October 9, 2007
The Radiohead Revolution?

Last week, the mainstream music industry was (yet again) turned upside-down. British rock band Radiohead announced that it had finished its latest album IN RAINBOWS. Their website says:


So why is this such big news? Well, the first clue is in the band's low-key notice: "so far, it's only available from this website." In Rainbows is Radiohead's first album since they concluded their contract with EMI, and, so far, they've decided to release it on their own.

The second piece of news you only discover once you're ready to checkout: the band is letting you name your price, so if you don't want to pay anything at all and download the album, you will not be considered a thief. This is very different to previous experiments in which bands have given away their music; here, Radiohead still hopes to make a profit, but not at the cost of alienating its big and loyal fan base.

This is not necessarily an "anti-label" move, either; they're just doing what record labels are also attempting to do: diversifying their revenue streams.

In this case, aside from concerts, licensing, ringtones, etc., Radiohead will sell the download and the discbox, which costs $81. With plenty of added perks, it's directed to the most loyal fans, but they still haven't announced what they will do about traditional CD sales, although they are said to be negotiating with different labels.

The concept of a band first releasing their album and then negotiating with a label emphasizes the power shift that has been taking place in the music industry during the past few years. Many bands, and even some retailers, have taken advantage of these changes, but labels are still struggling to find their footing. A UK retailer showed clear evidence of this confusion by listing In Rainbows for pre-order sale at £11.99 ($24.45) and announcing their release date for December 3. The label is listed as Parlophone, the EMI imprint on which Radiohead released all its previous albums. The band promptly denied having currently any label affiliation.

UK's Telegraph reported that Radiohead's decision came in the same week that indy legends The Charlatans decided to give away their new album over the Web, also without help from a record label. Tim Burgess, the Charlatans' lead signer, told The Sunday Telegraph: "I want the people to own the music and the artists to own the copyright. Why let a record company get in the way of the music?"

And, although certain labels complain that bands turn their back on the system after they used it to become rich, one could also argue that the labels have gotten rich on the musician's talent, so maybe, it's time to find new ways to relate with each other.

The question is, of course, has Radiohead found an answer to all the distribution and marketing prayers of independent bands? So far, I don't think that's the case. It is a healthy move though, both in its assertion of the value and independence of this specific band but also in its forcing the major labels to confront their current reality.

While there are quite a few takeaway lessons from this experience, it's not necessarily the easy answer for the many lesser-known bands who will have to create their own strategies for success. But I think the most important implication from Radiohead's approach is the way it moves one step further from treating fans as felons and instead inviting them to be part of a band's success.



It's a shame Jane Siberry - who's been using a "pay what you want" system for a couple of years now - isn't getting any credit.

And I'm still hoping for an integrated reputation-based system that let's everyone know who the freeloaders are.

On October 9, 2007 at 4:56 PM, Eleanor Baird said:

Ana, I found the pay what you can concept really interesting in that it would enable a band (or any producer, really) to perfectly price discriminate among all fans to ascertain what the ideal price would be in the future, or how to price less specialized products in the future? Also, Grant McCracken has a really interesting post on the issue of fans and their willingness to pay to support the artists over getting the music here.

On November 27, 2007 at 12:28 AM, Florence Gallez said:


Being still under the spell of Prince's 21-concert London 'Earth Tour' of this summer [I admit, I'm a fan:)], your interesting post reminded me of the creative/controversial marketing moves he made with regards to his new album 'Planet Earth, which was launched in the US on July 24.

Prince enraged the music industry this summer when he gave away before its official release nearly 3 million copies of his new album with the Sunday edition of a British newspaper. The record stores threatened boycotts and Columbia Records, which was under contract to distribute the CD worldwide, canceled the distribution deal in England. But many will argue that he is helping change the music industry by establishing new distribution channels for music.

I'm a little tempted to question the idea of Radiohead as 'revolutionary' as the post's title suggests - as giving away albums for free is nothing new for Prince. In 2004, he gave free copies of his album 'Musicology' to all concert-goers during the tour of the same name, and he was among the first to have a website where fans could order 'Internet only' released albums, songs, and radio shows - but I agree that Radiohead's pricing initiative is at the cutting edge of innovation. And if it works I assume other artists will follow suit.

Along those lines, I hear that the Spice Girls started distributing their 'Best Hits' album as an 'insert' in Victoria's Secret's panties in the chain's stores on Nov. 13 [according to Time Out magazine's Russian edition, Oct 29-Nov 4, 2007]...
I think these strategies raise interesting questions: as channels of distribution continue to shift and merge in ever more unconventional ways, how will consumers engage with media and technology? What initiatives can media companies develop so as to provide a better customer relationship and more value to customers than the competition? - to name just a few...

Florence Gallez
[Moscow-based journalist]


Hi Florence!

Thank you for you comment. I fully agree with you that Radiohead's initiative has been over-hyped.My sense is that it's important to see it as a telling symptom of the industry's hectic circumstances. You raise some very valid questions and it's interesting to think about the label's relations to the audience. When we talk about television we're are very aware of the exchanges (or lack there of) that occur between the networks and the audience; but when it comes to music, these roles seems to fall predominantly on the artists (or the P.R. surrounding the artist). I'm just writing what came to mind right now, but it would be interesting to look closer at that.

The example that you shared with us regarding Prince's distribution through the newspaper is wonderful. I once attempted to pull off a stunt like that for a Costa Rican album, but, I guess you just have to be prince to do it.