Working nights at a recording studio cleaning toilets, Trent Reznor saved enough money to purchase time in a recording session. Playing all of the keyboards, drum machines, guitars, and samplers himself, he recorded a demo and sent it to various record labels. Not expecting any real response, Reznor was surprised when he received serious offers from many of the labels.
Teaming up with agent John A. Malm, Jr., Reznor signed a deal with TVT Records, a company mainly known for producing novelty and television jingle records. TVT paired Trent up with well-known producers Adrian Sherwood and Flood, as well as some lesser-knowns who Reznor later claimed to hate working with.
The album was released on October 20, 1989 and was a critical success. It received radio airplay for the singles "Down in It", "Head Like a Hole" and "Sin". The album also gained popularity through word-of-mouth and developed an underground following. Reznor quickly hired a band for touring with The Jesus and Mary Chain, including guitarist and future Filter frontman Richard Patrick. NIN's live set was notorious for louder, more aggressive versions of the studio songs, and also for destroying their instruments at the end. Reznor preferred using the heel of his boots to strip the keys from expensive keyboards.