Unlike Trent Reznor, Saul Williams isn't disheartened

Musician, filmmaker and spoken-word artist is grateful to give-away promotion for raising his profile and says its too early to draw conclusions.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
9 min read

Saul Williams chuckles when asked about the word "disheartening."

That's the word Trent Reznor chose to describe the sales generated by William's new album, The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust, which the two men collaborated on.
Cover art for Saul Williams' new album Saul Willaims

The public has the choice of obtaining the digital release for free or pay $5 for a higher quality download. Reznor, the artist behind the band Nine Inch Nails, ignited wide debate about the effectiveness of Radiohead-esque giveaways and the value of music when he revealed last week that 80 percent of those who downloaded the album were unwilling to pay.

Reznor said in an interview with CNET News.com on Thursday that while he was generally pleased with the response, he also expected a larger number of people would dig into their wallets to support good music.

Williams, in contrast, says he's isn't bothered by the numbers. He suggested that Reznor tends to worry too much and jokingly referred to him as the 'king of emo.' Williams said he is taking a longer view. He says it's too early in the album's economic lifespan--or in the search for new music business models--to call the promotion a bust.

In an interview on Wednesday with News.com, Williams revealed he is grateful for the opportunity to promote his music using groundbreaking techniques and also to technology for setting him free from the "constraints of race."

What do you think about what Trent said...and are the numbers accurate?
Williams: They were for that day and the thing is the numbers change every day. But yeah, they're accurate.

"Technology is here to free us from the grip of history. That's why I'm thankful to the Internet. That's why I'm thankful to this form of (music) release because in many ways it set me free."
--Saul Williams, musician

The public jumped on Trent's use of the word "disheartening." What do you make of it?
Williams: I'm actually extremely optimistic. The only thing that I really have kept in mind is that, one, we're two months into a project. An album is not like a film, so that like, 'Oh, we did it, two months and it's done, now it's going straight to DVD.' The marketing campaign starts this month with the premiere of our video of Sunday Bloody Sunday on MySpace, MTV and all the major networks.

The marketing campaign that we started begins this month as well. We start touring in March starting with South By Southwest and then move across the country and then on to Europe. So the album has gotten a great deal of writes up and had a huge response from people immediately. But that was all from just releasing the album. That was with, like Trent said, with no marketing, no press, nothing spawned from us. It was all people like yourself saying, 'Can I talk to you about this?' But we hadn't paid a publicist as of yet.

I think it's early in the game. I'm not disappointed at all. I think Trent's disappointment probably stems from being in the music business for over 20 years and remembering a time that was very different, when sales reflected something different, when there was no such thing as downloads. Trent is from another school. Even acts that prospered in the '90s, you look at people like the Fugees or Lauren Hill selling 18 million copies. That sort of thing is unheard of today. But Trent comes from that world. So I think his disappointed stems from being heavily invested in the past. For modern times, for modern numbers we're looking great, especially for being just two months into a project.

Experts have told me that the economic lifespan of an album can last as long as two years.
Williams: Exactly, the lifespan from my last album, from touring, which is really how I made my income and everything, lasted for two years. I didn't start touring with that album with Trent until 2005. It came out in 2004.

Wasn't the online promotion of NiggyTardust an experiment? You guys originally were just testing the waters?

Williams: It was certainly an experiment, but you know, life is an experiment. I know that the life of this album has a lot to do with how it feels and looks and how it comes off on stage. That's what this album was for: to set the stage for me to perform in the way I like to perform and maybe get more people at a show than I normally would.

"You're dealing with myself, an artist not everyone has heard of and not everyone is going to necessarily try if they have to pay for it. Giving them the opportunity to get it for free from us I think was a really positive and intelligent choice"
--Saul Williams

That was your goal. You mentioned that the last time we talked.
Williams: Exactly, so, it is an experiment and I think it was an experiment going great. Imagine a couple trying to have a baby and two months into it the husband goes to the press and media says: 'My wife can't have children!' (He laughs). You should give it a year. I mean you're trying to have a baby.

Are you guys friends?
Williams: Trent and I? Yeah.

How did you meet?
Williams: We met on the road, when he asked me to tour with him. From there our bonding was immediate. We immediately clicked over dozens of things, which led us...maybe the first day, the first or second day we met, was when he asked me if I wanted to do an album with him.

So he liked your stuff?
Williams: I would be on stage and look to the side of the stage and see him in the corners of the wings dancing and I'd say, 'Oh s**t, he's really listening.' Every night, it never failed.

Do you think some of his disappointment might be because he really wants to see you do well?
Williams: Okay, don't get me wrong. I don't think Trent is as truly disappointed as he sounds in that blog. You got to think of him this way...listen to his music (he laughs). In my opinion, oh, he might not like this, but I think he's the king of emo.

