The first ten seconds of “15 Step,” the first song on Radiohead’s latest album, “In Rainbows,” opens with the sound of digital flutters and electronic claps, followed by the sleepy voice of Thom Yorke. Forty-one seconds into the song the guitars finally kick in, sliding up and down until drum machine layers brings the song into full force.
But this is not an album review, and this is not about dictating whether the album is even worth buying. This is about how a band released an album online, allowed its fans to name their price – for free or otherwise – and actually got people to pay for their music. Now other bands like Oasis, Jamiroquai and Madness are also considering releasing albums in this way.
Music fans are more willing to directly pay a band who gives power back to the people in determining what their work is worth instead of forking over the cash for an album released by a record label who will ultimately only give a small percentage of the profits to the artist. It brings the people closer to the artist when the inefficient middle man is eliminated and in the case of Radiohead (who are unsigned) garners a higher level of admiration for a band that respects their fans.
British website Gigwise.com reported that a day after its release, 1.2 million downloads of Radiohead’s album had been purchased (the band has yet to reveal the sales statistics, but music industry newsletter Record of the Day reported that in a poll of about 3,000 people, the average price paid was ?4, or $8.17). That figure isn’t too bad considering their previous CD, “Hail to the Thief,” only sold 300,000 in its first week.
It’s not news that album sales are decreasing steadily – last year’s best-selling album, the “High School Musical” soundtrack, sold slightly over 4 million copies, compared to 1997’s best-selling debut record, “Spice” by the Spice Girls, which sold 7.4 million copies that year. Radiohead didn’t need to appeal to a tween fan base to sell a million albums in a day. All they had to do was let the market decide the value of their work.
Ohio-based purebuttons.com, a promotional button manufacturing company, paid to the tune of $1,000 for the album. In a press release, the company said their purchase was in support of the band’s “‘silent’ efforts to revolutionize the music industry.”
The band has the right idea, but free music by the artists for the people is not a new concept. Unsigned bands commonly distribute homemade copies of their demos after concerts in hopes that the disc makes it to the right ears rather than end up as a computer-side coaster. The Smashing Pumpkins released three EPs and an album, “Machina II/The Friends and Enemies of Modern Music,” for free on the internet as a follow-up to their last official Virgin Records release and as a “‘fuck you’ to a record label that didn’t give them the support they deserved,” according to a press release. And Prince gave away his most recent album, “Planet Earth,” for free with the UK newspaper, The Mail, on Sunday.
The Recording Industry Assocation of America (RIAA) is in a sorry state and it knows it.
Madonna recently gave Warner Bros. Records the axe and signed a $120 million deal with concert touring company Live Nation. And during a September concert in Australia, fans cheered as Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor encouraged them to steal his band’s music because of the high price of CDs and the “greedy fucking assholes” at his record label, Interscope Records. About a month later, Reznor posted a blog on the band’s official website announcing that they were no longer with the label.
“I?have watched the business radically mutate from one thing to something inherently very different,” Reznor wrote, “and it gives me great pleasure to be able to finally have a direct relationship with the audience as I see fit and appropriate.”
What does it mean when the most internationally known pop star signs a deal with a company that isn’t even a record label, and artists actually encourage the piracy of their own work?
“In Rainbows” was still pirated despite being legally available for free – illegal download tracking company Big Champagne reported that six days after the album’s release, about 500,000 copies were illegally downloaded. But a study by Harvard associate professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf from the University of North Carolina showed that for every 150 illegal album downloads, an additional album was purchased. And without having split album, touring or merchandising costs with a label, any money made will go directly to Radiohead, and that’s the way many of their fans would prefer.
The industry needs to get its act together before it loses more artists. Musicians don’t need a record label to record or distribute their music; a microphone and Myspace are now enough to spread their work to millions. The industry has made it clear that they are now making up for their diminishing revenue by suing people like Jammie Thomas or charging exorbitant CD prices for albums that often only contain a couple of listenable tracks. They need to work on a business model that improves their relationship with their customers, the music fans.
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