Year Zero, the new album by Nine Inch Nails, is not just a musical masterpiece. It's a revolutionary project that fuses art, marketing, and activism. Trent Reznor collaborated with 42 Entertainment to build an "alternate reality game" (ARG) that engages fans in a cryptic investigation of mysterious websites detailing the horrors of a bleak, dystopian future.
It's not just a marketing campaign. If Reznor's only goal were to make a buck off his new album, he wouldn't have released it free on the Internet, in its entirety, two weeks before it hit store shelves. Indeed, with his elaborate, disturbing vision of the future, Reznor is making a broader political point about the erosion of civil liberties, the environmental destruction caused by climate change, and the real possibility of the United States sinking into totalitarianism in the event of another serious terrorist attack.
One website that has been created as a part of this alternate reality game is Open Source Resistance, which encourages fans to submit original art pieces and use their own blogs and websites to spread a message of resistance to totalitarianism. It has also sponsored "resistance meetings," a video of one of which is available on the website. This meeting featured a member of the "resistance" talking in surprisingly real terms about surprisingly real issues, such as the erosion of civil liberties. After his lecture, the audience was led into some kind of a concert hall and treated to a surprise performance by Nine Inch Nails, which was eventually "broken up by the police." These "resistance meetings" seem like a really good way to connect with a younger audience in a concrete way about the future, and what young people can do to make sure it doesn't end up like Year Zero.
The fusion of art, politics, and marketing that have created the Year Zero ARG will become a significant moment in the history of music, evocative of such other concept pieces as Pink Floyd's The Wall. Trent Reznor truly is a musical visionary, one who cares about his art, and his fans, and, most importantly, about the future.
It also helps that Year Zero is a fantastic album.