In 1987, Trent Reznor played keyboard in a Cleveland, Ohio band, the Exotic Birds, then managed by John Malm Jr.:38 Reznor and Malm became friends, and when Reznor left to work on his own music, Malm informally became his manager. At the time, Reznor was employed as an assistant engineer and janitor at Right Track Studios. Owner Bart Koster granted Reznor free access to the studio between bookings to record demos, commenting that it cost him "just a little wear on [his] tape heads". Reznor was unable to find a band that could articulate the material as he desired. Instead, inspired by Prince, Reznor played all the instruments but drums himself. He has continued to play most parts on NIN recordings.
The first NIN performance was at the Phantasy Theater in Lakewood, Ohio on October 21, 1988 as part of the Pretty Hate Machine Tour Series. In 1988, after playing its first shows supporting Skinny Puppy, Reznor's ambition was to release one 12-inch single on a small European label. Several labels responded favorably to the demo material and Reznor signed with TVT Records. Nine demos recorded live in November 1988, collectively known as Purest Feeling, were released in revised form on the first NIN album, Pretty Hate Machine (1989).:41 The overall sound on Purest Feeling is lighter than that of Pretty Hate Machine; several songs contain more live drumming and guitar, as well as a heavier use of film samples.
Reznor chose the name "Nine Inch Nails" because it "abbreviated easily" rather than for "any literal meaning". Other rumored explanations have circulated, alleging that Reznor chose to reference Jesus' crucifixion with nine-inch spikes,:57 or Freddy Krueger's nine-inch fingernails. The English letters NIN are also noted for their resemblance to the modern Hebrew characters of the Tetragrammaton. The Nine Inch Nails logo first appeared on the music video for their debut single, "Down in It", a. The logo was designed by Reznor and Gary Talpas, inspired by Tibor Kalman's typography on the Talking Heads album Remain in Light. Talpas, a native of Cleveland, continued to design Nine Inch Nails packaging until 1997.
Pretty Hate Machine (1989–1991)
Written, arranged, and performed by Reznor, Nine Inch Nails' first album Pretty Hate Machine debuted in 1989. It marked his first collaboration with Adrian Sherwood (who produced the lead single "Down in It" in London without meeting Reznor face-to-face) and Mark "Flood" Ellis.:42 Reznor asked Sean Beavan to mix the demos of Pretty Hate Machine, which had received multiple offers for record deals. He mixed sound during Nine Inch Nails' live concerts for several years, eventually becoming an unofficial member of the live band and singing live backup vocals from his place at the mixing console. Flood's production would appear on each major Nine Inch Nails release until 1994, and Sherwood has made remixes for the band as recently as 2000. Reznor and his co-producers expanded upon the Right Track Studio demos by adding singles "Head Like a Hole" and "Sin". Rolling Stone's Michael Azerrad described the album as "industrial-strength noise over a pop framework" and "harrowing but catchy music"; Reznor proclaimed this combination "a sincere statement" of "what was in [his] head at the time". In fact, the song "Down in It" spent over two months on Billboard's club-play dance chart. After spending 113 weeks on the Billboard 200, Pretty Hate Machine became one of the first independently released records to attain platinum certification.
Three music videos were created in promotion of the album. MTV aired the videos for "Down in It" and "Head Like a Hole", but an explicit video for "Sin" was only released in partial form for Closure. The original version of the "Down in It" video ended with the implication that Reznor's character had fallen off a building and died in the street. This footage attracted the attention of the FBI. As Reznor explains in an interview with Convulsion Magazine:
There was a scene w[h]ere I was lying on the ground, appearing to be dead, in a Lodger-esque pose and we had a camera with a big weather balloon filled with helium hooked up to it ... the first one we did, we started the film, I was laying on the ground and the ropes that were holding the balloon snapped, the camera just took off into the atmosphere ... the camera landed two hundred miles away in a farmer's field somewhere. He finds it and takes it to the police, thinking that it's a surveillance camera for marijuana, they develop the film and think that it's some sort of snuff film of a murder, give it to the FBI and have pathologists looking at the body saying, 'yeah, he's rotting,' (I had corn starch on me, right) 'he's been decomposing for 3 weeks.' You could see the other members of the band walking away and they had these weird outfits on, and they thought it was some kind of gang slaying.
