Online gamble bets fans will pay for album

October 10, 2007|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,Sun Pop Music Critic

The consensus seems to be that it's a risky move but a brilliant one nonetheless. Radiohead, the multiplatinum British rock band, bucks conventional "record" industry wisdom today by releasing its new album, In Rainbows, exclusively on the group's Web site.

But the really audacious part is that Radiohead, which is not under contract with a record company, is allowing fans to pay whatever they want for the music: 1 cent, $1, $10, whatever. Since the critically acclaimed quintet made the announcement a week ago, music circles have been buzzing about the unprecedented move. It could potentially change an already crippled recording industry, giving much more power to the artists and fans.

"Radiohead is demonstrating how the traditional music distribution model is outdated, costly and in many cases totally unnecessary," says Will Zweigart, editor of Butterteam.com, a Baltimore-based music blog. "This is the most stark wakeup call to date. In the future, consumers can expect their options for purchasing music to continue expanding."

The band's digital pricing plan is a break from the industry standard established by iTunes, the leading digital music retailer, which generally sells songs for 99 cents apiece while albums go for $10 to $12. With Radiohead's plan, fans will choose their own price for the digital version of the 10-track In Rainbows.

Also on radiohead.com, the band is selling an expansive physical version of the album - including two vinyl LPs and an expanded CD package with extra new songs and photographs - for 40 pounds, or about $82. That set is supposed to be delivered to fans by early December.

Radiohead promises to release In Rainbows as a conventional CD sometime next year, but in the meantime the pioneering band is asking fans to set a value - any value - on their music.

"The band has never embraced the music-industry norm," says AOL music editor M. Tye Comer. "They've worked within the system because they had to, but now they're out of their record deal and technology is at a point where they don't need a major label support to distribute their music."

With multiplatinum and critically lauded albums such as 1993's Pablo Honey and 1997's OK Computer under its belt, Radiohead has long established a solid fan base. For years, the band benefited from the mighty promotional and distribution muscle of a major label, namely EMI. So now with no contract, the group can make such a radical departure from the industry norm, something an up-and-coming act probably couldn't do on such a grand scale. Other marquee acts, such as Madonna and Jamiroquai, may be in a position to consider similar distribution approaches as their contracts with major labels run out.

"Radiohead may be thinking that physical product is far less important today in terms of an artist's overall revenue stream," says Marc Jacobson, a New York-based entertainment attorney. "By making the product available only on its Web site, the band drives people there ... and helps make that a destination unto itself."

And by doing that, Radiohead drives attention to exclusive music releases, tours and merchandise. That essentially cuts out an expensive promotional team and generates more word-of-mouth buzz.

"People who like Radiohead clearly like good music, and many feel a loyalty to a band that is seen as innovative," says Adam Chamberlain, lead singer for .Sub, an indie British band strongly influenced by Radiohead. "This isn't throwaway pop music, so most people will pay for it. Those that don't might download the album for free and love it so much that they end up spending $30 on a ticket to see them live."

Because the band doesn't have to pay a record company for production and marketing costs, the members of Radiohead stand to pocket much more of the profits from In Rainbows. But recouping the recording costs from the album when buyers set their own price could be a challenge.

"If everybody pays 30 cents or 40 cents for the album, it could backfire," says Bob Grossweiner, a music industry analyst in New York. "There are a lot of people out there - they probably won't admit it - but they probably wouldn't pay anything for the music since they don't pay for downloads, anyway."

Radiohead, an early adopter of online marketing, surely understands that. With its release plans for In Rainbows, the band's first album since 2003's Hail to the Thief, the alt-rock quintet has figured out a way to exploit its cult-like fan base. But cleverly, and perhaps most importantly, the group doesn't insult the devotion of its fans.

"I would pay any amount of money - well, up to $50, which is probably the most I'd pay for anybody's music - for the new Radiohead album," says Brian Goldstein, a 23-year-old aspiring musician and senior English major at Towson University. "I have been waiting for a new Radiohead album for nearly five years now. I am sure it will be well worth the wait."

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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