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A new record price: $0

Times Staff Writers

The great riddle facing the record industry in the digital age has been pricing. Napster and its ilk puckishly offered music for “free” in the late 1990s, and the major labels have largely clung to an average of $13 for CDs despite plummeting sales and seasons of downsizing.

Now, one of the world’s most acclaimed rock bands, Radiohead, is answering that marketplace riddle with a shrug. “It’s up to you,” reads a message on the Web page where fans can pre-order the band’s highly anticipated seventh album and pay whatever they choose, including nothing.

The British band, which has twice been nominated for a best album Grammy, will sidestep the conventional industry machinery altogether Oct. 10 by releasing the album “In Rainbow” as a digital download with no set price. The album will be available only from the band and at radiohead.com, its official site.

It may sound like a gimmicky promotion, but industry observers Monday framed it in more historical terms: Radiohead, they said, is the right band at the right time to blaze a trail of its own choosing.

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“This is all anybody is talking about in the music industry today,” said Bertis Downs, the longtime manager of R.E.M., the veteran alt-rock band that was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. “This is the sort of model that people have been talking about doing, but this is the first time an act of this stature has stepped up and done it. . . . They were a band that could go off the grid, and they did it.”

Another high-profile manager said he was still trying to process the boldness of the Radiohead venture. “My head is spinning, honestly,” said Kelly Curtis, who represents Seattle-based Pearl Jam. “It’s very cool and very inspiring, really.”

Radiohead is hardly abandoning the idea of making money.

Its website will also sell a deluxe edition of “In Rainbow” that comes with versions in three formats (CD, vinyl and download) along with eight bonus songs and a lavish hardcover book with lyrics, photos and a slipcase. That package costs 40 British pounds (about $82).

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In the coming weeks, Courtyard Management, which represents the band, will reportedly negotiate with labels about a conventional release for “In Rainbow” that would put it on store shelves in 2008. Sources with the band acknowledge that the major labels may balk at the notion of releasing an album that has been available free for months. Still, previous Radiohead albums collectively sell about 300,000 copies a year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, so “In Rainbow” should still have value at the cash register.

“Only a band in Radiohead’s position could pull a trick like this,” is how Pitchforkmedia.com summed it up Monday. That’s because the band became a free agent after its contract with music giant EMI expired with its most recent album, “Hail to the Thief” in 2003. That set the stage for a one-band revolution, even if the five members don’t see it that way themselves.

“It’s more of an experiment. The band is not fighting for the sake of the fight or trying to lead a revolution,” said their spokesman, Steve Martin of New York publicity firm Nasty Little Man. The group declined to comment Monday.

Radiohead isn’t the only artist taking bold steps to keep pace with the digital age. The firebrand R&B; star Prince, for instance, has taken a maverick path by giving copies of one album away as an insert in a major British newspaper or as an extra to anyone who bought a seat on his high-grossing concert tour. Prince took considerable heat from retailers for the newspaper giveaway.

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Then there’s the business model of New Orleans’ top rapper, Lil Wayne, who made dozens of tracks available free via the Internet to cement his stardom. Even old-school icon Bruce Springsteen seems to see the changing times. He gave away downloads of his new song, the aptly titled “Radio Nowhere.”

Geoff Mayfield, the director of charts for Billboard, pointed out that Radiohead was not unique because singer-songwriter Jane Siberry offered a similar optional payment download a few years ago.

Radiohead has sold close to 9 million albums in the U.S., and three of its CDs have debuted in the top 10 on the Billboard album charts. The band has in effect made sure that won’t happen with “In Rainbow” by taking its unorthodox approach.

The group has a reputation for daring, which has earned it “relationship fans,” core loyalists who skew older, travel to see them play live and urgently seek out the latest release. Those fans, Mayfield said, are not the type to take the new music and leave the Radiohead “tip jar” empty.

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“If that loyalty dictates consumer behavior,” Mayfield said, “a good number are going to pay what’s considered a fair price as opposed to 2 cents.”

Several observers said all of that made this experiment far safer than it would be for a pop act that needed a major label to secure radio airplay and television exposure or an up-and-coming rock act that could not fall back on the receipts from sold-out arena shows.

“It’s a road act with proven appeal, so as long as they have the right people to take care of touring logistics and the business end of getting music out to market, they might be able to make a go on their own,” Mayfield said. “It wouldn’t work for everyone. You don’t want to be an amateur. We’re in a brave new world, but you want to make sure dots connect in terms of getting the music out.”

That brave new world is a harsh one for the traditional recording industry. The major labels that enjoyed huge profits in the 1980s as fans replaced their music collections with CDs have suffered over the last decade as a new generation instead plucked its hit songs from the Internet, often without paying for them. There have been steady declines in recent years. As of midyear 2007, CD sales were off 19.3% from the same period in 2006. And there’s intense competition now from video games and DVDs.

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But even as the old empire collapses, new ideas take hold. Though its cerebral soundscapes are avant art rock, Radiohead’s earnest and emotionally plaintive ethos puts it in line with acts such as U2. That’s why, according to Wired editor Nancy Miller, all eyes have been on the band at the career and marketplace crossroads.

“We’ve been waiting for just the right band at just the right moment,” Miller said. “Right now is it. Radiohead is the perfect band. After finishing its contract, we expected something revolutionary. I thought they would start their own label. Instead, they have done something more interesting: They decided not to decide.”

Some pundits weighed in saying that although Radiohead’s move might have been a sharp detour for an established band, it was hardly a path newer acts could follow. Curtis, the Pearl Jam manager, said that years on a major label roster established the Radiohead brand and made it possible for it to buck the system.

“It’s the newer bands I really feel sorry for,” Curtis said.

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Pearl Jam and other groups with intense followings, such as the Dave Matthews Band, R.E.M., Metallica and Nine Inch Nails, will probably learn the most from Radiohead’s experience, Curtis said. “Everyone will keep an eye on this because this is the most exciting thing we’ve seen to this point.”

On Monday, Radiohead was trying to deal with that excitement. Intense interest and pre-orders overwhelmed the website, according to Martin, the band spokesman. Wired’s Miller, for one, predicted the band’s gamble would pay off.

“We’ve seen the crumbling of bigger labels, but there haven’t been any big ‘Aha!’ moments, that risky departure,” Miller said. “It’s an interesting move, a terrific example of an artist exerting a terrific amount of control. It’s definitely going to be successful.”

geoff.boucher@latimes.com

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chris.lee@latimes.com

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Radiohead

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The acclaimed British band shook up the music industry Monday by announcing that its seventh studio album would be available online at a price to be determined by fans.

The band: Formed in Oxfordshire in 1986, led by singer and songwriter Thom Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood.

The sound: The group’s biggest radio hit was the anthemic “Creep” in 1992, but its work has moved to pulsing, atmospheric songs that challenge traditional structure. Radiohead has won two Grammys, and two of its collections, “OK Computer” (1997) and “Kid A” (2000), were nominated for best album.

The sales: 8.9 million albums in the U.S.

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Source: Times research


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