In 1989, while doing promotion for the album, the band members were asked what shows they would like to appear on. They jokingly replied (possibly while intoxicated) that they would like to appear on Dance Party USA, since it was the most absurd option they could think of at the time. Much to their surprise, they were booked on the show, and made an appearance.
In 1990, Nine Inch Nails began the Pretty Hate Machine Tour Series, in which it toured North America as an opening act for alternative rock artists such as Peter Murphy and The Jesus and Mary Chain.:41 Reznor began smashing his equipment while on stage; Rockbeat interviewer Mike Gitter attributed the live band's early success in front of rock oriented audiences to this aggressive attitude. Nine Inch Nails then embarked on a world tour that continued through the first Lollapalooza festival in 1991.:42
Record label dispute and Broken (1992–1993)
After a poor European reception opening for Guns N' Roses, the band returned to America amid pressure from TVT to produce a follow-up to Pretty Hate Machine. After finding out they were hindering control of his project, Reznor criticized the labeling of Nine Inch Nails as a commercially oriented band and demanded his label terminate his contract, but they ignored his plea. In response, Reznor secretly began recording under various pseudonyms to avoid record company interference. Involved in a feud with TVT, he signed a record deal with Interscope Records and created Nothing Records:
We made it very clear we were not doing another record for TVT. But they made it pretty clear they weren't ready to sell. So I felt like, well, I've finally got this thing going but it's dead. Flood and I had to record Broken under a different band name, because if TVT found out we were recording, they could confiscate all our shit and release it. Jimmy Iovine got involved with Interscope, and we kind of got slave-traded. It wasn't my doing. I didn't know anything about Interscope. And I was real pissed off at him at first because it was going from one bad situation to potentially another one. But Interscope went into it like they really wanted to know what I wanted. It was good, after I put my raving lunatic act on.:42
In 1992, Nine Inch Nails relocated to 10050 Cielo Drive, Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles (renamed "Le Pig" by Reznor), the site of the Tate murders, when Charles Manson's "family" murdered Sharon Tate, wife of noted film director Roman Polanski, and four of her friends.:42 The band used it to record Broken, an extended play (EP) that was the first Nine Inch Nails release distributed by Interscope Records and reached the top 10 on the Billboard 200. In the liner notes, Reznor credited the 1991 Nine Inch Nails touring band as an influence on the EP's sound. He characterized Broken as a guitar-based "blast of destruction", and as "a lot harder ... than Pretty Hate Machine". The inspiration for the harder sound came from the way the live band played during concerts such as Lollapalooza. Songs from Broken earned Nine Inch Nails two Grammy Awards: a performance of the EP's first single "Happiness in Slavery" from Woodstock '94, and the second single "Wish". In reference to receiving the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance for "Wish", Reznor joked that "Wish" became "the only song to ever win a Grammy that says 'fist fuck' in the lyrics." Against touring of the brand new material, Reznor began living and recording full-time at Le Pig, working on a follow-up free of restrictions from his record label.:42
Peter Christopherson of the bands Coil and Throbbing Gristle directed a performance video for "Wish", but the EP's most controversial video accompanied "Happiness in Slavery". The video was almost universally banned for its graphic depiction of performance artist Bob Flanagan disrobed and lying on a machine that pleasures, tortures, then kills him. A third video for "Pinion", partially incorporated into MTV's Alternative Nation opening sequence, showed a toilet that apparently flushes into the mouth of a person in bondage. Reznor and Christopherson compiled the three clips along with footage for "Help Me I Am in Hell" and "Gave Up" into a longform music video titled Broken. It depicts the murder of a young man who is kidnapped and tortured while forced to watch the videos. This footage was never officially released, but instead appeared covertly among tape trading circles. A separate performance video for "Gave Up" featuring Richard Patrick and Marilyn Manson was filmed at Le Pig. A live recording of "Wish" was also filmed, and both videos appeared in Closure.
