So today is the big day: The Radiohead release that the music-and-marketing blognoscenti have been spazzing about for a week. As you know, the former EMI band is currently label-free, and has offered consumers a chance name their own price for the band’s next album, In Rainbows, which is available for download today. I can understand the excitement: Any excuse to beat the Big-Labels-Are-Over drum (Thom Yorke has mused that “the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs” a label), plus there’s the consumer empowerment angle. It’s a paradigm shifter, y’all!
Is it? Well, it’s definitely an interesting experiment, and I’m be curious to see how it works out, like everybody else. This morning I named my price. Based on my past experience of Radiohead, I guessed that I would like approximately one song. You can’t hear samples in advance, and you have to buy the whole set of ten tracks anyway, so I went with $1, or about half a British pound. The transaction fee added another half-pound, so really I ended up paying around $2. (Despite reports that the site’s servers were overwhelmed, I had no problems. After one listen, I like the track “Bodysnatchers,” and ambivalent-to-against the rest.)
Perhaps this experiment will tell us something about the future of the music business, but there are some pretty important caveats that are worth keeping in mind. The caveats, and the stuff that I think is actually noteworthy, are after the jump. Sorry for the rambling post.
First and most obvious among the caveats is the novelty factor. Radiohead has gotten massive attention for this because it’s doing something that’s new and different. The scale of that attention will make the results misleading as indicators of The Future. Others have made this point, so I’ll leave it at that.
Second, I think it’s a big mistake to draw conclusions about the Death of Big Labels based on the successes (or failures) of bands that built massive followings while on a big label. Radiohead isn’t coming out of nowhere: According the RIAA site, Pablo Honey, The Bends, OK Computer, and Kid A are all platinum records. So Yorke can breezily dismiss the need for labels now, but that’s after a decade-plus of benefiting from having the big-label machine work his records at radio, bankroll the early videos and tours when they weren’t megastars, etc. I’m not saying the old model isn’t under serious pressure; I’m saying that you can’t make sweeping conclusions without considering residual effect from the old model.
Third, Radiohead is almost certainly past its commercial peak anyway. Its only multi-platinum album (per the RIAA site), OK Computer, was released in 1997. Neither Amnesiac (2001) nor Hail To The Thief (2003) has passed the million-seller mark. That’s yet another reason this experiment makes particular sense for this specific band: Instead of the story being, “Yeah, another boring Radiohead record,” the story is all about Radiohead sticking it to the man.
Finally, according to NME, the band is “planning a traditional CD release of ‘In Rainbows’ for early next year.” So this all seems a bit like the 50/Kanye feud — a way to get people to pay attention to a new music release for reasons that have nothing to do with the actual music.
Now, with those things in mind, here’s what’s interesting to me about the release.
The band gave two choices. One was the more widely discussed “pay what you want” scheme for the download version. But it’s also selling a physical version — or “discbox” — clearly aimed at serious Radioheadheads: a CD, two “12-inch heavyweight vinyl records,” a “second, enhanced CD” with more songs, pictures, and artwork, and a lyric booklet, all “encased in a hardback book and slipcase.”
These are “being made to order and are priced at” roughly $82 (converted from British pounds). They ship in early December (though of course buying one gets you automatic access to the download version). Gouging the superfans? Maybe. But being a superfan is partly about the pleasure of getting gouged by your heroes.
The second thing I think is noteworthy is that Radiohead still positions itself as having “made a record,” and they want you to buy the whole thing, even if you’re only willing to pay a small amount. Radiohead certainly positions itself as a band that makes records, albums — not songs. And to me, if you look at what’s changing in the way music is being consumed, what Thom Yorke ought to be wondering is whether the time is at hand when a collection of 10 songs sequenced by the artist and released in a batch is still a relevant approach. In the end, the scheme may say more about defying consumer trends (away from albums and toward single tracks) than it does to defy labels.
And actually that’s what I think is clever about the Radiohead gambit. This is a band that’s working in a dying format (the ten-song collection), and doesn’t want to stop. They’ve got a significant enough existing fan base — and significant enough bank accounts — that they can afford to experiment. It’s smart to experiment in a way that makes sense very specifically for their own artistic goals.