What is Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor really doing inside Apple?

by Patrick Herrilka

If you’ve never heard the name Trent Reznor, it’s possible you’ve been living in the dark, which actually isn’t all that unlike his followers. But even if you’re not a fan, there’s a good chance you’ve still heard his music. Maybe it was during the late 80’s, when the album Pretty Hate Machine was too electronic for rockers, not electronic enough for the dance floor, yet listened to by individuals of either musical predilection. During the mid-90’s he was the guy who had soccer moms and their daughters singing, “I wanna f@&k you like an animal,” and later introduced us to a peculiar fellow by the name of Marilyn Manson. More recently he’s become known as an Oscar winning film composer for movies like The Social Network and Gone Girl. His music is even present in trailers for The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, and the new Batman: Arkham Knight video game. But perhaps the name most people know him by is put best in the liner notes of his first release: Trent Reznor is Nine Inch Nails.

On Closure, a dual VHS assembly of music videos and backstage footage, Reznor is recorded overseeing a lighting test for the impending show. It finishes, the house lights come up, and pleased smiles and congratulations are exchanged among the crew. Cross-armed and leaning in the back, Reznor’s only comment is to say, “That sucked.” For those acquainted with the man, this is an all too familiar story. Legendary for an intense level of dedication to his craft, Reznor displays tight control over all aspects of his work. While arguing with the theater’s manager, he explains that “there are two guys who make the decisions: me and me.” The portion of the day intended for rest is instead spent reprogramming the lighting, which Reznor does himself as he meticulously goes over his expectations for every song in the performance. There’s another story about a show that did go terribly wrong. Those held accountable were brought into the auditorium and told, “You should hate each other for having let each other down.” The person in charge was then fired right there as an example to the rest. Oh, wait… that was the MobileMe launch. Which means Trent Reznor didn’t do or say those things; that was Steve Jobs.

Apple recently purchased earphone maker Beats for an estimated $3 billion, and along with it founders Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, who will take on senior positions with the electronics maker. While those two names made it into most publications reporting on the deal, others took notice that Apple had also added Trent Reznor to its ranks. Brought in as Beats chief creative officer, he was tasked with developing the company’s new streaming music service. However, why would a musician, and not a programmer, be tapped for such a task? A musician was already available: Dr. Dre. Hell, his name is all over the company’s primary product. Was it Reznor’s reputation for merging the organic with the mechanical? Which sounds sort of Apple-like, reminiscent of Jobs’ obsession with text fonts as much as the hardware itself. Or maybe it helps that, before Reznor was a struggling musician scrubbing toilets in a music studio to afford recording time, he was a computer science major getting pretty solid grades. In a Rolling Stone interview, the author says Reznor is “likely to describe himself as a computer dweeb”. If Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and the rise of Silicone Valley have taught us anything, it’s that being a tech geek nowadays not only pays well, but it can be sexy. Certainly not as sexy as rock and roll, but what happens when you bring these two together? If Reznor’s body of work is an answer, you get a deafening level of awesome.

Worth noting is the recent promotion of longtime Apple design guru, Jonathan Ive, who stepped into the position of chief design officer. Ive had a hand in the first PowerBooks, and since then his influence has been heavily present in products like the iMac, iPod and iPhone. A guy who started out attempting to sell aesthetically pleasing microwaves and toilets hardly seems like someone destined to be one of the major voices in the most valuable tech company in the world. About as likely as a guy who spent his youth taking LSD while traveling India for enlightenment, and yet Jobs still went on to do great things at Apple. And the same could be true now of Reznor’s future with the company. It may seem a stretch to believe a guy who left college to give everything to music would abandon it to focus his energies at Apple, but at 50 years old and now married with two young boys, it’s possible stable is the new black. Reznor recently put his Los Angeles home on the market for $4.5 million. Could this be a sign that Cupertino is about to gain four new neighbors? Reports say that Apple has Reznor overseeing development of a reimagined Beats Music app and iTunes Radio service. Yet there is no telling what is in Apple’s pipeline of research and development to feed the creativity of someone welcoming of a challenge.

The number of comparisons able to be drawn between Jobs and Reznor is interesting. Both were bright children with a tendency to tinker with electronics. Both achieved success at a young age. Numerous stories can be found about either one having some variation of temper tantrum over an aspect of quality control. A fun game can be made of calling out a quote, then seeing who can successfully guess whether it was yelled by Jobs or Reznor. On a harder note, both had very public falls in their careers. Jobs was ousted from the company he helped create in 1985 when the board of directors removed him. Reznor discovered in 2004, after finally recovering from years of substance abuse and depression, that his longtime manager had left him with $400,000 to his name and the claim that he was half owner of Nine Inch Nails. However, neither Jobs nor Reznor were to be kept down forever. NeXT was founded by Jobs, and later he acquired a company that would become Pixar. Apple purchased NeXt in 1997, leading to Jobs’ eventual return to power at the company that had chased him away. In 2005, Reznor’s former manager was ordered by the court to pay back nearly $5 million and declared the musician as the sole owner of the Nine Inch Nails name. Like Jobs, Reznor was now in a strong position to helm the destiny of a brand he had worked so very hard to make precious.

As the relaunch of Beats Music approaches we will soon find out if there will be a merging of the existing Beats app with iTunes, or if both will be redesigned while still remaining separate. Those currently using the Beats app over competitors like Spotify or Tidal have noted a more intuitive interface, with features like “The Sentence” creating effortless playlists based on a wide variety of moods or settings. One of the things Beats sorely lacks in comparison to competitors is a desktop app, leaving subscribers only capable of listening to music on their portable devices but not on their computers. iTunes already has a desktop and mobile application, and someone with Reznor’s attention to detail has assumedly pointed out this glaring hole in the user experience. If the impending launch is a bust, it’s doubtful Apple’s current leader, Tim Cook, will be as hard on Reznor as his predecessor. Entirely unnecessary, as anything short of perfection always drives Reznor off into a corner where he can loathe in self-reflection. Failure will undoubtedly inspire a new Nine Inch Nails album; not such great news for Apple or Beats, but sweet, sweet music to the ears of adoring fans.

Works Cited:

Closure QuotesMobileMe FiascoArticle on Home SaleSpeculation of Reznor RoleRolling Stone Quote • Dre and Iovine Details

Trailers:

Avengers, “We’re In This Together Now” • Guardians of the Galaxy, “Love Is Not Enough” • Batman: Arkham Knight, “The Wretched”

Patrick Herrilka
Patrick Herrilka is a comedian and writer living in New York City.

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