In Radiohead v. the Recording Industry, Radiohead Leads (For Now)


By now, you’ve surely heard the news about the new Radiohead album, In Rainbows. If you haven’t, here’s the condensed version of the story. Beginning a week from tomorrow, fans who go through the appropriate channels will be able to download the album—without any DRM restrictions. Going through the same channels, other fans will be able to buy a “discbox” Radiohead Discbox Photocontaining the original CD, an additional CD with bonus material, two heavy-weight vinyl LPs containing the album, and lots of artwork and other goodies (including a code for downloading on 10 October—for £40 inclusive of shipping; that’s slightly less than $82 with today’s exchange rate). While the latter price might seem excessive, taken with the download option (which allows users to name their own prices), together they constitute a risky, bold and potentially revolutionary strategy.

After the release of Hail to the Thief in 2003, Radiohead and Capitol/EMI parted ways. Since then, there’s been a lot of speculation about which label the band would choose to release its future material. It seems now that the group has chosen to be even more bold than others have been. After his split with Warner Brothers in the 1990s, Prince, for example, tried for years to sell CDs primarily via his website, but eventually found that to get his music into stores, he’d have to sign distribution deals with the majors (and that’s something that even the most “independent” labels have to do).

Radiohead, though, seem to be bypassing all of the traditional channels. There is no label, nor is there a distributor (yet—the band has hinted that there might be a conventional release in 2008). By or on 3 December, discboxes will be shipped from the group’s webstore to those who ordered them. Despite the package’s cost, it is impressive. (Within minutes of learning about the offer on Sunday night/Monday morning and seeing what I would get, I had placed my order). What it promises are things sorely lacking in most of the releases coming from the majors and the indies: good music, no encumbrances, thoughtful and well-designed packaging, and multiple ways to access and enjoy the material. Even more, the marketing of the discbox is a model that allows the band to keep all of the proceeds rather than a percentage of retail sales (after, of course, a label has recouped expenses for recording and mastering, producer’s fees, marketing, promotion and tour support).

If we accept the assessment of Radiohead’s publicist (summarized here), things seem to be working well so far. Most people opting for the download-only option have paid prices similar to those set by other legal download services. And surprisingly, most visitors have opted for the more expensive discbox. To me, that choice is both unexpected and revelatory. What it might indicate is that consumers aren’t averse to paying for something that they presume will be of high quality and that the RIAA’s broad characterization of all music downloaders (including those who copy or download things they have already bought) as thieves is completely off-base.

While there are lots of articles online arguing that Radiohead’s strategy might be a model for the major labels to emulate, a little reflection reveals why that may not be the case. That is, this isn’t a strategy that could work for any but the most established bands. There are elements in the strategy that hold more promise than Rick Rubin’s ballyhooed prediction that the future of the record industry lies in subscriptions. (Yeah, right.) In the meantime, I’ll make sure I get plenty of rest early next week so can listen to the downloads as soon as they’re available, and I’ll look forward to receiving that lovely discbox just in time for the holidays…

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