Radiohead’s bid to revive music industry: pay what you like to download albums
· Band bypass record labels to get release out quickly
· Internet experiment lets fans put a price on art
Owen Gibson, media correspondent
Tuesday October 2, 2007
Their music has long been praised for blurring boundaries and breaking moulds. Now Radiohead are hoping to establish a new model for the struggling record industry by inviting music buyers to decide how much they want to pay for their new album.
To their biggest fans, eagerly awaiting their first studio album for four years, it is near priceless. Those who believe Radiohead long ago descended into self-indulgence may only risk pennies. But thanks to this ground-breaking experiment, the band will bypass record labels altogether and will be able to put a fiscal value on the public’s appreciation of their art.
The release was announced with a short message from guitarist Jonny Greenwood on the band’s website, revealing that the new album, In Rainbows, would be available to download from October 10. Orders started rolling in yesterday, with customers able decide how much to pay – from nothing (plus a 45p administration charge) upwards.
Radiohead’s “honesty box” experiment will be closely watched by other artists, their record labels and management companies.
In Rainbows is the most high-profile attempt yet to restructure the economics of a music industry struggling with the effects of digital piracy. Despite a booming live scene, CD sales are less profitable than ever thanks to increased competition and piracy.
With the role of the internet in helping new acts from Arctic Monkeys to Enter Shikari rise to prominence already well documented, more established artists are attempting to revolutionise the way music is sold.
Prince caused uproar among music retailers by giving his latest album away with the Mail on Sunday and yesterday the Charlatans said they would give their new single and album away for nothing through the radio station Xfm.
“Why would you volunteer to join the army for 10 years unless you had no choice? Record companies are a kind of army – very regulated,” said Creation Records founder Alan McGee, who manages the Charlatans. “Whilst live music and merchandise sales are booming, physical sales are steadily decreasing with more and more fans simply burning tracks from friends or free download sites. The band will get paid more by more people coming to the gigs, buying merchandise, publishing and synch fees. I believe it’s the future business model.”
But Nicola Slade, editor of the music industry newsletter Record of the Day, sounded a note of caution, speculating that not all bands could go it alone in similar fashion or afford to give their music away. “I’m all in favour of sticking it to the man, but you have to remember that Prince and Radiohead have had the benefit of years of record company investment and they wouldn’t be where they are without it,” she said.
A spokesman for Radiohead said one motivation behind the new model was to get the album out to fans more quickly than the usual three- to six-month lead time required by record labels.
Diehard fans are also being offered the opportunity to spend £40 on a physical “discbox” version of the album.
After downloading In Rainbows next week, in December these fans will be sent a deluxe box containing the album on CD and two vinyl records, as well as a second CD containing more new songs, digital photographs, artwork and a hardback book.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the obsessive nature of the fanbase, on the first day on sale it appeared more people had shelled out for the box set than had ordered the variably priced download.
Since parting company with their record label EMI and insisting that in future they would only sign one-off deals, a string of rumours has surrounded the release of the latest Radiohead album.
One website counting down to the new album was dismissed as a hoax, while the band’s management were also forced to deny rumours that they were due to follow Paul McCartney’s lead and sign a deal with Starbucks.
It was only recently that Radiohead’s back catalogue, including The Bends and the much-lauded OK Computer, were made available digitally thanks to a deal between EMI and the download service 7Digital.
The band had resolutely refused to make their music available to the market leader, iTunes, because the Apple service insists on selling individual tracks and Radiohead wanted to sell their albums as complete works.