Radiohead's Revolutionary Rainbows

Radiohead, whose last recording, Hail to the Thief, debuted at number three on Billboard's top 200 chart in 2004, announced that its new recording, In Rainbows, will be available as a DRM-free download on October 10. The new twist, however, is that consumers can pay any amount they wish for it.

"No really," the band's website says. "It's up to you." There have been no reports of any bid being rejected as being too low—although there is a $1 processing charge.

Actually, the download is only one option. For $80, fans can buy a physical release that includes two CDs (one a "bonus disc" with an additional eight songs, including "Up the Ladder," a song the band recorded several years ago), a double-LP version of In Rainbows, photos, and artwork—all contained in a slipcased album. In addition, purchasers of the discbox will be able to download files on October 10, with the physical package arriving in mid-December.

The band's US PR firm, Nasty Little Man, said Radiohead is in discussions to release a CD version of the recording to stores in January.

Radiohead discontinued its relationship with EMI in 2003, after completing the terms of its contract. It was widely believed that the band was shopping for a new label and would not release its next recording until March 2008 because it needed a label to deal with distribution.

Reaction to the announcement has been varied. Robert Sandovall, writing in The Sunday Times, called it "the day the music industry died," saying that bands "are giving it away" because there is no money in recorded music any more.

Angela Monaghan, writing in The Telegraph agreed, saying, "Free albums . . . drive demand for live tours, which translate to pound signs for the artists behind them." True, as Prince proved when he sold out 21 London concerts after giving away 2.5 million copies of 3121 in The Daily Mail. The only problem with this logic is that Radiohead doesn't tour much, since leader Thom Yorke doesn't enjoy it.

I tend to agree with The Lefsetz Letter's Bob Lefsetz, who claims success in the contemporary music business is deeply rooted in building a sense of community between musicians and consumers. "This is big news. This says the major labels are fucked. Untrustworthy with a worthless business model. Radiohead doesn’t seem to care if the music is free. Not that they believe it will be. Because believers will give you all their money!"

If it were only about the money, Radiohead, as one of the most successful and commercially credible bands in the marketplace, could have signed with a major label and received stupid money—something on the order of Bruce Springsteen's $114 million contract with SonyBMG. Record labels can't resist deals like that, even though they seldom recoup their investment. I suspect that Radiohead are leveraging their credibility and popularity into creating a 21st-century business model that will pull musicians out of record-label serfdom.

Other bands have flirted with this—most notably Nine Inch Nails, which streamed its Year Zero album online for free and actually loaded bit-torrents of it to P2P sites—of course, the band also called its label "thieves," so there may have been more going on there.

In 2000, Smashing Pumpkins "released" Machina II by sending 25 copies (the only 25 copies) to fans with instructions and directions to link it to the Internet for free distribution—this after their old label, Virgin, objected to their request to download it for free to anyone who had purchased Machina.

Will Radiohead succeed with its strategy? My guess is yes, for a given quantity of "succeed." Their distribution model has to be terrifying the Big Four labels—and the empire will strike back. First, don't look for Billboard or SoundScan to declare In Rainbows chart-worthy. If it isn't physically for sale, how can it be counted at retail? It can't—and the industry loves its charts.

I'd love to learn (eventually) how fans react to the "set your own price" philosophy. When we survey Stereophile readers about CD prices, they universally respond that they feel cheated by high CD prices, insisting that they would buy more music if CDs sold for $10. Will In Rainbows reflect that belief that, sans a label, the music is worth a sawbuck or not?

I look forward to finding out.