Saul Williams

It was inevitable. With the likes of Radiohead doing “donationware”, DRM-free MP3 downloads, someone was bound to follow. (And, in fairness, Radiohead were by no means the first — this is something various artists have been talking about or doing for years. Updated: for some examples of other free albums through music history, see comments below. And as the trend grows, expect a lot more artist-to-listener downloads, or even small label-to-listener or small online store-to-listener, soon.)

The latest is Saul Williams, with the album “The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!” So, what has he got that Radiohead hasn’t got?

  • Trent Reznor producing.

  • PDF of liner notes (something missing from Radiohead)
  • Simpler options — either free or US$5, and none of this “pounds” or “pay what you want” nonsense. (Wow, you Brits still use that currency? Kidding. And yeah, I know our dollar is presently worthless.)
  • Higher-quality download options — 320kbps MP3 or lossless FLAC — for those paying the five bucks
  • Embeddable player for the Web
  • The backing of the label started by The Fader

And aside from the technological argument, I’ll be interested to hear what poet/musician has to say about race, particularly at this time in America; that’s promised to be a big emphasis of this album as the name implies.

Note that the PDF liner notes and lossless/higher-quality downloads were something people specifically said they wanted following the Radiohead release. Saul and Reznor both single out the Radiohead decision as inspiration, meaning you could see new developments from Reznor and Nine Inch Nails soon.

All of this is academic because I haven’t heard the album. But it’s interesting to watch artists try to out-cool each other on online distribution. I’m guessing we’ll eventually see a norm start to evolve. The other clear message: no one really cares about stopping piracy with crackdowns or DRM, because they’d rather build fan relationships and find the people who want to pay. (Imagine that.)

Niggy Tardust Pre-orders

  • Here's hoping trent is more opaque about his sales from this. I would be curious how a less popular artists does with this kind of promotion.

  • Right, exactly — and a less-known artist, with or without Trent's backing, doing a politically-charged album is less of a crowd pleaser. But at the same time, you'd hope you'd have a climate where things like that could be more successful.

  • jon

    various artists one-upping radiohead? i'm not surprised, those guys are really prolific!

    har har.

  • Seems like one-downing radiohead? I thought the best bit about what they did was giving you the choice of how much to pay, and doing it without a label. Higher quality downloads, cool. The rest is a bit irrelevant, I think.

  • To be fair this isn't really a new development at all – small and indie bands have been doing free albums for a long long time, and some reasonably popular/commercially successful acts have done so in the past too.

    Harvey Danger in particular released their 2005 album "Little by Little" completely free, and they'd had reasonable commercial success before.

    Nothing about this is a new idea, the only thing which makes the Radiohead move even worth mentioning is that they are one of the biggest bands on the planet, which, really, makes this less of a move for them – they don't need to work for money anymore. The hardest part for them would have been convincing management and stakeholders.

  • Glass

    Massive Attack released Mezzanine for free on 1997, before the physical album release date… of course, the Internet wasn't as big as it is today…

  • Also, Fifty Foot Wave decided to put their last EP up for free (in FLAC or MP3, with cover art) even though their CDs are normally put out by 4AD records.

  • James M

    I'm pretty sure Wilco released their most recent album, "Sky Blue Sky," on their website for free, as well as their third-most recent album, "Yankee Hotel Foxtrot," which was released at first without a label.

  • _object.session

    not that i think it really matters much who here is being innovative or whatnot, but it's worth pointing out that trent reznor was thinking about doing the same sort of thing with his work from before radiohead released their album. he made a post along the lines of "when i'm not under contract anymore, i'll just post up the whole album online right when it's done and ask people to pay me a few dollars through paypal."

    but innovation isn't really what matters here. i'm sure neither saul williams (with reznor) or radiohead were thinking, "let's do something really new. we'll release our album on the internet!" they did it for a functional (and possibly political) reason. and that *is* important.

  • _object.session

    also, here's the message that trent reznor sent out to the nine inch nails mailing list:


    As many of you know, I've been working closely with Saul Williams on his new record. We've spent many hours together in hotel rooms, busses, backstages and studios around the world working on something we knew was great. This is the most involved I've been with any project outside NIN since Antichrist Superstar, and I've been impatiently waiting for the chance for you to hear it. Well… guess what?

    The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust! has arrived! After my own recent dealings with record labels we decided to release it directly to you. Head over to for all the details. Register now and you can download the record November 1st. Working on this project was a real pleasure. Saul was interested in breaking boundaries / crossing genres / defying expectations and we learned a great deal from one another in the process. When asked about the sound of the record, I've had to resort to "… I really don't know HOW to describe it." That's a good thing more than ever these days.

