In an attempt to maintain this blog as an academic pursuit, I have long held half of my
bloggy impulses in check. I love reading music blogs, and have often debated whether I could let some of this blog focus on music, just for the love of music. But I decided to wall it off, for all sorts of intellectual and (tenure-based) strategic decisions. So it is with gratitude to Radiohead, who has for many years now been my favorite artists, to give me permission to bring the two together.
Lots of people are talking about Radiohead’s recent announcement. (here’s coverage in The Telegraph and The New York Times.) They’re new album, “In Rainbows,” is available for pre-order, exclusively through this website. To buy access to the digital downloads, which will be available October 10, you pay whatever you want. Over and above a .45 pence credit charge, you set the price, as high or as low as you choose.
I just ordered the album, and offered to pay 4.92 pounds, which at that moment was $10. you could offer twice that, or you could offer a single pency, about two cents.
In addition to the digital downloads for whatever price, you can buy the “discbox” version, with the album on CD, a second CD of alternative tracks, vinyl versions, artwork, etc. Its 40 pounds, or about $81. And there’s talk of a traditional CD release in January.
Much of the talk is about what kinds of offers Radiohead will get, and I hope/assume we’ll hear at some point what people are generally proposing. Farhad Manjoo, on his blog Machinist, did some of the basic math, to figure how much they’d have to get to match what they’d get selling it on iTunes through a major label:
For every $1 song sold on iTunes, according to reports, Apple keeps about 30 cents, giving about 70 to the record label. But activists say artists typically get just 8 to 14 cents per song from the deal — or about $0.80 to $1.40 per album sold digitally.
So that’s the main test here; in order for the band to come out ahead, Radiohead needs to clear only more than a buck-50 per sale. Easy.
I have to agree with his guess, that Radiohead fans are a particular stripe, and will pay generously enough to balance out those who decide to try the album for less than $1.50 and the ones who like the thrill of paying a band two cents and getting a full album. The songs will get traded wildly on p2p networks, but that would be true if they went the traditional CD route. And all that antipathy for the major labels, whether its real or a useful posture to justify file-sharing, might tip some scales and convince some to drop a few bucks through this unorthodox model.
I’ve often argued that artists could really change this whole game — the example I always think to is Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks breaking from the Hollywood studio system and starting United Artists as an actor-friendly studio — a studio that survived for decades. Imagine the tectonic shift that might follow if George Clooney, Julia Roberts, and Will Ferrell just set up shop with a radical new way of doing business. Or, since its the music industry that needs renovation today, imagine Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, and Bruce Springsteen setting up a record label where artists didn’t sign away copyright, they just got support and promotion in exchange for a cut of their profits. Radiohead is messing with the system in their own way, and it pushes the question in a way that a new distributor or reseller can’t, because the justifications for copyright so often focus on the authors and artists.
Because the option to price the album as you choose is so unorthodox, it is going to get the most attention. But let’s also remember that this is a major artist selling their album online without the support of a record label. This is not entirely new: Prince has been doing it for some time, Aimee Mann did it for her last album after being unceremoniously dropped from her label. Obviously lots of unsigned bands try it. But a success in this regard by a band that has had recent success going the more traditional route does have an impact. Radiohead is working with a distributor called W.A.S.T.E. Products, who are handling the financial transactions and downloads; I don’t know what kind of economic arrangement they have with them, though I imagine some/all of that .45 is for them. But a success here, especially a high-profile one, could spur distributors like W.A.S.T.E. to emerge and offer their services.
And let’s add another wrinkle to the picture. As I write this post, I’ve been listening to nearly every track from their upcoming Radiohead album that I already paid for but can’t download until Wednesday. And I don’t use peer-to-peer networks. Nearly every song is available on YouTube in some live version, from a Radiohead appearance at Bonnaroo, or a British show called The Basement, or some other show recorded by a fan and posted. And Manjoo has a blog post with the album tracklisting, nearly every track a link to its YouTube locale. So the music’s out there, in a somewhat different form. Without a label to interfere (Radiohead finished its contract with EMI with Hail to the Thief in 2003, and refused to resign. Was George Bush the “thief” in the title, as many surmised, or was it EMI and the record industry?), no one is ordering YouTube to take these down. Will that mean fewer will buy the album, because they can just make a YouTube playlist for free and listen to their heart’s content, or will more buy because they can hear that the songs are of the quality Radiohead so regularly offers? I suspect the latter… and we’ll see… though there will be dispute as to how to interpret the numbers, how it would have been different otherwise.
And finally, some praise for Radiohead. I have long adored their music, have never been dissatisfied. They may or may not be your cup of tea, I can appreciate that. But they are smart musicians, exploring a range of sonic ideas not as some knee jerk gesture towards reinvention and not ever repeating past successes. They’re smart about the world, smart about technology, smart about making music speak to the world and still move you as music should. They respect their fans as thinkers, as listeners, as citizens. And they have proven to be very thoughtful about the industry in which they participate. It is not separate from, but I think vitally connected to, artistic practice, to have the gall, the daring, the ingenuity to challenge what seems true, to see where it may be otherwise. I do not demand that music not be a commodity — Radiohead will get paid, to some degree, no matter how this works — just that the rigidity of those commodity relations, the replacement of cultural ends with market means, the overshadowing of meaning by the overemphasis of the exchange, be shaken up from time to time. So while the academic blogger in me thinks any result from this experiment will be a fascinating insight into the intellectual questions pressing around music, copyright, and digital culture, the music blogger in me is pulling for Radiohead on this one 100%.