Broken was followed by the companion remix EP Fixed in late 1992. The only track that was left off the final version of the release is the remix of "Last", produced by Butch Vig (the outro of the "Last" remix is heard in "Throw This Away", which also includes Reznor's remix of "Suck"). The unedited version appeared on the internet as an 8-bit mono 11 kHz file, "NIN_LAST.AIFF", available by FTP from cyberden.com in 1993; it has been removed from the website, but can still be found on p2p networks (Reznor subsequently made it available in higher quality (256kbit/s mp3) at remix.nin.com). Vig later spoke about his remix while answering questions on a music production forum, saying "I started recording a lot of new parts, and took it in a much different direction. When it was finished, Trent thought the front part of the mix didn't fit the EP, so he just used the ending. I'm glad it's on his website. Duke and Steve worked with me on the remix, in the very early days of Garbage."
The Downward Spiral (1993–1997)
Reznor performing during the Self-Destruct tour, circa 1994–1995
Early ideas for The Downward Spiral were conceived after the Lollapalooza 1991 festival concerts ended in September of that year. Reznor developed a concept about the album's themes and later used it as lyrics.:42 He searched for and moved to 10050 Cielo Drive, renting it for $11,000 per month from July 4, 1992, marking the beginning of the making of both Broken and The Downward Spiral. This was against his initial choice to record the album in New Orleans.
Nine Inch Nails' second studio album, The Downward Spiral, entered the Billboard 200 at number two, and remains the highest-selling Nine Inch Nails release in the United States for shipments of over four million copies, in addition to selling five million copies worldwide. Influenced by late-1970s works by Pink Floyd and David Bowie, The Downward Spiral includes a wide range of textures and moods to illustrate the mental progress of a central character. Flood co-produced several tracks on the album, while Alan Moulder mixed most of the album and subsequently took on more extensive production duties for future album releases. Reznor invited Sean Beavan to work on The Downward Spiral. After contributing to remixes of Nine Inch Nails songs, such as "Closer", Beavan mixed and co-produced Marilyn Manson's Antichrist Superstar in 1996. As well as Broken, The Downward Spiral was recorded at Le Pig Studios. "March of the Pigs" and "Closer" were released as singles. Two other songs from the album, "Hurt" and "Piggy", were issued to radio without a commercial single release.
The music video for "Closer" was directed by Mark Romanek and received frequent rotation on MTV, though the network heavily censored the original version, which they perceived to be too graphic. The video shows events in a laboratory dealing with religion, sexuality, animal cruelty, politics, and terror; controversial imagery included a nude bald woman with a crucifix mask, a monkey tied to a cross, a pig's head spinning on some type of machine, a diagram of a vulva, Reznor wearing an S&M mask while swinging in shackles, and of him wearing a ball gag. A radio edit that partially mutes the song's explicit lyrics also received extensive airtime.:96
Critical response to The Downward Spiral was generally favorable, and retrospective reviews regard it as one of the most important albums of the 1990s. It was included in several publications' best album lists: in 2005 the album was ranked 25th in Spin's list of the "100 Greatest Albums, 1985–2005", and in 2003 Rolling Stone ranked the album number 200 on their "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list. Blender named it the 80th Greatest American Album. It was ranked No. 488 in the book The Top 500 Heavy Metal Albums of All Time by Martin Popoff. In 2001 Q named The Downward Spiral as one of the 50 Heaviest Albums of All Time; in 2010 the album was ranked No. 102 on their 250 Best Albums of Q's Lifetime (1986–2011) list. After The Downward Spiral's release, Reznor produced an accompanying remix album entitled Further Down the Spiral, the only non-major Nine Inch Nails release to be certified gold in the United States and among the best-selling remix albums of all time. It contained contributions from Coil with Danny Hyde, electronic musician Aphex Twin, producer Rick Rubin, and Jane's Addiction guitarist Dave Navarro, among others.
