Radiohead throws down the gauntlet

by Jason Gross

1 October 2007


Even if you’re not a fan of their music, you still have to be impressed and amazed by the bold move that Radiohead made with the release of their new album, In Rainbows, which is coming out in less than two weeks as a download (if you have a jones for a hard copy, the band is also offer the CD/LP/bonus model as of December too).  It’s sure to shake up the industry but it might be in ways that you might not expect and might not take hold for a while too.
With their contract up, instead of signing to a new label, they decided to put out their new record themselves. A lot of bands have done that with their own labels but Radiohead decided that they wanted to put it out online first and ask fans to pay whatever they think is fair. This not only goes against the fixed pricing that Apple has demanded for iTunes but also the flexible model that the labels have been fighting for because in the end, they themselves still set the price. Actually, it goes against the whole orthodoxy of the industry itself.

Granted that Radiohead is a best-selling band and that’s why they could get away with such a gutsy move but give credit where credit is due—lots of best-selling bands could have done the same thing but haven’t so far. After this, they will. The success or failure of this experiment would usually be measured by how well it sells. That means not just how many copies are downloaded but also how much everyone pays for it. But considering that fans will want to support their band, expect them to shell out and show their love with their wallets. Personally, I plan to pay out and support not just a band that I enjoy and admire but also a great experiment like this which deserves to be nurtured.

Even before it happens, you can bet that the majors are in a tizzy over this, wondering what the hell they’re going to do now. They stand to lose some of their biggest cash cow bands if they like what they see as this comes about and if they’re gone, that means that the labels are toast. Remember how EMI was banking on releases by Coldplay and Gorillaz to keep the company solvent?  That’s two acts supporting a major label, which should show you what thin ice they’re on and how much thinner it’s going to get now. The Radiohead model obviously isn’t ideal for smaller bands (though it can be used by them) but if you have a large built-in audience, their model is very attractive and makes a lot of sense. It’s incredibly fan-friendly to say “pay what you like,” which is another reason that they’ll respond well to this. As a wise PR friend pointed out, a major helped to get Radiohead to where they are today (though their music and work ethic certainly helped, right?) but in the last few years, bands like Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah and Arctic Monkeys broke out through Net-roots campaign so that also may be a model for the future (note though that the former still puts out their own albums while the Monkeys signed with indie label Domino).

What’s also interesting about this experiment is the leeway time for it. News broke about this yesterday and now the album is coming out in 10 days later. Usually, albums have months of leeway time to build publicity but in an age when Net leaks get the music out there way before an artist or a label would like, Radiohead decided to be realistic and cut the time down. They’ll still get plenty of publicity and frenzy over this but just in a smaller, more concentrated amount of time. Also, editors and writers who usually have to get their reviews in now for albums that are coming out 1-2 months later are no doubt going crazy over this too. They have to scramble to keep up and schedule this, assign this and make room for it. But even Radiohead’s publicity company Nasty Little Man warned them that they’d have to wait like everyone else to get their own copies on the 10th. Again, it helps to be a major band to have the leverage and chutzpah to do this. Here’s the full announcement:

There will be no advances, promotional copies, digital streams, media sites, etc. of RADIOHEAD’s In Rainbows.

Everyone in the world will be getting the music at the same time: Oct. 10. That includes us. We don’t have anything to play anyone in the nine days until the record is available. Everyone at Nasty has
put his or her order in and just to clarify: you are not being asked to pay for a promo (as some have inquired). you can pay nothing or as much or as little as you want.

There will be no promotional copies of the discbox either, as each discbox is being made to order. Sorry.

Again, wow… I remember when I got mailed the limited edition version of Hail to the Thief as a promo when I was going to review it. It seems like so long ago now.

So then the big question is, what happens next for the biz? It’s not gonna crumble overnight (though was already crumbling anyway) but this is another huge challenge to it now. Other big acts will get the bright idea that they can do this too, no matter how long and how strong a relationship they’ve had with their label (when you see Springsteen or U2 bolt, you know the game’s really over for majors). Plus, they’ll come up with other innovative ideas to get their music out, connect with the fans and by-pass the labels. And all the ill-gotten gains from the RIAA lawsuits ain’t gonna change that. Also, the other ways that the majors are trying to make money with legal downloads, ringtones and even some merchandising deals that they’re trying to work out with artists now aren’t gonna save them either because the tide is turning too quickly. They’ll be forced to cannibalize their back catalogs even more and try to milk more and more money out of it.

And then what? Radiohead and anyone other artist who takes this bold path is still gonna need PR firms and some sort of distribution deal (manufacturing CDs or just placing them as downloads online) but that can be done with outside of the realm of their old labels. It’s a brave new world for artists (and fans) for sure but a frightening black hole for the majors too.

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