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Radiohead Finds Gold at the End of Rainbows

By Dave Davis · November 20th, 2007 · Distribution Revolution
Oliver Meinerding

Radiohead's pay-what-you-want experiment, aka In Rainbows, has been selling strongly, with people choosing to pay a little less than they'd pay for better quality versions at Amazon. While the band has chosen to keep all numbers private, the most-consistently leaked stats claim at least 1.2 million copies of the album sold (or 12 million "tracks"), for on average a little under $9 per album.

Radiohead is quick to admit this isn't a template for the rest of the industry. Virtual tip jars are not a business model (most professional buskers are poor).

But Radiohead's net-busking has all sorts of benefits: The band has no competition with its peers in this market, the promotional value for a multi-platinum selling artist is huge and, most of all, there's no label to share profits with. Since even good contracts pay artists less than 25 cents per track for downloads (the only growing segment of major label sales), Radiohead had nothing to lose.

After three weeks, the numbers line up perfectly with previous experiments. Canadian artist Issa (formerly known as Jane Siberry on Warner Music) has been selling her work this way for years, and her average price per track has stabilized around $1.18 (she too has enjoyed the benefit of free publicity). So while this isn't a silver bullet, it's an option for established artists fleeing major labels.

The buying experience with In Rainbows was great, especially if you waited until after the release date (if before, you got a receipt and a link promising files later via e-mail). Two small gripes, though:

First, orders are processed in UK pounds, so entering "4" winds up being closer to $9.

I suspect this amounts to an unintentional bonus from many American fans (though Radiohead links to a currency exchange at checkout).

Second, the credit card charge is added to your price at checkout. While it's possible to go back and deduct the charge from your offer, it's a hassle.

Are fans inclined to dicker over rounding areas while trying to do the right thing and reward a band for being cool? Retailers and other online music merchants roll them into the price.

This is more critical when credit cards are the only method of payment. It's there for a reason, namely to ensure people who choose tiny amounts don't cost the band a mint in processing charges for what are essentially negative-amount sales. But it would be better to simply not accept offers below a certain amount at all than introduce a new (and irrelevant) line item.

Since the tools to address these issues are provided, these are minor complaints. I elected to pay the band $8, including fees. I'm not thrilled about the quality (160K MP3s), but they're better than what Apple charges ($10 for 128K AAC) and only a little crappier than Amazon's 256K MP3s that run between $8 and $10 per album. I guess I tossed Radiohead an extra buck or so on principle.

But is this an album or a bunch of songs spewed onto the Internet for a quick buck? I got my answer when I loaded it onto its ideal platform, my iPod Shuffle, and took it on a road trip with some of my favorite albums.

After listening to The Clash's Sandinista (a long, strange trip) over the car stereo, I put on my earbuds and hit play. From top to bottom, I never felt the need to hit stop. "Bodysnatchers" rocks hard and strange, just how I like it!

I'll admit my skip-finger got a little itchy on a couple of the tracks. "Nude" started out promising but quickly devolved into boring Bono-esque Emo-wailing, and "Weird Fishes" didn't do much for me either. Not to worry, "Jigsaw Falling Into Place" takes you places Bono's never been and couldn't visit. Thom Yorke lets the instruments take the lead and tell the story, his voice serving to the song.

As the final track of In Rainbows faded out, I found myself frantically scrolling backwards in my 'pod, wanting more. Houston, we have an album!

After listening, I visited "deadairspace," Radiohead's blog/board/fan site, for a look-see. It's an interesting place, more like MySpace than Facebook, adopting the post-modern "aesthetic of the default," which places content above visual appeal.

Unlike most other fan sites, the band's presence is obvious, suggesting this is more than a pose. The links are political and useful (the Project Guttenberg link turned me on to another classic ebook site!). Refreshingly, the band wastes few electrons pimping the obvious: In Rainbows is part of the experience, but not the main focus.

Radiohead deserves some credit, not just for taking a risk and trusting fans, but for being classy and smart in their approach. Trent Reznor, who just released the final album on his major label contract, sneeringly encourages fans to steal his ex-label's profits. Madonna stuck her new overlords, Clear Channel's Live Nation, with a timorous deal -- only perfect execution or future success signing other artists to much worse contracts can rescue this deal.

Radiohead chose not to bite the hands that fed them so well for so long and trusted their fans to do the talking. This is working out well for them.

Even if the rumors are lies and no one paid a cent for In Rainbows, it's likely the hard CD (due early next year on the Dave Matthews-affiliated ATO label) and box-set versions will sell as well as they would have before this move, proving what we've been saying here in DistroRev all along: Fans want cool music and are happy to buy fairly-priced products.

DAVE DAVIS makes records and designs new media at Sound Images.



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