After the 1994 release of The Downward Spiral, the live band embarked on the Self Destruct Tour in support of the album. The stage set-up contained dirty curtains which would be pulled down and up for visuals shown during songs such as "Hurt". The tour debuted the band's grungy and messy image in which the members would come out in ragged clothes slathered in corn starch. The concerts were violent and chaotic, with band members often injuring themselves, and they would frequently destroy their instruments at the end of concerts, attack each other, and stage-dive into the crowd. The tour reached its widest mainstream audience with a mud-drenched performance at Woodstock '94 that was broadcast on Pay-Per-View and seen in as many as 24 million homes. Nine Inch Nails received considerable mainstream success thereafter, performing with significantly higher production values and adding theatrical visual elements to the live show. Supporting acts for the tour included The Jim Rose Circus and Marilyn Manson. Released in 1997, the Closure video documented highlights from the tour, including full live videos of "Eraser", "Hurt" and a one-take "March of the Pigs" clip directed by Peter Christoperson. Around this time, Reznor's studio perfectionism, struggles with addiction, and bouts of writer's block prolonged the production of The Fragile.
The Fragile and first hiatus (1999–2003)
Five years elapsed between The Downward Spiral and Nine Inch Nails' next studio album, The Fragile, which arrived as a double album in September 1999. The Fragile was conceived by making "songwriting and arranging and production and sound design ... the same thing. A song would start with a drum loop or a visual and eventually a song would emerge out of it and that was the song." Canadian rock producer Bob Ezrin was consulted on the album's track listing; the liner notes state that he "provided final continuity and flow."
On the heels of the band's previous successes, media anticipation surrounded The Fragile more than a year before its release, when it was already described as "oft-delayed". The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, selling 228,000 copies in its first week and receiving generally positive reviews. Spin hailed The Fragile as the "album of the year," whereas Pitchfork Media panned its "melodramatic" lyrics. Nine Inch Nails released three commercial singles from the album in different territories: "The Day the World Went Away" in North America; "We're in This Together" in the EU and Japan (on three separate discs); and "Into the Void" in Australia. Several songs from the album became regulars on alternative rock radio stations, however the album dropped to number 16 and slipped out of the Billboard Top 10 only a week after its release, resulting in the band setting a record for the biggest drop from number one, which has since been broken. Reznor funded the subsequent North American tour out of his own pocket.
Before the album's release, the song "Starfuckers, Inc." provoked media speculation about whom Reznor had intended its acerbic lyrics to satirize. Cinesexuality critic Patricia MacCormack interprets the song as a "scathing attack on the alternative music scene," particularly Reznor's former friend and protégé Marilyn Manson. The two artists put aside their differences when Manson appeared in the song's music video, retitled "Starsuckers, Inc." and performed on stage with Nine Inch Nails at Madison Square Garden in 2000.
Reznor followed The Fragile with another remix album, Things Falling Apart, released in November 2000 to poor reviews, a few months after the 2000 Fragility tour which itself was recorded and released on CD, DVD, and VHS in 2002 as And All That Could Have Been. A deluxe edition of the live CD came with the companion disc Still, containing stripped-down versions of songs from the Nine Inch Nails catalog along with several new pieces of music.
During the Fragility 2.0 tour, Reznor suffered a heroin overdose in London in June 2000, forcing a gig which was to be played that night to be cancelled. The incident pushed Reznor into entering rehab, putting Nine Inch Nails on hold while he attempted to become sober.
In 2002, Johnny Cash covered the Nine Inch Nails' "Hurt" for his album, American IV: The Man Comes Around, to critical acclaim. After seeing the music video, which later won a Grammy, Reznor himself became a fan of the rendition:
I pop the video in, and wow ... Tears welling, silence, goose-bumps ... Wow. [I felt like] I just lost my girlfriend, because that song isn't mine anymore ... It really made me think about how powerful music is as a medium and art form. I wrote some words and music in my bedroom as a way of staying sane, about a bleak and desperate place I was in, totally isolated and alone. [Somehow] that winds up reinterpreted by a music legend from a radically different era/genre and still retains sincerity and meaning — different, but every bit as pure.
With Teeth (2004–2006)
A further six years elapsed before Nine Inch Nails' fourth full-length album. With Teeth was released in May 2005, though it was leaked prior to its official release date. The album was written and recorded throughout 2004 following Reznor's battle with alcoholism and substance abuse and legal issues with his former manager, John Malm Jr. With Teeth debuted on top of the Billboard 200, Nine Inch Nails' second reign at number one with an album. The album's package lacks typical liner notes; instead it simply lists the names of songs and co-producers, and the URL for an online PDF poster with lyrics and full credits. The entire album was made available in streaming audio on the band's official MySpace page in advance of its release date.
