Trent Reznor on His Work with Apple and Beats: “It Felt at Odds with the Artist in Me.”
Trent Reznor has always been known as an innovative guy. His innate curiosity and enthusiasm for technology have allowed him to pursue a range of different opportunities in audio and music making. The latest project, Reznor and Atticus Ross’ soundtrack to Jonah Hill’s directorial debut, Mid90s, made its way to theaters last week and can be streamed at the end of this article.
While Reznor’s creative catalogue is quickly approaching the length of a CVS receipt, he’s also been involved in some less artistic ventures. He served as the Chief Creative Officer for Beats Music (now owned by Apple) for several years, but ultimately decided it wasn’t for him. In an interview with Stereogum, he talks about the transitional period in the company during the Apple takeover, and how his time on the business side has played into his career as an artist:
“…I have a mixed set of feelings about the whole thing. From my own perspective, I got obsessed with trying to crack that code. Being stuck on a record label, watching fans get pissed off — watching myself get pissed off at fans and wondering why am I pissed off? ‘Cause they’re listening to my fuckin’ album! A week before a plastic disc shows up in the store that no one wants to buy! They’re not bootlegging t-shirts or something they’re listening to shit I did and they’re excited about it and I’m doing it too to other bands that I am excited about and I thought, ‘This is broken. The whole idea is broken and there’s got to be a better way.’
“Apple had been one of those companies that I really looked forward to what they were going to present. It’s like Willy Wonka. I thought Steve Jobs was a genius and he brought things to the world that I think made significant changes and I looked forward to what was ahead. Steve wasn’t there anymore but this was an opportunity that if I didn’t do it, would I feel like I would’ve wondered what would have happened if I did do it.
“We were in-between record cycles and after much soul-searching I just thought, ‘I’ll jump into this and see what I can do.’ And it was an eye-opening, incredible amount of work to be dropped into the world of engineers who didn’t want you there. You know, the boss dropped you down in there and everyone’s like, ‘What the fuck is this guy doing here?’ It was an incredibly political situation that was defeating and tiring to have to deal with and most of the work seemed to be on that side than it was doing the actual work.
“I would like my sons to be able to think, ‘Hey maybe there’s a career I could have as an artist and I don’t have to do that on the side while I do something else.’ That there’s a possible chance of a livelihood being made. I think after two real years of doing that full-time and another two years of doing it part-time some inroads were made that mattered — I think my awareness that most of that job comes down to product design and marketing and thinking about what the consumer wants felt at odds with the artist in me.
“I’d find myself speaking the language of the marketing guy because I’d been in a room with 40 people that were talking about brand identities and shit like that. I felt like, guilty that I wasn’t being an artist and a part of that’s my own madness but it made me realize I’m not that interested in that. I’ve seen it, I’ve been under the hood, I’ve sat at the table with these guys, I got to know them, I’m in awe of what they do. It’s not what I think I was put on Earth to do. And I know that now.
“There was a part of me that always thought, ‘What if I would’ve gone the computer engineering route? Would I be happier?’ I don’t know. The grass is greener on the other side. I had a chance to kind of deep-dive into working at a corporation. Seeing the nuts and bolts of how that works, there’s a lot of fascinating shit in there that I never would’ve seen or experienced and I’m appreciative of the opportunity but it also made me cherish what I’ve made on the other side, as an artist.
“This is what’s good about having Atticus around. Sometimes, in his dry sense of humor he can cut right to the heart of the matter. Like one time, we were talking about something and he goes, ‘You know what I want in life?’ ‘What’s that Atticus?’ ‘Just not to feel bad.’ I thought, ‘Yeah, me too! I don’t want to feel bad.’ That’s the core of it. Everything just kind of stems from not feeling bad; physically but also spiritually and emotionally.”
I, too, am discouraged by the brokenness of the music industry and would like to not feel bad. Can I join Nine Inch Nails?
On a serious note, there wouldn’t really be a music industry without the industry part. It would be impossible (or at least, a lot harder) for creative types to make it “happen” without the amazing people handling marketing, promotions, and all that fun stuff. They each require a different mindset: “What do I want to create?” vs. “What do other people want to hear?” But the looming question that both sides face is “How do we get people to care?” I think that’s where passion really comes into play — it’s hard to get other people to give a shit about what you’re doing if you don’t really care yourself.
So go forth! Be free! Pursue all the things, and eventually, you’ll learn what works for you. Then pursue those things harder.