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In tune with fans

The rock band Radiohead has proved it can sell albums by the truckload, having moved more than 8.2 million units in the U.S. alone since its debut in 1993. Now, however, it’s trying to demonstrate something else: that given the choice between buying an album and taking one for free, music fans will actually pull out their wallets.

This week, the British band invited fans to place orders at radiohead.com for its long-awaited new album, “In Rainbows,” which it plans to release Oct. 10. Those who want the downloadable version are invited to name a price, which can be as low as 1 pence (about 2 cents), plus 45 pence to cover the credit card fee. The only other choice is a box set for 40 pounds (about $82), which includes vinyl and CD versions, bonus tracks and artwork.

Radiohead is free to do as it pleases with this release because it’s currently independent, having fulfilled its contract with EMI Group’s Capitol Records. Its track record is so good, it almost certainly could command a lucrative new contract with any of the major labels. After all, that’s the path followed by most successful artists. They tend not to profit much from CD sales on their first major-label contract, even if they produce hits, because the label keeps the lion’s share of the revenue. It’s on the second or third contract, if at all, that they gain the leverage needed to demand a sizable advance or royalty rate.

For now, at least, Radiohead is leaving those millions on the table to go the tip-jar route. It hasn’t revealed much about its motives; its blog simply stated that the album would be available next week and offered a link to the online order form. But it’s safe to say that the band wouldn’t do this if it wanted to maximize revenue from the sale of its recordings. Instead, it seems more interested in getting the new album into as many people’s hands as possible, and doing so legally.

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That’s a common wish among new artists and former hit-makers who make their money from live shows. But Radiohead has no trouble selling out venues, and thanks in part to more than a decade of Capitol’s marketing, it’s still in its prime for CD sales. It’s also noteworthy that Radiohead isn’t simply giving its music away, which might leave people with the impression that it’s not worth much. Instead, it’s making a rare show of faith in music fans to pay for the things they value.

The results of this experiment will be hard to judge unless the band reveals how many albums it sells and what people paid. It should share that information because it could be vital to the health of the music industry. There’s a wide gap between the demand for music and the public’s willingness to pay for it, yet the most popular legal outlet for music online -- Apple’s iTunes store -- gives artists and labels little pricing flexibility. Nor have the major record companies been willing to trust fans to pay a reasonable amount for music if given the opportunity to set their own terms. Cheers to Radiohead for taking a leap from a dying business model and trusting their fans to catch them.


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