NEW YORK (Billboard) - Trent Reznor could have just given a few interviews to explain Nine Inch Nails' new album, "Year Zero." But instead, he's using a multifaceted Internet scavenger hunt, and in some cases, his own rabid fans, to help gradually build the story of the project.
Dystopian, apocalyptic themes are pervasive on the album, due in stores April 17, echoing topics the group has explored since 1989's classic "Pretty Hate Machine."
Neither Reznor, his management nor representatives at his Interscope label would speak to Billboard about the campaign, which has encompassed everything from cryptic phrases on T-shirts to Orwellian Web sites to MP3s found on USB drives in bathrooms at NIN concerts. But a source with knowledge of the project says Reznor may very well perceive it all not as a marketing campaign, but as "a new entertainment form."
Indeed, the source says the campaign forms the body of the "Year Zero" experience: "It is the CD booklet come to life. It precedes the concept album and the tour. And it will continue for the next 18 months, with peaks and valleys."
The source continues, "No one has assembled the full story yet. The new media is creating the story as it goes."
"Year Zero" came to life in early February when Web-savvy fans discovered that highlighted letters inside words on a NIN tour T-shirt spelled out "I am trying to believe." Savvy fans added a ".com" to the five words and, voila, located a thought-provoking, eerie Web site. Other associated sites created by 42 Entertainment were soon discovered, including www.bethehammer.net, here and www.churchofplano.com, where a dark future reigns supreme.
For instance, errant clicks on sites like anotherversionofthetruth.com result in interception by the Bureau of Morality, which will then e-mail warnings that the user is "A CONSUMER OF DISSIDENT MATERIAL . . . Any further attempts to view, consume, or distribute un-american (sic) content will result in the loss of citizenship increments and/or the imposition of fines, penalties, or imprisonment. You have choices. Make the RIGHT ones."
For further instructions on making good choices, the creepy note instructs the e-mail recipient to visit www.thepriceoftreason.net. And another mind game begins anew, with its own set of rabbit holes.
Within days of discovery of the sites, the blogosphere was rich with anxious NIN fans sharing their experiences on message boards.
According to one post, a male fan, allegedly by happenstance, found a USB drive in a bathroom stall during a NIN concert at the Coliseum in Lisbon, Portugal. This flash drive (yes, Reznor's idea) contained an MP3 of album track "My Violent Heart." Additional USB drives were purportedly found in Barcelona and Manchester, England; they included MP3s of album tracks "Me, I'm Not" and "In This Twilight," respectively.
Excited fans then began swapping and sharing these music files online. Another Web posting alleged that all this activity resulted in entertainment blog Idolator and other sites receiving e-mail from the Recording Industry Assn. of America (RIAA), demanding that they remove the MP3s from their sites. A representative for the RIAA, the lobby group for the major U.S. labels, confirms this seemingly mind-boggling move.
Meanwhile, another tour T-shirt contained a highlighted Cleveland-area phone number that, when dialed, played a snippet of lead single "Survivalism." The song currently ranks at No. 2 on the airplay-based Modern Rock chart.
By late February, a "Year Zero" trailer was made available at www.yearzero.nin.com. Near the trailer's end, an extended arm, known by fans as "the Presence," appears. The Presence is a recurring theme throughout the campaign and is featured on the album's cover.
Ironically, with its numerous pirated downloads available, the whole album has not leaked yet. According to a source, the only leaks are the ones Reznor approved himself.
With his unveiling of "Year Zero," Reznor may, whether he realizes it or not, be building a new option for presenting music that augments the existing CD/tour scenario.
"It's not about slapping something on top of an existing experience," the source says. "It must be its own entity. Make the experience as immersive as possible for fans."