peaked in the top-10 in six other countries. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Trent Reznor encouraged his fans to steal more of their music, and may have indicated an attack on his record label, Universal Music Group, during a concert in Australia in 2007. According to 42 Entertainment’s Year Zero Case Study Web site, approximately 3.5 million people were involved with the Art of Resistance Web site and movement. The Year Zero campaign became a social phenomenon suggesting that the use of viral marketing and other innovative tactics is necessary to save the music industry from their plunge of business.
Huey, Steve. “Biography – Nine Inch Nails.” All Music Guide. <http://allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&searchlink=NINEINCHNAILS&sql=11:gifexqr5ld6e~T1>.
Accredited to: Los Angeles staff. “Nine Inch Nails frontman blasts record label.” New Musical Express. May 15, 2007. Accessed with Lexis/Nexis Academic.
Wilson, Ralph F. “The Six Principles of Viral Marketing.” Web Marketing Today, February 1, 2005. Originally published 2/1/2000. <http://www.wilsonweb.com/wmt5/viral-principles.htm>.
Mackintosh, Henry. “Stars compose new ways to use music.” The Guardian, March 29, 2007. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2007/mar/29/pop.guardianweeklytechnologysection>. Accessed originally with Lexis/Nexis Academic.
Murfett, Andrew. “Music industry ponders its future as CDs lose their shine.” BusinessDay, March 16, 2009. <http://business.theage.com.au/business/music-industry-ponders-its-future-as-cds-lose-their-shine-20090315-8yzt.html>.
“Digital Rights Management: Digital Rights Management and Copy Protection Schemes.” Electronic Frontier Foundation. <http://www.eff.org/issues/drm>.