Critical reception of the album was mostly positive: Rolling Stone's Rob Sheffield described the album as "vintage Nine Inch Nails". PopMatters condemned the album, claiming Reznor "ran out of ideas."
I think, fundamentally, music is something inherently people love and need and relate to, and a lot of what's out right now feels like McDonalds. It's quick-fix. You kind of have a stomachache afterwards.
—Trent Reznor, Salt Lake Tribune interview (2005)
A music video for the song "The Hand That Feeds" premiered on the Nine Inch Nails official website in March 2005. Reznor released the source files for it in GarageBand format a month later, allowing fans to remix the song. He similarly released files for the album's second single "Only" in a wider range of formats, including Pro Tools and ACID Pro. David Fincher directed a video for "Only" with primarily computer-generated imagery. The planned music video for its third single, "Every Day Is Exactly the Same", was directed by Francis Lawrence but reportedly scrapped in the post-production stage. All three singles topped the Billboard Alternative Songs chart.
Nine Inch Nails launched a North American arena tour in Autumn 2005, supported by Queens of the Stone Age, Autolux and Death from Above 1979. Another opening act on the tour, hip-hop artist Saul Williams, performed on stage with Nine Inch Nails at the Voodoo Music Experience festival during a headlining appearance in hurricane-stricken New Orleans, Reznor's former home. The Nine Inch Nails live band completed a tour of North American amphitheaters in the summer of 2006, joined by Bauhaus, TV on the Radio, and Peaches. The Beside You in Time tour documentary was released in February 2007 via three formats: DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray Disc. The home video release debuted at number one on both the Billboard Top Music Videos and Billboard Comprehensive Music Videos charts in the United States.
Year Zero (2006–2007)
Nine Inch Nails' fifth studio album, Year Zero, was released only two years after With Teeth, a marked change in the slow pace from the release of previous albums. With lyrics written from the perspective of multiple fictitious characters, Year Zero is a concept album criticizing the United States government's policies and their impact on the world 15 years in the future. Critical response to the album was generally favorable, with an average rating of 76% on Metacritic.
The story takes place in the United States in 2022, which has been termed "Year 0", by the government, being the year America was reborn. It had suffered several major terrorist attacks, apparently by Islamic fundamentalists, including attacks on Los Angeles and Seattle, and in response, the government seized absolute control of the country. The government is a Christian fundamentalist theocracy, maintaining control of the populace through institutions like the Bureau of Morality and the First Evangelical Church of Plano. The government corporation Cedocore distributes the drug Parepin through the water supply, making Americans who drink water apathetic and carefree. There are several underground rebel groups, mainly operating online, most notably Art is Resistance and Solutions Backwards Initiative. In response to the increasing oppression of the government, several corporate, government, and subversive websites were transported back in time to the present by a group of scientists working clandestinely against the authorities. The websites-from-the-future were sent to the year 2007 to warn American people of the impending dystopian future and to prevent it from ever forming in the first place.
An alternate reality game emerged parallel to the Year Zero concept, expanding upon its storyline. Clues hidden on tour merchandise initially led fans to discover a network of fictitious, in-game websites that describe an "Orwellian picture of the United States circa the year 2022". Before Year Zero's release, unreleased songs from the album were found on USB drives hidden at Nine Inch Nails concert venues in Lisbon and Barcelona, as part of the alternate reality game. Fan participation in the alternate reality game caught the attention of media outlets such as USA Today and Billboard, who have cited fan-site The NIN Hotline, forum Echoing the Sound, fan club The Spiral, and NinWiki as sources for new discoveries.
The album's first single, "Survivalism", and other tracks from Year Zero were released as multitrack audio files for fans to remix. A remix album titled Year Zero Remixed was later released, containing remixes from Year Zero by other artists. The remix album was Nine Inch Nails' final release on a major record label for over five years, as the act had completed its contractual obligation to Interscope Records and did not renew its contract. The remix album was accompanied by an interactive remix site with multitrack downloads and the ability to post remixes.
