In Radiohead Price Plan, Some See a Movement
By JEFF LEEDS
October 11, 2007
The New York Times
LOS ANGELES, Oct. 10 — It was, more or less, an accident.
The chief advisers to Radiohead, the Grammy-winning British rock act behind platinum albums like “OK Computer,” were lounging around, having a “metaphysical” conversation about the value of music in the digital realm, when they struck upon the idea of simply releasing new music online and letting fans settle the matter themselves.
Initially, they viewed it as a way to let fans preview Radiohead’s music without the guidance — or filter — of radio programmers, music critics or other conventional tastemakers.
Instead, when Radiohead quietly divulged plans to let fans name their price for the digital download of its new album, “In Rainbows,” it incited talk of a revolution in the music industry, which has found the digital marketplace to be far less of a cash cow than it once dreamed. Though Radiohead is in a position that can’t easily be replicated — it completed its long-term recording contract with the music giant EMI while retaining a big audience of obsessive fans — its move is being seen as a sign for aspiring 21st-century music stars.
“To put your record out for someone’s individual perceived value is brilliant,” said David Kahne, a longtime music producer who has collaborated with artists like Paul McCartney and Kelly Clarkson. While it presents obvious risks as a business model, he noted: “It’s a spiritual model. That’s what it feels like to me.”
The Radiohead camp has been reluctant to add to the hype surrounding the album, which has been stoked by breathless blog posts and e-mail exchanges for the past week. Bryce Edge, who manages the band with Chris Hufford of Courtyard Management, stressed that the band’s tip-jar-style tactic “is not a prescription for the industry.”
But he acknowledged that it has punctuated a debate about the fair value of music that has accelerated in the last few months. Before Radiohead’s superstar panhandle, Prince offered a free song through Verizon phones (and roughly three million free copies of his new album in a British newspaper). And Trent Reznor of the rock act Nine Inch Nails, which, like Radiohead, is effectively free from a record contract, recently encouraged concertgoers to simply “steal” the band’s new album and “give it to all your friends.”
Radiohead’s move comes just as a federal jury in Minnesota last week decided that a mother found liable for copyright infringement for sharing music online should pay damages amounting to about $9,250 apiece for 24 songs.
Mr. Edge summed up the pricing pandemonium simply: “Digital technology has reintroduced the age of the troubadour. You are worth what people are prepared to give you in the digital age because they can get it for nothing.”
In another departure from convention, the band declined to send out early copies of the music for reviewers and has not settled on a traditional single to push to radio stations. As a result, programmers are improvising. In San Francisco, for instance, the rock station KITS-FM, Live 105, has the entire album on its Web site (live105.com) and will let fans vote to determine which songs merit airplay.
“We just want to be involved in it,” said Dave Numme, the station’s program director. “We just want to reflect what’s going on out there and give our listeners a chance to tell us what they think of it.”
But the band is not departing from convention entirely with the new album. A boxed set that includes various extras is being sold on www.inrainbows.com for a set price of about $80. And Radiohead plans to release “In Rainbows” as an old-fashioned CD no later than January, though it has not determined if it will return to a major label to do so.
Radiohead completed its long-term contract with EMI with 2003’s “Hail to the Thief,” which sold roughly one million copies in the United States. The band will also tour next year.
“The final acid test,” Mr. Edge said, “is come January, when the music has been available. Will there still be sufficient demand for a CD for us to feel that we’ve proved that making music available does not necessarily cannibalize CD sales?”
Various voices in and out of the industry have urged Radiohead to detail its “In Rainbows” sales data, but the band’s managers declined to reveal them in an interview this week. It is not clear that the band will ever disclose how many copies of the digital album it has distributed or the average price paid, though Courtyard has been running an office pool on the results. But Radiohead’s managers did dispute rumors that more people have bought the deluxe boxed set. And they added that most fans who have ordered the download have elected to pay something.
“The majority of the public are really decent human beings who are honest,” Mr. Hufford said.
See also: Radiohead DEAD AIR SPACE (Official Site)