While record labels bemoan their sad plight, artists like Nine Inch Nails are coming up with creative ways to inject mystery and playfulness into the music promotion game.

The elaborate campaign for NIN’s new “Year Zero” album — 42 Entertainment is the agency behind it — is a great example of blurring the line between marketing and entertainment.

Trail of clues
It all started with a concert t-shirt:

tour shirt

The bolded letters on the shirt spelled out a domain name that describes Parepin, “a revolutionary drug.” This kickstarted “a long, elaborate, cookie trail of clues and cryptically hidden website URLs hidden in the most unlikely of places.”

Another version of the truth is also one of the campaign’s sites. It features an idyllic photo and message, but clicking and dragging on the photo reveals hidden, darker imagery.

That dystopian vision is reflected in the album’s songs too. Fans discovered USB Flash drives left in bathrooms at the band’s shows. On them were unprotected versions of the new tracks. These leaked songs soon showed up online as another part of the puzzle.

The power of mystery
Rolling Stone said the “Year Zero” project is “the most innovative promotion scheme since the leaked sex tape.”

NIN have treated their fans to a sort of Where’s Waldo game that includes tour merchandising, a dizzying network of websites and, umm, bathrooms in European concert halls.

Adrants praised the campaign and said, “Mythology adds fuel to fan fire.”

This is the way a viral campaign should be run – with a brand using multiple forms of media to play with its users and leave them things to find and chase after.

The Google perspective
Matt Cutts, a Google software engineer, points out why the campaign is a winner from an SEO perspective.

- Check out the text from iamtryingtobelieve.com/purpose.htm. It’s so jittery that it’s hard to read, but if you view the source, you’ll notice that it’s mostly text content, which lets search engines index it.

- The buzz built pretty organically. USB drives were left in bathrooms at conferences and messages were hidden in conference T-shirts. It’s much better to let people find you than to push too hard to get noticed. The links from the “people-find-you” approach are more organic than if someone spammed to get links to viral sites.

- I appreciate that the campaign picked a lot of terms (e.g. “parepin”) that were unique nonsense words. That keeps the marketing campaign from crufting up search results for actual topics or real peoples’ names, which is a pretty rude thing to do.

CD design
The CD design comes with a twist too.

Before you play it the disk is black. When you take it out of the CD player it’s white, and then slowly fades to grey. As it turns out the people that have done the marketing are the same ones that marketed the ill fated microsoft zune, which has been one of the biggest failures in history. This goes to show it wasn’t the marketing, it was an inferior product.

year zero discs

Trent Reznor on DRM and technology
In “Stars compose new ways to use music,” NIN’s Trent Reznor discusses why he dislikes DRM.

The USB drive was simply a mechanism of leaking the music and data we wanted out there. The medium of the CD is outdated and irrelevant. It’s really painfully obvious what people want – DRM-free music they can do what they want with. If the greedy record industry would embrace that concept I truly think people would pay for music and consume more of it.

Reznor is also making individual tracks from the album available in files that anyone can edit and remix in programs like GarageBand. Reznor talks about the democratizing influence of technology:

Any time a new technology becomes available to the masses it’s a good thing. Recording studios used to be the domain of only the privileged or professional – now many have access to these tools allowing anyone to try their hand at it. As to what I’m looking to gain from doing this, I’m not really sure…it just seemed like something I’d want as a fan.

When marketing becomes art
While the major labels continue to try and hold onto the past, Reznor’s attitude and approach is a glimpse of the future. Instead of looking at his album as the finish line, he’s using it as part of a bigger, all-encompassing experience for fans.

What you are now starting to experience IS ‘year zero’. It’s not some kind of gimmick to get you to buy a record – it IS the art form…and we’re just getting started.