As I am tasked with some level of music criticism on this site, I will state for the record that I am not particularly curious about Radiohead’s new album In Rainbows, largely because I expect I know to a degree of roughly 95 percent what it will sound like and I am equally confident the remaining five percent will not move me. But I have been to the website. I started a 0.00 GBP order for an album I won’t download to have seen the process first hand. At some point I might pre-order to have gone through the entire process.
Regardless of your feelings on the band, you have to acknowledge that something different is going on here, and while some might go so far as to call out artists we otherwise consider virtuous (Bono the practical pacifist, Sting the tantric vegan, Bob the iconoclast poet) for taking the major label coin, I’ll just call it the logical extension of something Gang of Four started. Gang of Four had egalitarian ambitions within the capitalist system as well. It’s hard to coordinate your socialist world view with the need to rely on capitalists to get music/messages in people’s hands (and feed the fam, as well) but both have done it to the extent possible. To think one band so deeply influenced Radiohead and Franz Ferdinand. It really is one incestuous scene on that island nation.
To me it’s no different than Fugazi charging less than $10 for albums and playing only all ages shows. Access to the art at the minimum costs and restrictions possible given modern production techniques is a fantastic ideal. Pricing by ability/motivation to pay is noble on several fronts. In fact, I recently had a discussion with a small label head that centered on “patronage” accounts for people who really liked a musician and wanted to support that musician’s ability to write, record and perform. The concept was not far from the super-duper bonus packs Radiohead is offering to successful capitalists, but over the term of the band’s relationship with the label.
Many in the digital music community stress buying performance tickets and merchandise over buying the albums. It’s a more direct form of recognizing the artist and might force the labels to find other ways to make the money (like loansharking to bands who need funds to record, but that is a far different topic). Disintermediation of the labels is a popular goal and seen as a path to music nirvana.
So let’s look at a post-In Rainbows world and the labels’ place in it. First of all, I doubt anyone’s sitting straighter or losing sleep at the big labels. Not only are they slow to move on this sort of thing, but one band is not a revolution. It takes a very special kind of band to pull this off.
Conditions for success include a substantial part of the act’s audience being very loyal fans — the kind that will know if the band will be releasing an album with or without massive radio play. They include a digital savvy audience that will not only have the tools and bandwidth to download the album, but cares little for standard CD packaging (though it helps to have a sizable portion that will pay substantial premiums for a special edition package). They include the band having the wherewithal to fulfill all of those orders itself. They include having the respect/admiration of journalists and bloggers who will spread the good word without cost.
I’ve basically narrowed the list to Radiohead and Wilco there, and Wilco doesn’t have that same activist streak. So significant change on the high end will come slowly if at all. But what kind of change might happen below the major label level?
Bands that are happy with their listenership might try to emulate the model if it seems successful. I say “seems” successful because I’m at a loss to know how we would know for sure. Why would Radiohead tell anyone how it’s doing other than smile and say it’s going well? The band wouldn’t say it’s going poorly because it would make the strategy (and by extension, the band)look stupid and it has no motivation to report actual revenue. The granularity we are likely to get: if Radiohead decides to do it again with the next album.
Cake, who recently decided to self-release two albums over the next year, might be taking notes, as might other artists with hip, consistent audiences like Lou Reed, Billy Corgan, etc. Smaller (very small) bands that self release might go with a “pay what you like” model and may do better than they expect. But all of this feels very grass roots and does not include the ambitious bands that have growing to do.
Labels will still be the number one way that people discover music. There are blogs and other sources of music information that scour MySpace and live venues for undiscovered talent, but the label system (micro, small, mid major and major, if you will) is still the primary path to greater audiences. Labels work. Therefore, the economics are going to be frightfully hard to change.
The more likely path is that production and marketing costs get closer to zero through commodity pricing brought on by technology. Labels and bands come up with ways to price things based on their goals (growth vs. revenue, target audience, etc.). Everything largely stays within the system, but the system gets healthier, stronger, more fan friendly.
That other trend we’ve been tracking here at Beating the Drum — that whole DRM/MP3 thing — will likely have a far greater effect. Amazon is allowing publishers to vary their cost, which varies Amazon’s cost and allows Amazon to do fun things like package albums for discounts, etc. The channels in place will become more flexible and this Radiohead album will be a footnote in the grand digital music story we are watching live, and I’m not sure it will be a wildly entertaining footnote at that (no offense to the band and its fans, of course). That said, this isn’t a horror story. Radiohead is giving you an album, a real album, for whatever you’ll pay. That’s not bad, right? Well…
There is also a way for this all to end less happily. Radiohead would likely do little to alienate (ha, alienate — Radiohead) its fans, but the band sure is collecting a heck of a lot of information with the order. Radiohead might not have any insidious use for that data, but other bands or organizations (labels and others with rights to music) might burn three b-sides and two live tracks disguised as an EP for the right to market to you endlessly, or sell that data to others who will. There are many ways to make money off of your interest in a band and not all of them are better than you giving cash away for music.
It’s a tough digital world. Be careful out there.