Archive for October, 2007|Monthly archive page

The Music Wars: Radiohead’s Rainbow Coalition

In Consumerism, Direct action, Freedom of Information, Media Criticism, Misc., Music, Technology on October 3, 2007 at 11:55 am

In yet another bold move against – or possibly for – the music industry, Radiohead, the hallmark of contemporary British Rock, has joined the likes of Prince and Nine Inch Nails in offering their next album – In Rainbows, their 7th – for “free”, and independent of their former record label, the languishing EMI. The entire album will be available for download directly from their website starting October 10, but unlike previous free releases, Radiohead, like always, is doing something a little different; they are allowing consumers to chose what they pay for the download. In addition to the mp3s, they are also offering a lavish “Disc Set” which will include 2 Vinyl records, 2 compact discs, and a hardcover book with lyrics and pictures, all at the low low price of 40 British pounds/$81.

Reaction is spreading far and wide, and most of it is positive, with many calling this the “future of the music industry”. Anyone who’s paid any kind of attention to the industry over the last couple of years has heard this phrase refer to any number of flash in the pan ideas, and I don’t think it’s completely accurate to depict this interesting move as any kind of bigger blueprint for a business that is as bankrupt on ideas as they are on revenue. There are few of my generation who have never heard the song “Creep” and this current innovation could never have been possible without their previous successes. For the album OK Computer, EMI was nice enough to provide the band a six-figure advance that allowed them to purchase a substantial amount of equipment and create arguably their finest presentation with complete artistic freedom. Bands like Radiohead and Prince can go ahead and burn the potential money they’d get from record sales because they already made have enough in the bank to sponsor their own African nation. The majority of musicians out there are hell and gone from this sort of lifestyle, and would still like to use their undersized profits to pay for things like food. A solution that solves only some people’s problems solves nothing.

What I hope comes from this, aside from another great album from one of my favorite bands, is that people remember that music not only costs something, but that its worth something. The British music rag, NME, has a posted comments of some fans who have gone through the pre-order process, and they are as interesting as they are encouraging, here’re some highlights:

Chris Rogers:
“I paid £10 for it. They deserve it. I’m just glad they’re back making music. It’s hard to put a price on it.”

Mike Wakelam, 27:
“For a normal CD the dealer price is around £9. The record company gets 25 percent, leaving £6.75. I’ve heard artists get 18 percent of that, which is £1.215. So I’ll pay £1.22.”

Jason, Sydney, Australia:
“What price do you put on happiness? For me, £7.99. Now let’s see how many cheapskates try and download it free.”

Lee, Bexhill-On-Sea:
“Anyone who thinkgs £2.50 is a fair price is taking the mickey. You have to pay for the water that comes into your home, you have to pay to watch TV, so why do people think they should be given music free?”

Radiohead is challenging us to do right by them, holding out the tip jar and putting the question of compensation out in the open, allowing others to scrutinize and be scrutinized by their choices. Napster and others made us think that free music is something to be expected, but they cost those who create it a great deal. I’ve been playing music for nearly 2 decades and I’ll tell you right now that things like rehearsal spaces, equipment, recording fees and CD duplication are not provided to us by nature of our craft, nor is rent, food or health insurance. And it’s not just the money we pay, it’s the sacrifices we make: pissing off your girlfriend to spend more time with your band, working shit jobs and forsaking better ones to have a flexible schedule and more time to play, spending 3 months in a van with 4 other guys who smell much worse than you do. Why do people think these things don’t matter when it comes down to the final product? The RIAA has led the charge against downloads and has hijacked the argument to ensure that their status quo of exploitation stays intact. But their excesses do not mean that artists aren’t deserving of something better.

The fact that these fans recognize this flies in the face of most business models over the last few years: endless parades of amateurs chasing a profitable way to give their product over for free. It’s not that people aren’t willing to pay for music, it’s that they don’t want to pay for crap. Mp3 quality for In Rainbows is also guaranteed since you’re getting the tunes straight from the source and they are also DRM free, so you can treat it just like anything else you buy: however the fuck you want. The disc set is also mad sexy, and makes me a little nostalgic for when albums where something you held in your hand and interacted with, not just something that you consumed. Countering the give-away mentality of mp3s with a fairly expensive – yet beautifully realized – physical product is something poetic in itself.

The big idea, to me at least, behind all of this is an affirmation that music belongs to the musicians. As a band and a business, Radiohead is in a place where they can afford to not be tied to the purse strings of a label in order to finance recording, manufacturing and distribution of their album, and as such have complete control of the process from start to finish. This is something we haven’t really seen since the Beatles, and by harnessing the warehouse-free Internet age, they are doing it cheaper, easier and faster than their predecessors. I stated before that most can’t do this, but perhaps we will see a decentralization of the business, allowing bands to be judged by their own standards instead of those provided by mega-stars. Smaller acts shouldn’t be expected to sell 500,000 units in a single quarter, they can now be the masters of their own destiny and find a place where they can be sustained with far less: targeted sales/tours to fans dedicated to their success instead of being rammed down the throat of an overwhelmed national audience. This allows bands to really connect with those they play for and grow organically as they make strides to increase their audience as they see fit. The sacrifice here is two-fold: their influence will never be as great, nor will they be able to fuck off and just play music. They will have to do the market research and fix their price-points; they will be the ones made to spearhead campaigns and generate profit and loss statements; they will be forced to do all the things they got into music to avoid, or at least know enough and be involved enough with those they pay to do so. Historically, the business swings back and forth between consolidation and the independent marketplace, but perhaps this time it will beget not only a creative revolution in musicians, but also an entrepreneurial one. The grunt work needed to support the business of an album won’t go away with the label, and if we want the independence, if we chose to forge out like Radiohead into a spectrum of possibilities, we must take the responsibility and do what is necessary to take care of ourselves and our fans.