I’m always thinking of cost-effective ways of promoting artists, but here’s a promotion campaign – for Nine Inch Nails‘ 2007 album Year Zero – that was the exact opposite.
This multi-platform experience was created by Trent Reznor in collaboration with 42 Entertainment in a project which Rolling Stone called “the most innovative promotion scheme since the leaked sex tape.”
Year Zero is a post-apocalyptic album reflecting on the direction of the Bush Jr administration. The Year Zero storyline takes place in 2022 – the same year as the 1973 film Soylent Green. The real-life album release was in April 2007 but the game/campaign started in mid February of that year.
It all started with a T-shirt. On February 12th the promotional tour T-shirt was put on sale on which – highlighted amongst the text of the tour dates – were the letters I A M T R Y I N G T O B E L I E V E.
When fans went to iamtryingtobelieve.com they found a website full of conspiracy theories based in this future time, inspired by the works of George Orwell and Yevgeny Zamyatin. Other websites started appearing in promotional materials for the album. The premise being that a group called Solutions Backwards Initiative – dwelling in the future – had worked out how to send information back in time. The websites (such as Another Version of the Truth, Be the Hammer, 105th Airborne Crusaders, and Church of Plano) all looked glitched as if files had been corrupted due to the problems of time travel.
At a Nine Inch Nails concert two days later USB devices were left around containing an MP3 of the song My Violent Heart from the album – followed by white-noise static that when analysed through a spectrogram revealed the image of “The Presence“.
This was an image of the human-looking, god-like hand that made up the album artwork. The same static also appears at the end of track 9 on the actual album. This trick of static files on the end of songs revealed phone numbers and website IP addresses. Flyers were handed out at concerts with directions to billboards that had adverts for fake products which then led fans on to more websites and material.
In March the music video for the song Survivalism was released by USB sticks being left at a concert at the Brixton Academy London. Fans uploaded the content and eventually the music video itself appeared on Nine Inch Nails website:
The video had frames with time codes that – when decoded – gave other website links with promotional images and graphics accompanied by paranoid-sounding texts. In April the whole album was streamed on the band’s website – while morse code messages and computerised voices communicated phrases that turn out to be yet more websites linked with the project.
Once the album was released, there was a governmental-looking sticker bearing the telephone number ‘1-866-445-6580‘ leading to the United States Bureau of Morality and a recorded message “Citizens, by calling this number you and your family are implicitly pleading guilty to the consumption of anti-American media.”
The album’s physical CD also contained heat sensitive ink that when warmed up had a binary code of still another website. At the album launch party fans were given mobile phones.
Ten days later the phones rang with a pre-recorded message and the URL of one final website: http://hourofarrival.net. The phone message marked the end of the alternate reality game, stating:
“Listen up, we think these phones have been compromised. We’ve got to go dark for a while but that is OK, you don’t need us anymore. It is up to you and your friends to carry the message. You have a voice, use it. This is your time, this is your hour, the hour of arrival. Remember that. Don’t give up, don’t give in. You are the resistance now.”
It was an interesting diversion of promotional campaigning which – via message boards – got fans and the idly curious together trying to be the first to decode and discover each new stage of the game.
MOST OF THE HIDDEN SITES ARE STILL ARCHIVED HERE
NiN Wiki articles relating to Year Zero.
NetNinja documented most of the trail here
Blend design posted an overview of the Alternate Reality Game
The NIN hotline documented fans uncovering the story here
42 Entertainment list it on their CV of previous projects
Rolling Stone‘s coverage of the early stages of the campaign