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Trent Reznor predicts the existence of iTunes back in 1994

June 28, 2013

This is “What’s Making Me Happy This Week,” a weekly feature inspired by the Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. It’s pretty self-explanatory.

What’s Making Me Happy This Week is a small but fascinating discovery that kind of blew my mind. When you think about Trent Reznor, what do you think about? Obviously Nine Inch Nails, one of the most influential acts of the past 25 years. Probably Nothing Records, the record label he co-founded, or Marilyn Manson, the first artist (other than NIN) to sign with Nothing. If you’re a movie buff, perhaps you think about his work producing the soundtracks for Oliver Stone’s 1994 film Natural Born Killers or David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway, or his more recent work with David Fincher, scoring (together with Atticus Ross) both The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, picking up an Oscar and a Grammy in the process. Somewhere way down on the list, you may even note his post-NIN group How to Destroy Angels (formed with his wife, Ross and Rob Sheridan).

Such a well-known artist and renaissance man, you wouldn’t expect there to be anything interesting about Reznor that you didn’t already know. But did you know that he predicted the future existence of iTunes way back in 1994? 1994! This was years before even the creation of Napster. The standard for digital coding of audio – what we all know as MP3’s – wasn’t even published until 1993, and the version that proliferated in common use (and still in use today) wasn’t published until 1995. The first digital music player app that anyone actually used – WinAmp – was released in 1997; the first portable digital audio player was released in 1998.

Just to drive the point home, here’s where we at in 1994 in terms of the development of the World Wide Web: America Online hadn’t yet passed CompuServe as the leading Internet service provider. We were at least a year away from the commercialization of the “super-fast” 56K dial-up modem, and two years away from unlimited $19.95/month dial-up service from AOL and the endless busy signals that came with it. (Until then all Internet access –from every commercial ISP in the business – was charged by the hour!) Reznor, though, already feeling the frustration with the music industry that would ultimately lead him to dump his record label (Interscope) in 2007, went off on a tangent in an interview with Joshua Berger and Eric Lengvenis that showed how ahead of his time he was:

They’re [the record label] holding the cards. For now. I think that in the next ten years you’ll see that turn around. Did you hear about this device that they have made, but you won’t see anywhere? Imagine walking through a record store, and there’s a database of everything that’s ever been put out, from obscure imports to Bon Jovi. You tell them which one you want, you pay with a credit card, and with high speed it downloads onto a digital cassette. You put your order in and ten minutes later, here’s your CD quality cassette. Your artwork gets mailed to you and shows up the next day. What does that do? It eliminates retail altogether. No more Tower Records (though you can see how they could stick around). But the main thing record companies have been holding over people’s heads is distribution …

Did he have all of the details right? Of course not. But think about how much he did get right that was years ahead of it’s time: High speed downloading. CD quality. A database of everything that’s ever been put out. Somehow, he knew that album artwork would still exist (though he didn’t realize that it would be downloaded too). He even predicted the demise of Tower Records even while saying that physical record stores would continue to be a place to buy music (though he didn’t realize that the “store” would also be available right in your own home).

But Reznor didn’t just predict the digitization of music and a high speed database of everything. As I said earlier, he specifically (without knowing it) predicted iTunes. Lengvenis asked Reznor about what was then an omnipresent promise, “Government and media are always talking about ‘In the future the Information Superhighway or the National Information Infrastructure (whatever you want to call it) is going to make it so everyone’s got a museum and a library in their own home.’” Reznor – as excited as anyone about the future – knew that some of this was too good to be true:

I think it will be a good situation when it gets together. It depends…As MTV has done to the video world, I’m sure there will be something to fuck up what could be amazing. It’ll turn out to be something controlled. I kind of wish I was born a hundred years later to see. Although I think it is an interesting time right now. My grandfather–the car was being invented. Now–I find myself bitching about hard disk access time, and I can do a whole album on computer. It will be interesting to see what happens, but I think we will only benefit from access to information. It’s a good thing, though it will be misused.

“A good situation,” but also “It’ll turn out to be something controlled.” Exactly where we are with digital music nearly twenty years later. Back then, these quotes were just some cool throw-away lines from an interview, thoughts that Berger and Lengvenis probably paid no mind to when they heard it from Reznor’s mouth back. Now, to have randomly unearthed these predictions …

That’s What’s Making Me Happy This Week.

From → Loose Bananas

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