    A word on the way we've chosen to release this. There are obvious similarities in how Radiohead just released their new record and the way we've chosen to. After thinking about this way too much, I feel we've improved upon their idea in a few profound ways that benefit you, the consumer. You obviously will be the judge of this in the end. One thing that IS very different in our situation is that Saul's not the household name (yet!) that Radiohead is, and that means we need your support on this more than ever. If you like what you hear, spread the word.

    I hope you enjoy the music,


  • Peter Kearney

    I would have preferred something in between this approach and the radiohead approach.. crappier copy for free and the high quality copy if you donate some green (in any amount).

    They really need to expand on the whole "package" concept with liner notes, multimedia or some other "extras" that have yet to be invented.. whatever they can come up with.

    Think of the millions the industry nuts have wasted with DRM and other cockamame schemes trying to recoup the millions they've already "lost". Pretty funny really.

    It's seems fairly logical to me.. give out a free decent quality copy for free and then hand out a nice little high quality package to the listeners that actually like the album, either for a small fee or for a donation. Done.

    Sales of musical recordings are not where the real money is made, so why do they have to make it so complicated?

  • By "one ups" I just meant to call attention to what seems to be happening, which is artists really aggressively pursuing these ideas and trying to get the details just how they want it.

    And yeah, this is an old idea — but an idea that appears to be gaining traction, which is big news. If you look beyond even the free thing, at the other elements here:

    * Trying to connect with fans and listeners directly, whether it's an artist, a smaller label, or even an online store with specific interests — instead of the catch-all iTunes / Universal Records / MTV Urge kinds of approaches.

    * Diversified online sales sources in general

    * Additional quality in the downloads (and in fact, that $5 does get you better quality), so there's perceived value in downloads and not just physical-media "upsells" as Radiohead did

    I think none of these is a new idea, but it could be an idea whose time has come.

    Really interested to hear some of these other examples from folks, as well as the disagreement about what people want.

    And, yeah, I'll also be listening to the album itself. 😉

  • An Australian hiphop act called Briztronix have been releasing their albums for free for a while, with the context of working closely with community radio and nation stations such as JJJ. Anyone can "give away" an album so the context of their approach is what is interesting. Jaymis mentioned Harvey Danger to me some years back and he donated via PayPal. I remember reflecting on that at the time and thinking how widespread such a relationship between band and consumer could be, or just how nice it is that people do feel like donating when they see the value in the art. The word "donating" could be changed to "supporting" to sound a little less cheap but the premise is the same.

    The only CD i have bought new in years (outside of local stuff) was Chemical Brothers new one. I buy online because i like all my data accessible and i dont like walls of CD's. I also DONT CARE about artwork or liner notes, thats what websites are for. Fancy cardboard digipacks? Dont care. Good quality music at a good price? Nice. Some feeling like im closer to the band itself? Bingo.

    That's why some of these "give away" albums are hugely successful and interesting, and some are just another band with free music, a la soundclick. Capturing that notion of making a stance and the semblance of the artist inviting you into their world as they make that stance… i think thats the key here. Third party agency initiated stunts will stand out apart from the credible artist making a statement.

    Which is to say to Britney Spears, dont bother. Please.

  • Jan

    If someone's interested in electronic music (incl. 8bit sounds), there is this little net-label from my hometown in switzerland, which releases all his productions as free mp3s and oggs.

  • Snark

    I'd also refer all y'all to The Crimea's second album, 'Secrets Of The Witching Hour' – the best album of 2007 by a MILE, and one that came from a band with a sizeable profile and a major label history. It's also entirely free via

  • my album's free if anybody wants it

  • yeah, 2nd Jan, netlabels people. This has been going on for awhile, and now some artists are realizing what bedroom types have known for a while, physical media is a crap way to move data around.

    Although most of the netlabels out there tend toward the emo'lectronic vibe, if you do some digging you can find all kinds of material.

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  • Justin: I like the way you phrase your "conditions". Downloading now. Mine's free too (click on my name) — it's an older thing that I've cleaned up a bit, so I'm not sure yet how to put out and market the new one when that's done. Everything's an experiment, I guess.

  • Justin: actually my computer failed to extract the zip file, using two different unarchiving applications. Figured you'd want to know about this. I'm using Mac 10.4.8, and tried with BOM Archive Helper and Stuffit expander.

  • thesimplicity

    I can't believe no one mentioned the Smashing Pumpkins! Back before they reformed as a terrible top 40s arena rock band, they released a great final album that blows their radio-friendly crap out of the water. It's like a whinier version of Loveless.

