Free is Free

A few weeks back Radiohead, a fairly well-known rock band from England, released their new album via the web and in a fairly radical move, allowed people to pay whatever price they wanted for the privilege. Anything from £0.00 to £100, they said (I wonder what the top amount paid was…).

Since then… apart from a couple of press releases full of ill-thought out stats… nothing.

What happened? Where is all the noise? Where are the “told-you-so” bleatings? What happened to the “revolutionise-the-music-industry”? It’s a disappointing damp squib if you ask me.

On one side, Radiohead remain silent on the matter. Or as good as.

On the other side the press was quick to report that a large number of people grabbed the album for free. They threw stats out like sweeties; one-third of people who downloaded the album paid nothing, average price paid was £3, and so on.

What does this prove? What does this say? Everything and nothing of course, and part of me hopes that was exactly what Radiohead intended.

Offer something for free and people will take it. Offer something with only guilt as a payment mechanism and many people easily push any emotional feeling to one side and plunge onwards. Offer something which can be free, and people will take it for free. This is the society we live in, writ large and then swept under the carpet.

Reaction to all of this freeloading seems out of place, there was SO much hype, in many different quarters, about this that it seems almost out of proportion.

Other artists (most notably Prince) have given away their music for free, realising that they make the bulk of their money outside of CD sales, but part of me hopes (desperately) that the music-loving fan, when given the ability to set a price, would do the right thing and pay up. A glint of humanity and integrity is all I’m looking for…

How laughable.

What I really don’t understand is where is the backlash? There is no screaming rhetoric to be found anywhere, either bemoaning the freeloaders or angry that this experiment failed to show the music industry that it was a viable solution.

But I guess that is a good thing because this experiment could do no such thing. It couldn’t PROVE either, the freeloaders (statistically) grabbed the music in about the same percentage as they do for music released via a record label.

The music industry didn’t take much of a kicking either as Radiohead will also release the album through a record label and hey, guess what, not EVERYONE is comfortable downloading music. The majority of the music listening public like CDs, or at the very least something tangible.

Reading between various lines, I think the only thing this experiment could ever prove was whether an artist would make more money PER SALE if they distributed things themselves, or via a record label. On that front I think Radiohead, on a per sale basis, doubled their money? I’m not sure as getting accurate figures is proved difficult but they certainly didn’t lose any money.

The deafening silence that blankets this entire episode worries me more than any of the financial/industry aspects.

Are we really so quick to put such things aside? Wasn’t this supposed to herald a new wave of thinking in the music industry, or is that where the silence comes from? A million record industry executives trying to figure out how to ‘fix things’.

This kind of thing isn’t a viable business model for a semi-successful band, one who flirts just below the limelight, and whilst it may boost the standings of newcomers (mySpace in particular) at a certain point it will start to hinder them.

I’m bemused and a little disillusioned. I had hoped this would’ve kicked started… ohh I dunno… something, anything… but nothing seems to have come of this. So I’ve gone back to my usual method of purchasing music and will continue to do so with knowledge of a better way gnawing at my wallet.

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There’s a few different aspects to this.

Firstly, even with so many people downloading the album for free, Radiohead could have technically made more money overall from the fraction of payments they did receive than they would have through a ‘traditional’ release. Consider the huge costs involved in manufacturing, distribution, marketing and advertising that would be required for such a high-profile release. Also consider that the average royalty rate for artists from the sale of a CD is only around 12%, which is usually lower than the record stores’ margin.

By bypassing the traditional route, Radiohead cut out virtually all of the costs associated with physical products (yes, there’s the discbox, but it’s limited edition, no?). They also exploited their popularity to get the word out cross the web with the minimum of effort. The net result was that most people downloaded the album for free, but those who did pay sent their money directly to the band — and after web hosting/bandwidth costs, the rest was all theirs. A very smart move.

But. It’s only a feasible move for Radiohead because of who they are — an internationally recognised rock band/brand. Musicality aside, they only got to where they are today through years of record company support. All the hard work was already done, both by them and for them. They could be the greatest artists in the history of recorded sound, but if they didn’t have Parlophone employees to make their videos, shill their songs to radio/MTV, book their concerts, etc, then who would know?

So you are absolutely right that it isn’t a viable business model for anyone other than high-profile artists who can trade on their popularity. But that doesn’t mean that the traditional record company model is necessary for everyone else — for instance there are plenty of smaller labels that give their artists a living through fairer royalty rates, while at the same time not shortchanging the consumer. The internet has been a boon for these types of operations, and has opened them to far wider markets than they enjoyed before.

Surely the whole thing was a huge (and hugely successful) PR stunt? The media coverage was massive, and let’s face it, a band of Radiohead’s stature could afford to take the chance that people would pay nothing for the album or just a small amount. I have friends who never, ever pay for music – or films – as they have ways and means of downloading them for free, so in that sense this isn’t that new.

Personally, I am a bit of a purist, and always buy my CDs from my local independent record shop and have never downloaded anything in my life. Just call me a luddite!

The band are the cover story of next week’s Observer Music Monthly so will be interesting to see what they have to say about it…

hans stolte says:

Oh a free album you say, in this day and age everything ‘electronic’ can be pirated, thus the move from PC’s to Consoles to protect the game companies ‘Margins’. Software companies no longer allow you to get the ‘full’ product for download unless you are absolutley trusted, no more ‘free’ online information.

The music industry just came off worse, as if you want Hi_Def video, downloading 8GB+ of data to have a corupted film is 8 hours of your time stuffed, better off paying £10 and get the ‘extra’ items.

Music or sound can be recorded and compressed very easily, and if its not 100% while driving around in your car, well really who cares.

As for the ‘people will pay for it model’ I would assume that fewer people will pay for something that is free, if people are actually going to accept this model, then there is hope for the other pointless ideas out there ie : Facebook.

rika9787 says:

I think that a lot of change has already started to come from Radiohead’s online release. It has only been a few weeks so far. Madonna left Warner Music. Nine Inch Nails praised Radiohead on what they did and said that they will follow in their footsteps, and they recently left Interscope.

I agree that it is frustrating that people wouldn’t pay for the downloads. It’s great that Radiohead get all the profits. An advantage to the optional pay online is if a listener isn’t sure if they will like the new album, they can download it and see! I think many people do still enjoy the tangible CD, either for the better quality music or the inserts. Hopefully by pre-releasing online more people will buy the album since they already know what to expect. Lets keep our fingers crossed that this release will start to change the music industry!

And in all this, The The gets overlooked for releasing their last album for free over the intertubes after getting pissed off with Interscope. Sure it had been a CD release first but Matt Johnson released NakedSelf for free, track by track, and hoping people would buy the CD and future releases. (Full article, from January 2001, here)

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