Of course he's going to voice his disappointment. And with all that being said, we've talked a great deal since the blog, and all he said is that, 'I wish we had better numbers.' But really his whole purpose of releasing that statement was that we could avoid some of the pretentiousness of some of the other groups that have perhaps done something similar, like Radiohead keeping numbers to themselves and us wanting to say, 'Hey, look this is an open experiment that all artists should know.' I think that this information is essential for all artists trying to do what we're doing and figuring out whether this is something that will work.

All that really was about was to say, 'Look, yeah it is disappointing because the imagination is amazing.' We could imagine 4 million downloads all paid. Any of that is imaginable. And there is a great deal possible because like I said we're two months into this thing. The video, like oh my God. The amount of work that I just put into this video "Sunday Bloody Sunday" is more than I ever put into a f***ing film. It is so intense.

"And that's what leaves me not feeling disappointed because we all know that artists earn the most from touring. So it doesn't work against me giving it away."
--Saul Williams,

What did you learn about how the technology helped or hurt you?
Williams: Tech wise, I think people were really pleased with the different bit rates that we offered. You can see for yourself the number of people that chose FLAC and all that. We've heard rave reviews from people about getting what they got for the cheap price that we offered. To me the coolest thing with the downloads is the lyrics. I don't think most people realize that if you do download the album and put it in your iTunes and on your iPod, if you keep clicking that center button of your iPod while the album is playing, you'll eventually see the lyrics. You can read the lyrics for every song while you're listening. Little stuff like that made it really exciting for me.

What would you change about the promotion?
Williams: I don't really see what we've done in past tense yet. It's really been a short time. And I'm really pleased with where we are. As a poet who releases books, I'm really familiar with how things spread by word of mouth.

The lifespan of an album can be as long as two years or more. You look at something like The Beastie Boys' first album, which sells a million copies every year. It's nothing like a movie, so I think we're doing great. We're off to a running start. We still have a physical release date to look forward to. We still have touring to look forward to. We still have marketing and promotion that all starts this year, so I don't regret anything. Not yet.

Do you still believe in these online giveaways? Will you do this again?
Williams: I don't know. I think the online giveaway for our project was perfect. Cause you're dealing with myself, an artist not everyone has heard of and not everyone is going to necessarily try if they have to pay for it. Giving them the opportunity to get it for free from us I think was a really positive and intelligent choice on our part. Would I do it again? I have no idea.

What about the costs that Trent talked about? Tell me about the 'sample clearance fees' you guys had to pay?
Williams: Yeah, I used a major sample from (the rap group) Public Enemy for the song 'Trigger.' A sample can cost you about $10,000 or more.

He also mentions the bandwidth costs. Were those expensive?
Williams: I would say they are not. We had a special deal with Musicane (a company that helps performers distribute music online and oversaw the Web site, credit-card transactions as well as other back-end chores for Williams). They can add up, but the reason we went with Musicane is that they had the best bandwidth costs. In fact, we didn't have to pay for bandwidth. That was our deal.

Trent talked about how happy he is that your music is in more iPods than ever before.
Williams: To me that's the real deal. That's how I see it. And that's what leaves me not feeling disappointed because we all know that artists earn the most from touring. So it doesn't work against me giving it away free to so many listeners. The more people that are into it, the more people that say 'I got to see this live.'

Trent also said you guys couldn't find any traditional record deals that appealed to you.
Williams: Everybody seemed to be interested, but in my opinion nobody seemed to be a visionary. If you look around you, you don't see a lot of black alternative acts out there.

It's not because black alternative acts don't exist. It's because there's this belief in the marketplace that, 'Oh, who are they going to sell to? People in the hood won't like them and so-and-so won't like them' and there's big confusion about who we appeal to.

For an artist like myself, the sort of attention that I'm getting, and who is not sticking to my guns--all puns intended--I think it says a lot.

Can that be a tough sell?
Williams: I had people at Sony take me into the office and tell me, 'But that's not hip-hop. Your album isn't hip-hop.' To me that's what this is really about. By releasing it online and not dealing with the labels, it gave me an opportunity for once as an artist that I didn't have to compromise in the face of people who have limited ideas and conceptions about what it is to be black and make music.

And to me that's the role of technology. Technology is here to free us from the grip of history. That's why I'm thankful to the Internet. That's why I'm thankful to this form of (music) release. Because in many ways it set me free.

I've been in meetings with reps at labels and they walk me to their urban department. Literally I'm like, 'But I'm not making something limited to urban music,' and they're like, 'Yeah, but you're black.'

That's why I'm grateful to technology because it freed me from the constraints of race.