Let me preface this by saying I’m not a huge Radiohead fan – I think my wife may have an album or two of theirs, and I bought a tribute album for them by primarily R&B artists. My personal theory is that their songs sound better played by other people, but that’s just an opinion, and I don’t want to anger any Radiohead fans right off the bat.
That said, it’s undeniable that they have a vocal and loyal following of no small consideration, and that following serves as a study ground on which to anchor their newest venture – the “pay-as-much-as-you-want” digital release of In Rainbows. Fans are asked to pay what they think the files are worth (one report on the Velvet Rope bulletin board had the website duly accepting a price of zero), and they get the files. There’s also a boxed set with enhanced content and a “proper” album release coming out later.
EDIT: I tried the ‘zero’ route and it still asked for credit card information. So while I’m incredulous about the free story, I did at least witness the customized pricing window.
SECOND EDIT: I tried it again, and evidently the credit card information was just part of the new member registration. I skipped it, and with a registered profile (which asked for your home address and mobile phone #) I was able to get a confirmation page for a free download available on 10/10. If it works, I’ll have to buy the album just to support their experiment, I suppose. I might also have Thom Yorke asking me why I felt the new album was worth nothing.
LAST EDIT: They’re now charging enough to cover a credit card fee (about $.90), even if it doesn’t make sense because you’re not charging a credit card. Eh, still a small fee.
This move probably won’t benefit smaller artists without Radiohead’s fanbase (a fanbase built while the band was on a major label, in all fairness) in the short term, but it points to an interesting sea change. Radiohead was one of the artists “holding out” on iTunes and other digital services, and there was speculation as to which way they’d go when it came time for digital releases of new material and back catalog. Turns out that they’re striking out on their own.
And while it’s a bold move, it still leaves some issues unresolved. Radiohead still has an established reputation – even as bold as this maneuver is, they’re still banking on their past work and fan loyalty for this experiment to succeed. The promotion and street work has pretty much been done, and they’re getting plenty of publicity through word through viral marketing and press releases. What it does accomplish (in addition to promoting the new release) is seeding the idea that this is both possible and viable. Getting people used to the idea means it’s occur more naturally for other artists – don’t worry about the label, just put it out there and see what you can get.
This isn’t going to kill iTunes or download services in general – people will still probably need gatekeepers and tastemakers to help them find music. But it is pointing to the fact that artists may not need these gatekeepers and tastemakers indefinitely, and it might not be such a bad idea to lead your own parade.