Reznor planned a film adaption of the album and noted Year Zero as "part of a bigger picture of a number of things I'm working on. Essentially, I wrote the soundtrack to a movie that doesn't exist." The project moved into the television medium because of high costs for Year Zero as a film, then Reznor found American film producer Lawrence Bender and met with writers.
On August 10, 2007, Reznor announced that they would be taking the concept to television networks in an attempt to secure a deal: "We're about to pitch it to the network, so we're a couple of weeks away from meeting all of the main people, and we'll see what happens." Since first announcing his plans for a television series, progress slowed, reportedly due to the 2007–2008 Writer's Guild strike, but it nevertheless continued. As of 2010 the resultant miniseries, also named Year Zero, was in development with HBO and BBC Worldwide Productions, with the screenplay and script written by Reznor and Carnivàle writer Daniel Knauf.
Ghosts I–IV and The Slip (2008)
In February 2008, Reznor posted a news update on the Nine Inch Nails website entitled "2 weeks." On March 2, Ghosts I–IV (the first release on The Null Corporation label), a 36-track instrumental album, became available via the band's official website. Ghosts I–IV was made available in a number of different formats and forms, ranging from a free download of the first volume, to a $300 Ultra-Deluxe limited edition package. All 2,500 copies of the $300 package sold out in three days. The album is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike licence. The album was created improvisationally over a 10-week period and contributors included Atticus Ross, Alan Moulder, Alessandro Cortini, Adrian Belew, and Brian Viglione.
Similar to the announcement that ultimately led to the release of Ghosts I–IV, a post on the band's website in April 2008 read "2 weeks!" On May 5, Nine Inch Nails released The Slip via its website without any advertisement or promotion. The album was made available for download free of charge with a message from Reznor, "this one's on me," protected under the same Creative Commons licence as Ghosts, and has seen individual downloads surpassing 1.4 million. The Slip has since been released on CD as a limited edition set of 250,000.
Since the release of Ghosts I–IV and The Slip, a 25-date tour titled Lights in the Sky, was announced in several North American cities, and was later expanded to include several more North American dates as well as dates in South America. Cortini and Josh Freese returned as members from the previous tour, while Robin Finck rejoined the band and Justin Meldal-Johnsen was added on bass guitar. Freese and Cortini left the live band, but it became a quartet with the addition of Ilan Rubin on drums.
On January 7, 2009, Reznor uploaded unedited HD-quality footage from three shows as a download of over 400 GB via BitTorrent. In an immediate response, a fan organization known as This One Is On Us quickly downloaded the data and had begun to assemble the footage alongside its own video recordings to create a professional 3-part digital film, followed by a physical release created "by fans for fans". This tour documentary became collectively known as Another Version of the Truth and was released throughout late December 2009 to February 2010 via three formats: DVD, Blu-ray Disc and BitTorrent. To date, the group and the project has received significant attention from media outlets such as USA Today, Rolling Stone, Techdirt and Pitchfork TV, and holds the support of both Reznor and the fan community with theatrical screenings being held all over the world. Nine Inch Nails art director and webmaster Rob Sheridan noted on the band's official website:
This is yet another example of a devoted fanbase and a policy of openness combining to fill in blanks left by old media barriers. The entire NIN camp is absolutely thrilled that treating our fans with respect and nurturing their creativity has led to such an overwhelming outpour of incredible content, and that we now have such a high quality souvenir from our most ambitious tour ever.
Nine Inch Nails Revenge, an iPhone/iPod touch-exclusive rhythm game developed by Tapulous, was released on March 8, 2009 (five months after the company announced the development of the game). This installment in the Tap Tap video game franchise was themed after Nine Inch Nails, and included tracks from Ghosts I–IV and The Slip. Portions of the album Ghosts I-IV were also used in making of the soundtrack for the documentary Citizenfour.