  • Luke

    Though I think I mentioned it last time this came up, they can always use the plug.

    Here are a half a dozen awesome bands doing this.

  • Keith: thanks for the heads up, it seems to be working for everybody else, but I posted a different link to download the files (without being .zipped) for those who might have trouble.

  • micro


    The zip file from your website didnt work for me either. You might want to investigate. Most people directed to your site I imagine will give up after waiting the 7 minutes for that zip file to download, and then it doesnt work.

  • mallyone

    "And yeah, I know our dollar is presently worthless"

    What do you mean? It's worth the same as our Canadian dollar, you think those are worthless!?!? 😉

  • They got my 5 bucks.

    People have been talking and talking about this shit for years and now it is finally happening. Given that my favorite artist is the producer on this album, I jumped at the chance to support this.

    I'd like to find out exactly how much Radiohead get per retail CD, and give them 50p above that.

  • I would personally enjoy it if people plugging their "free" albums shed a little light on their thoughts on the matter, why they are choosing to give it away and what experiences they might have had with traditional label distribution.

  • Dave: I haven't had any traditional distribution, so I have nothing for the second half of your question. As for the "why"… well, exposure, and for people to have more to go on than just a couple of songs. An alternative to airplay. And the fact that I generally segue tracks with a wide range of "feels" into a continuous piece that I think is more engaging than any one track would be by itself, so I want people to have the opportunity to see if that enhances their experience like it does for me, without coughing up $$ and then resenting me for not playing their favorite style of music.

    In a way, attention spans are like real estate now. But I'm shooting for finding an audience that has one, because a more fickle crowd wouldn't do me any good in the long run.

  • Peter Kearney

    I don't think you can compare this to netlabel giving away music for free as they are still trying to make a living from the music. They're just relying more on the goodwill of the people to make that happen than they did before.

    The whole netlabels thing has been going on for more than "a little while".. I was listening to netlabels in 1998.. they were probably invented about 20 seconds after the invention of the mp3 in 1994 or whatever it was.

  • wak

    Something pretty close to the whole netlabel thing started probably before MP3 went public already, with the music groups on the demo scene who started releasing modules (mod / s3m / xm / etc) from artists on the scene.

    I guess traditionally most of the groups released all sorts of stuff from demos and intros to music and computer gfx, but at some point music only groups like Mono (nowadays Mono211 / Monotonik the net label), KFMF, Phase Distortion, Radical Rhytms, Tokyo Dawn Records (still active as a net label), etc. started emerging. The modules circulated first by dialup BBS systems, mail swapping and whatnot, and moved to net.

    Having been somewhat active on the scene, releasing on a few music groups and net labels, running one at some point and doing websites for a few more, I'd wager that those scene music groups were actually where the whole net label thing started.

  • GaryG

    Has anyone mentioned Jane Siberry/Issa in all this?

    She's had the pay-what-feels-good-to-you model in place for a while now (couple of years?).

    No disrespect to Radiohead (i doubt they see what they're doing as iconoclastic) but they're certainly not the first major label act to go this route.


  • Thomas

    Don't know if it's been mentioned yet, but in related news:

    "What do you think about OiNK being shut down?

    Trent: I'll admit I had an account there and frequented it quite often. At the end of the day, what made OiNK a great place was that it was like the world's greatest record store. Pretty much anything you could ever imagine, it was there, and it was there in the format you wanted. If OiNK cost anything, I would certainly have paid, but there isn't the equivalent of that in the retail space right now. iTunes kind of feels like Sam Goody to me. I don't feel cool when I go there. I'm tired of seeing John Mayer's face pop up. I feel like I'm being hustled when I visit there, and I don't think their product is that great. DRM, low bit rate, etc. Amazon has potential, but none of them get around the issue of pre-release leaks. And that's what's such a difficult puzzle at the moment. If your favorite band in the world has a leaked record out, do you listen to it or do you not listen to it? People on those boards, they're grateful for the person that uploaded it — they're the hero. They're not stealing it because they're going to make money off of it; they're stealing it because they love the band. I'm not saying that I think OiNK is morally correct, but I do know that it existed because it filled a void of what people want."

    Also, the rest of it is quite the interesting read.

  • Mark

    Since there are a number of links to free music here, I figured I'd chime in.

    Back in the 90's I was downloading (painfully slowly) electronic music from Kosmic Music Foundation, a group of artists who offered up their music for free download. This was a little before sites like came along. If you were into electronica, this was the site. They have an archive up, although there hasn't been any new music in a few years.

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