We’ve been talking about this for a long time, but it’s finally here. We are witnessing one of the first steps in the dismantling of the decades-long music industry monopoly over the consumer. Ironically, everyone saw this coming except the record company executives that this hurts the most. Their ridiculous behavior, fear mongering lawsuits and fool-hearty business practices not only exacerbated the issue but only served to encourage people to want to screw them even more. As a result we now have the first major band using the web and P2P the way it should be used in a new day and a new age. And who better to lead the revolution than Radiohead (maybe Pearl Jam who surely can’t be far behind), the most revolutionary musical act in popular music and a band that has formed an unbreakable bond with their audience through an adherence to their musical purity.
To be clear, I am pro-business and previous columns of mine indicate such. I am not rooting for the demise of record labels, nor am I looking for the mass layoffs that have plagued the industry and which will clearly continue. I am, however, rooting for a new way of thinking in an old business that has refused to adapt to changing times. At the end of the day, label executives love music just like the rest of us, they just go about producing and distributing it in a manner that is not designed to promote the best music but the music with the highest chance of selling. They are after the bottom line, and there’s nothing wrong with that. After all an album, for all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into its production, is still a product no different than an iPod. When a band comes to your town, they are playing a market, no different than a commercial for a business and are hoping to sell more albums as a result.
But wait; that’s where things have changed. The old business model saw bands touring to support an album, in an effort to drive sales. If a band put on a good concert, showcasing the new songs, fans purchased the new album and the band saw a certain percentage of those album sales. But the interwebs and peer-to-peer has changed that way of thinking, even if record companies and many bands are refusing to acknowledge it. While I disagree entirely with the mass distribution of an artist’s work with no compensation to that artist, there is no denying that it is here to stay. You cannot stop it, you cannot police it and Radiohead are the first major band to both realize it and do something about it.
Of course, undertaking such an endeavor is much easier for a band of Radioheads size in comparison to, say, Jose Gonzalez who may desperately need the income generated by album sales. What is clear is that Radiohead has given up and given in, while simultaneously taking the boldest step in our lifetimes to deal with the changing landscape in music distribution. There was a window where Metallica could have realized the same thing, and taken steps years ago to deal with an emerging issue with a radical idea: sell your music straight to the fans. At the same time, years later, giving away music is no longer such a radical idea. In fact, it’s probably the sanest idea we’ve heard in a long time. Let the fans decide how much to pay for your music? Somewhere, Clive Davis’s head exploded. The radical ideas are those being pushed by record labels and musicians as they grasp at straws to maintain a business model as outdated as the typewriter. I am amazed at how many bands still do not realize that if given the opportunity to pay the band directly, fans would jump on board to do so, bypassing the industry that has screwed them out of thousands of dollars for decades.
But Radiohead realize it. And that’s why In Rainbows is worth $10. The band, regardless of whether or not they end up signing with a label and distributing the album using traditional methods, has taken a risk. They know they have an air tight fan base that wants the album, and they are giving the fans the chance to get their hands on the music straight from them. What they don’t know is if people will pay for the album when a certain percentage has become accustomed to paying nothing. Will they recoup studio costs? Will they have to pay the producer out of their own pocket? While Radiohead as a band surely have the funds to cover these costs, and will obviously make many times their expenses on the road, smaller bands can take neither such comfort. Will smaller, emerging artists undertake a similar distribution method if 90% of Radiohead’s fans pay $1? Probably, but it will make them more hesitant.
So I say, let’s pay Radiohead $10 for In Rainbows. I know most people won’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s worth it. Hell, it’s worth $10 just for the effort.