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First Nine Inch Nails bids adieu to music label

Trent Reznor announces his band is "free of any recording contract." Can music groups use the Web to replace record execs?

Less than a month after publicly calling executives at his music label unprintable names, rocker Trent Reznor has signaled that his days of working for a record company are over.

The only official member of the band Nine Inch Nails, Reznor announced Monday that the group is now "free of any recording contract with any label." Representatives from Reznor's music label, Universal Music Group, were unavailable for comment.

Reznor provided few details in a note on the band's Web site about how the group plans to proceed, but his announcement raised hopes among fans that he will follow the lead of British band Radiohead, which last week announced it would handle sales and distribution for its upcoming album, In Rainbows without the backing of a label.

Two well-known bands taking to the Internet to sell their own albums is not yet a trend, but it certainly must be a cause for concern in the halls of the four major music companies. The question raised by the defections is whether well-established performers need big music conglomerates in the digital age.

It costs relatively little to distribute songs over the Web. So why can't bands do it themselves from their own Web sites?

Groups like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails already have established followings. So promoting their music may require little more than posting an announcement online. (That is all Radiohead did to trigger enormous demand for In Rainbows.)

Who needs middlemen?

Still, the groups are breaking new ground and nobody knows whether they can pull it off. Radiohead is offering digital downloads for the upcoming album, which goes on sale Wednesday, and fans are requested to pay whatever they want for the music. Is this a smart business move? Time will tell, but a more important question may be whether musicians are willing to become merchants.

One thing is for sure: the numbers of performers dissatisfied with the current music-industry business model is not abating.

Bands like Cheap Trick and the Allman Brothers have sued their record company, Sony BMG, because they say they aren't getting their fair share of money from digital downloads. Eminem's music publishing company has sued Apple because it wants to cut its own publishing deals with the online store, and not be represented by a record label during negotiations.

At a performance in Australia last month, Reznor expressed frustration with the high prices that labels charge for CDs.

"Steal it," Reznor told the audience. "Steal away. Steal and steal, and steal some more and give it to all your friends."

We'll see if Reznor continues to feel the same when the buck (hopefully there'll be more than one) stops with him.

Below is a clip from last month's performance in Australia. It contains profanity. Consider yourself warned.