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:
RADIOHEAD HAVE MADE A RECORD
SO FAR, IT'S ONLY AVAILABLE FROM THIS WEBSITE
YOU CAN PRE-ORDER IN THESE FORMATS:
DISCBOX OR DOWNLOAD
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.