Wave Goodbye tour and second hiatus (2009–2012)
Reznor performing at the Music Box in Hollywood on September 8, 2009
In February 2009, Reznor posted his thoughts about the future of Nine Inch Nails on his official website, stating that "I've been thinking for some time now it's time to make NIN disappear for a while." Reznor since clarified that he "isn't done creating music under the moniker, but that Nine Inch Nails is done touring for the foreseeable future." The "Wave Goodbye" tour concluded on September 10, 2009, at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. Reznor subsequently released two tracks under the Nine Inch Nails moniker: the theme song for the film Tetsuo: The Bullet Man, and a cover of U2's "Zoo Station", included in the Achtung Baby tribute album AHK-toong BAY-bi Covered.
In 2009 Reznor married Mariqueen Maandig, and formed a project with Maandig and Atticus Ross dubbed How to Destroy Angels. Its first release, a six-track self-titled EP, was made available for free download in June 2010. Reznor's next collaboration with Ross was co-writing and producing the official score for David Fincher's 2010 film, The Social Network. Reznor and Ross received two awards for the score, a 2010 Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score for a Motion Picture, and a 2010 Oscar for Best Original Score. Reznor and Ross again collaborated with Fincher for the official score the American adaptation of the novel The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, released in December 2011, and then again on Fincher's 2014 film Gone Girl 
In July 2012 Reznor teamed up with video game developer Treyarch to compose the theme music for Call of Duty: Black Ops II. Later that year Reznor again worked with Atticus Ross along with Alessandro Cortini on a remix of the song "Destroyer" by Telepathe. Reznor also appeared in a documentary called "Sound City" directed by Dave Grohl, in addition to co-writing and performing the song "Mantra" with Grohl and Josh Homme. This led to further collaboration with Reznor and Homme on the 2013 album from Queens of the Stone Age titled
... Like Clockwork. Reznor contributed vocals and drum programing to the song "Kalopsia" and vocals on "Fairweather Friends" along with Elton John on piano and vocals. In October a project with Dr. Dre and Beats Electronics was announced that Reznor wrote was "probably not what you're expecting [from me]". The project was named "Daisy"; a digital music service was announced in January 2013. It was until January 2014 that the service was fully launched, with Reznor serving as chief creative officer.
Return to touring and Hesitation Marks (2012–2015)
In an interview with BBC Radio 1, Reznor indicated that he would be writing for the majority of 2012 with Nine Inch Nails "in mind". Reznor eventually confirmed that he was working on new Nine Inch Nails material and might be performing live again. In February 2013, Reznor announced the return of Nine Inch Nails and revealed the Twenty Thirteen Tour. He also revealed that the new lineup of the band would include Eric Avery of Jane's Addiction, Adrian Belew of King Crimson, and Josh Eustis of Telefon Tel Aviv, as well as returning members Alessandro Cortini and Ilan Rubin. However, both Avery and Belew would quit the touring band before performances commenced, with former member Robin Finck returning in their place.
By May 28 a new Nine Inch Nails album was complete. Released September 3, Hesitation Marks incorporated rhythms reminiscent of earlier releases, but was more expansive and theatrical. In addition to the recently departed Adrian Belew, Reznor employed bassist Pino Palladino along with Todd Rundgren and Fleetwood Mac's Lindsey Buckingham to achieve various art-rock elements.
The album produced three singles, all released prior to that of the album itself. "Came Back Haunted" was released on June 6, with an accompanying music video bearing an epileptic seizure warning. The second single, "Copy of A", was released on August 12 free of charge to US and UK Amazon.com account holders. "Everything" was the third and final single, recorded during sessions for the Nine Inch Nails greatest hits album. The sessions gave way to more songs that ended up yielding the entire album.
In July the Twenty Thirteen Tour was underway, beginning with a slew of festival appearances that included the Fuji Rock Festival, and the Pukkelpop, Hockenheim, Germany's Rock'n'Heim and the Reading and Leeds festivals in August. The Tension 2013 North American leg of the tour ran from September to November and added Palladino, Lisa Fischer and Sharlotte Gibson to the lineup with Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions in the Sky as opening acts. This leg of the tour was documented and released in the spring as Nine Inch Nails Tension 2013.
