It was just a couple of months ago that Nine Inch Nails released part of their new album for free on BitTorrent and via their web site. The rest of the album, the band sold as a $5 download, a $10 double CD, and pricier "deluxe" packages. Doing this, the band reportedly pulled in $750,000 in the first three days. Yesterday, NIN released a new single free on Facebook with the promise of a "surprise" today on their web site. That surprise? Their entire new album, The Slip, is available as a free download on nin.com and streaming on iLike.

"As a thank you to our fans for your continued support, we are giving away the new nine inch nails album one hundred percent free, exclusively via nin.com," wrote the band on their web site, who said they plan to sell CD and vinyl versions in July.

The new album, which has ten tracks and clocks in at 43:45, is release under a Creative Commons attribution non-commercial share alike license. The band encourages downloaders to "remix it, share it with your friends, post it on your blog, play it on your podcast, give it to strangers, etc."

This begs two questions: 1. Just how many new albums does NIN have? and 2. Should all artists give away their music for free?

True Fans Theory at Work

What Reznor has done with Nine Inch Nails over the past two months is confirmation of Kevin Kelly's "true fans" theory, on a much larger scale. The theory basically states that any artist can make a living if he or she can cultivate 1,000 "true fans" -- people who will support anything the artist does. The actual number of true fans necessary to make a living will vary depending on the artist and the economics of what he or she produces.

While it is hard to find examples of this in the long tail, we are beginning to see it play out with more and more major label artists. Because Trent Reznor's true fans came through for him for the Ghosts release in March, he was able to release The Slip for free in May. At this point Reznor doesn't have to make money selling albums en masse -- his true fans will still buy the CD and and vinyl copies even though the download is free, they'll still come to his concerts and buy t-shirts and posters.

As we've pointed out in the past, this is also essentially the same theory employed by music startup Sellaband (our coverage), which asks music acts to generate $50,000 from "believers" -- usually in the form of $10 donations from 5,000 true fans. Any band that reaches that goal gets studio time to record a full album and distribution via the site and other retail channels.

However, it is still not clear whether Reznor's success can be duplicated by long tail artists. Clearly, cultivating enough die hard fans to make a living, especially while giving away your core product for free, is not easy. For Reznor it took 20 years and he had the backing of major labels along the way (Reznor's Nothing Records is owned by Interscope, which is in turn owned by Universal Music Group).

"If success for independent artists requires the cultivation of 'true fans' then awareness is paramount," we said in a March post that argued for the positive effect that putting music out for free into viral distribution channels like social networks can have for artists. But for independent artists who don't have major label backing, free might be a Catch-22. Give away tracks to build awareness and cultivate true fans, but try not to cultivate fans who expect everything to be free forever.