Michael was born in the small farming town of Mercer, Pennsylvania. It wasn’t a bad place to grow up, just isolated, with almost nothing there but cornfields. As a result, much of Michael’s young experience came from watching movies and TV. He was constantly bombarded with images of life that seemed fun and exciting in ways his wasn’t. On TV, people seemed to have interesting careers and opportunities. None of that seemed possible where he was growing up.
At the age of five, Michael began studying classical piano, and his teacher found him to be quite gifted. The following year, his parents divorced. Michael went to live with his mother’s parents, and music propelled him through the change in his family circumstances. Thanks to the love and support of his grandparents, he grew up without bitterness. He regularly enjoyed skateboarding, fishing, and building model planes. However, in their town, playing sports and being athletic was the norm, and playing music just wasn’t regarded as cool.
Nevertheless, Michael knew what felt right to him. He picked up the saxophone and tuba in junior high, and began playing in the school marching band. Discovering theatrical rock figures like Kiss and David Bowie intensified his musical devotion, even as his interest in traditional school subjects took a back seat. At one point, he was encouraged to drop out of school and do nothing but practice ten hours a day for a concert career, but Michael’s taste for dramatic arena-rock had already determined his course. Leading roles in his high school’s productions of Jesus Christ Superstar and The Music Man only made this direction more certain.
After graduation, Michael enrolled at a small college in a town not much bigger than Mercer. There, he spent a year studying computer engineering, but still felt like he was not following his passion. The prospect of an exciting existence beyond the cornfield nagged constantly, reminding him that he was stuck in a rural America where many of his friends and family were happy to live out their lives. But Michael wanted out.
He moved to the city of Cleveland, planning to make his living as a professional musician. Hanging around some bigger colleges there, Michael was exposed to a lot of music he’d never heard. It was a musical awakening, as he recognized how many bands were employing synthesizers and keyboards and edging out classic guitar rock on the airwaves. Synthesizers were becoming more affordable and Michael found his way to a harder-edged style of electronically produced music that fit perfectly with what was in his head. The music he wanted to play suddenly started to make sense.
Michael and a friend shared a shabby apartment in a bad Cleveland neighborhood, frequently living on ramen noodles. He did whatever he could to immerse himself in the world of music. He played keyboards and sang in a series of mediocre bands even though none captured the sound he was looking for. He even got a job at a local recording studio as a janitor for $100 a month, so he could also train to become an assistant engineer. While at the studio, he often played on other musicians’ demos, doing anything to stay engaged in what he loved.
He was extremely focused, taking his work seriously even when it meant cleaning toilets and waxing the studio floors. Finally, Michael seized the opportunity to ask for permission to record his own songs during unused studio time, and his boss agreed. Unable to find musicians who would work for free between the hours of three and eight in the morning, Michael was undeterred, resolving to play everything himself and toiling away at his demos each night.
All Michael’s work paid off. He wrote, performed and produced a one-man debut album called Pretty Hate Machine under the band name, Nine Inch Nails. Michael “Trent” Reznor became one of the first musicians on an independent label to sell a million copies. Reznor went on to become regarded as one of the most vital artists in all of music and was named to Time Magazine’s list of the world’s most influential people.
Michael became a leading figure in viral marketing and the digital distribution of music. In 2007, one Nine Inch Nails marketing campaign involved the hiding of flash drive key chains containing unreleased songs in the restrooms of their concert venues. Reznor continues to make music his way, often alone, sometimes collaborating, but always remaining true to his unique and uncompromising vision.
Following your passion and aligning your work with what you love is music to live by.
Until next week...