In 2014 the band extended its tour worldwide as a four-piece. The new lineup included previous collaborators, Ilan Rubin, Alessandro Cortini, and Robin Finck. The band was joined by Queens of the Stone Age for the Australia and New Zealand tour, during which a nightly coin toss determined who opened. The tour closed in Europe with supporting synth-pop act Cold Cave.
After a month-long break, Nine Inch Nails again hit the road on a joint tour with Soundgarden. The 23-day journey extended throughout the continental US, with experimental hip-hop group Death Grips scheduled to open most of the shows. Two weeks into the tour, Death Grips announced its breakup and cancelled all subsequent live shows. Oneohtrix Point Never, The Dillinger Escape Plan and Cold Cave each replaced Death Grips separately for the remainder of the tour.
In 2014, its first year of eligibility, Nine Inch Nails was nominated for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with 14 other candidates. While they were not inducted that year, the band placed second in the 2015 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Nominees Fan Vote. In 2015, Nine Inch Nails was once again nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. However, they once again did not get inducted.
In June 2015, Nine Inch Nails released instrumental versions of The Fragile and With Teeth to stream exclusively on Apple Music, a service of which Reznor is chief creative director. In an interview promoting the service, Reznor mentioned he has started "messing around with some things" in regards to a new Nine Inch Nails album, stating "It's not a record I'm trying to finish in a month. It's more just feeling around in the dark and seeing what sounds interesting". In December 2015, Reznor reported that "Nine Inch Nails will return in 2016".
Not the Actual Events, Add Violence, and Bad Witch (2016–present)
In October 2016, in response to a fan's question about the lack of new Nine Inch Nails music, Reznor responded with "2016 is not over yet". In December 2016, Reznor commented on his statement regarding Nine Inch Nails' return by the end of the year: "Those words did come out of my mouth, didn't they? ... Just wait and see what happens." Three days later, Reznor announced an EP titled Not the Actual Events, along with reissues of Broken, The Downward Spiral, and The Fragile, with subsequent reissues of With Teeth, Year Zero, and The Slip to be released later in 2017, these plans however fell through. Also announced was The Fragile: Deviations 1, which comprised 37 instrumental, alternate and unreleased tracks, many of which have never been heard before anywhere. Not the Actual Events was released on December 23, 2016, with fans who pre-ordered it receiving their download links one day earlier. Atticus Ross was also revealed to be an official full-time member of the band, the first member other than Reznor to be added to the band.
In early 2017, the band announced three headlining festival dates in North America. In January 2017, the band announced that it would be performing at the Panorama Music Festival in New York on July 30. On March 21, the band announced on their official Facebook page that it would be headlining Day 3 of FYF Fest in Los Angeles on July 23. In the same post, the band also announced its 2017 touring lineup, which included Reznor and Ross joined by the band's 2014 touring lineup, Robin Finck, Alessandro Cortini, and Ilan Rubin.
In June 2017, in an email that was issued out to customers waiting on delayed vinyl orders, Reznor confirmed that Not the Actual Events would actually make up the first part of a trilogy of EPs, with the second installment Add Violence being released on July 21 and the third and final EP of the trilogy to follow in 2018. The single "Less Than" was released a week prior to the second EP's release.
Also in 2017, the pair were tasked to score the upcoming Ken Burns series The Vietnam War, and provide both original music and a compilation soundtrack of popular songs. Their score, which was released on September 15, 2017, included original compositions, and it also includes reworked pieces from other Nine Inch Nails songs and their award-winning scores for The Social Network and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. 
In May 2018, the band revealed its ninth studio album, entitled Bad Witch, which was released on June 22, 2018. The band also announced the "Cold and Black and Infinite North America 2018 Tour", where it toured with The Jesus and Mary Chain. To prevent ticket scalping, the band took the unusual step of only selling physical tickets that had to be purchased at the venue prior to the shows. Reznor stated of the decision "The promise of a world made better by computers and online connectivity has failed us in many ways, particularly when it comes to ticketing. Everything about the process sucks and everyone loses except the reseller. We've decided to try something different that will also likely suck, but in a different way."
On June 25, 2019, The New York Times Magazine listed Nine Inch Nails among hundreds of artists whose material was reportedly destroyed in the 2008 Universal fire.