What can we conclude from the new Radiohead release?

Posted by Rob Walker on October 10, 2007
Posted Under: Music

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.

Further diversion may be found at MKTG Tumblr, and the Consumed Facebook page.

Reader Comments

the very opening measure of the final song reminds me of ‘nadia’s theme.’ can’t decide if that’s good or bad.

Written By sara on October 10th, 2007 @ 5:18 pm

Oblige me; if “Yorke can breezily dismiss the need for labels now […] after a decade-plus of benefiting from [them]” – if the benefit was so great, why would he give it up? If the benefit was necessary to popularize them and make their other albums go platinum, then why has In Rainbows (allegedly) been downloaded 1.3 million times in 3 days?

Written By Lawrence Tureaud on October 13th, 2007 @ 12:52 pm

He can give it up because Radiohead has already gotten the benefits. Going from unknown band to million-seller is a lot harder than maintaining a fan base after the million-seller phase has gone on for years. And if the benefit wasn’t such a big deal, then why did Radiohead sign with a major in the first place?

The main reason this got so many downloads is that it got so much attention, and the main reason it got so much attention is that Radiohead is a famous band, and one big reason that Radiohead is a famous band is that the band made a decision to sign with a label, and benefited from that arrangement.

Please note that this post does not suggest nothing has changed, or that labels are great, or that this stunt doesn’t matter, etc. As I clearly say, I think it makes a lot of sense for Radiohead, but I’m not convinced that it tells us all that much about the future of the music business.

But honestly, I think all this already quite clear in the post, and that you simply disagree. That’s fine.

Written By murketing on October 13th, 2007 @ 2:32 pm

One last point: Lots of commentary refers to EMI (or more confusingly, “the RIAA”) “stealing” or “taking money” from the bands. Important distinction here – because of backwards record company accounting, many big artists receive no royalty checks from the sale of their recordings (publishing is another matter) or very small royalty checks. Many of them have indeed been screwed by their labels. But they do get advances, and sometimes those advances are significant.
And for big superstar bands like Radiohead? EMI or any other label would have gladly written them a very large advance check for their new album.
So: Either Radiohead doesn’t care about money, or Radiohead believes they can make even more money by not signing with a label. Or, perhaps, both.

Written By Peter Kafka on October 13th, 2007 @ 10:38 pm

Jane Siberry — now known as Issa — has been offering her music for download and asking people to pay what they think it’s worth for ages.

Written By chele on October 14th, 2007 @ 7:23 pm
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