Wednesday, October 10, 2007

In Rainbows

If you've already heard the Radiohead story, the short version is "Buy this album. First rate." For the rest of you,

Just a few days ago, a PR storm, or the holy grail of internet media, depending on your politics, hit the world. Experimental rock band Radiohead announced on their website that their first album in four years would be available in ten days. This alone was a bit surprising. Albums are promoted. They are talked up on Total Request Live. Songs come out early. They get stuck in heavy rotation on appropriate radio stations. Advance copies are sent to reviewers. Come in here dear boy, have a cigar, you're gonna go far. The A&R man said "I don't hear a single".

It's not just common practice, it's a complex system where a lot of middlemen take a cut along the way to a $16 CD in Target. But Radiohead has a dedicated fan base and doesn't have a recording contract, so they just decided to bugger the whole thing, at least initially.

But what happened next was even more surprising. The online store where one could pre-order this album showed only two options for acquisition. Option A, an online download, available October 10. Option B, a massive boxset with an extra album of B-sides, both albums in vinyl format, extra artwork and goodies, shipping in early December in time for Christmas, for 40 pounds sterling. The only way you can get this album right now is to download.

Oh, and I left out something. But before I get to that, let me back up for a second and give you some valuable background.

In 1999, Napster was born. A dude wanted to be able to find music on the internet, so he wrote a program that allowed people to easily share their music by registering with a central server. Not quite ten years later, the top 90% of the music in the known universe is available for free if you know where to look. Older people, as a rule, do not know, or their scruples prevent them. Younger people, as a rule, do, and it turns out they feel less scruples about doing so.

Given these facts, a debate has raged about the cause of the collapse of CD sales. In other words, how much money has the file-sharing phenomenon lost for all the middlemen? (Aside. For the record, CD sales never made much money for the artists. They get pennies on the dollar for every one sold. The iTunes music store cut out the packaging, lowering prices by about 20-30% for an album, but left all the middlemen in the loop.)

It's hard to say for sure. There is some evidence that file-sharers are music consumers and more likely to buy CDs. There is even some evidence that CD sales were trending downward prior to Napster. And there is an obvious viewpoint that CDs are just PR for the band's performance and touring, where they actually make their money. (I read somewhere that Radiohead was paid a million dollars to headline Bonnaroo in 2006. On the fair side, they played a lot of new stuff for 2.5 hours. As one reviewer put it, Radiohead is the soundtrack of the exquisite, uplifting agony that is truth in the midst of a world gone mad. The music was so flawless that I barely felt worthy to be there.)

And there is one last question, which is whether it is possible to provoke the file-sharers to come in from the cold by offering them a legal way to download music that is just as convenient as file-sharing and still makes a little money. The iTunes music store was a first draft of this. You might see Rhapsody, a monthly subscription service, as another approach to this idea. Recently, Amazon started a music store selling mp3s without copying restrictions... the trend continues.

Anyway, back to Radiohead, the missing piece of information. If you want to experience this for yourself, stop reading and click the following link to the store where Radiohead is selling the new album. Well, I guess you have to pre-order the download and look in your basket to really see it. You won't be forced to spend any money by doing this. When you see something verrry strange, click the question mark.

I'll wait, if you want.

It's up to you. The price is blank. You, the consumer, fill it in and pay what you want for this album.

I've heard of people putting full price in this barely-organized tipjar. I've heard of people downloading the album for a British penny. There is a nominal transaction fee, but that's it.

Remember how I said that bands don't make much off of album sales because so many middlemen touch it? This is what you get when you cut out the middlemen. Naturally, the middlemen are a bit nervous about what just happened. I think they'll be even more nervous if Radiohead ever release the price distribution they got, pocketing the profit after paying the hosting service and the online store. My guess is that this deal is a bit better than the iTunes deal or the brick-and-mortar deal.

Remember how I said file-sharers might need a means to come in from the cold? Well, this might just be it. Radiohead managed to force questions of price, integrity, and the value of music into a wild free market. My feeling is that in a sense they didn't try to beat the file sharers, they just became the head file-sharer, and did it in such a way that you have to consider in your heart how much money you think is fair.

I looked at it as a way to not only purchase music, whatever that means (some record company executives are saying you can't legally rip your own CDs to mp3s, you have to buy it over and over again in different formats), but to compensate the artist for their work.

At the heart of this issue is a conflict between two great institutions: copyright and the public library. Copyright and patents were conceived as ways to encourage the useful arts and sciences, by ensuring that creators were allowed to manage their creations and not just get ripped off all the time. The library was conceived as a way to set those creations free in the community to spawn further creations and enrich life. Somewhere in there, copyright became a license for megacorporations to protect their IP by suing people left and right for absurd damage amounts (in the latest trial, $200000 for sharing 30 songs online, when the actual lost sales from this file-sharing amount to, at most, a traffic ticket).

My heart has been with the library on this issue. You guys get to hear about Radiohead and Beck and the new Andrew Bird album on this blog because I borrow CDs from the library without paying anyone a dime. That is valuable, a no-brainer. Are you cheating authors when you borrow their books?

PS Oh, the music? I downloaded it today, release day. It was not hard to get through. This morning, the servers were getting hammered by downloaders, but it seems to have cleared up.

It's actually rather accessible, for Radiohead. I think it's quite moving and beautiful, actually. Less experimental than epic, like OK Computer. I'm not going to stop listening to this thing for quite a while.

If there was ever a time to pick up a band's album for less than a pound ($2 US), now was it. Here's that link again:

I hope you like it.

1 comment:

Robert said...

Hey Dan, I'll be gone this weekend (13, 14), but you should call me when you're up here. Only other night I know I'm busy right now is the 19th when I'm going to a UW volleyball game.

Have a good flight and talk to you soon