October 16, 2008
Radiohead's IN RAINBOWS: by the Numbers

Here's some juicy news concerning last year's "pay what you want" experiment from Radiohead: according to Rolling Stone and musically.com, Radiohead's publisher Warner Chappell confirmed yesterday that "Radiohead made more money before In Rainbows was physically released than they made in total on the previous album Hail To the Thief".

From the Rolling Stone post:

In all, there have been three million purchases of In Rainbows (including CDs, vinyls, box sets and digital sales) since the band began selling the album officially on New Year's Day 2008. Warner Chappell didn't reveal how much the band actually made total in the "pay-what-you-want" facet, but admitted more people downloaded the album for free than paid for it. Still, the three million in total sales -- 100,000 of which came from the $80 box sets -- is a hugely-successful number considering the album was both given away for free and that it was actually downloaded more times via Bit Torrent than free and legally through Radiohead's own site.

The musically.com article goes into more detail:

The UK-based branch of the publishing company licensed all digital rights including master recording rights and image and likeness rights on behalf of the band in a groundbreaking move for them as well as the band.

...Really there seems little doubt that the experiment was a success from both Warner's and the band's perspective. For Warner it served to prove a point that by licensing directly (ie outside the collecting society network) and by offering a genuine one stop shop for licensing (ie combining all the digital rights into one offer from a single entity) the publisher was able to generate far more money for both themselves and the band than would have been possible under the traditional system."

The musically.com piece really digs into the role played by Warner Chappell in this experiment, which provides some possible insight into how publishers might survive and even thrive in the 21st century. Some of the other highlights:

  • "[The 3M copied moved] is an incredible number, given that their previous three albums sold in the low hundreds of thousands."
  • "The band and their management never announced a timeline for the pay-what-you-like experiment and were watching the average price daily with a view to potentially withdrawing it any moment should it drop too low. Dyball points out that the average price went down after the download moved from uberfans to less committed fans, as expected."
  • "When it came to the Nude 'stems' release which received some criticism (when the band originally charged for each 'stem' of the track which could be then be remixed by the fans), it meant that the band could respond by offering Reckoner stems for free to those who had bought by the Nude stems."
  • "The only trouble with the whole thing was that it was just arguably too successful. The whole 'pay what you like' experiment became the story rather than the music itself."
  • "After being made available for free for 3 months the album was no.1 in the UK and in the US."
  • "1st Radiohead album on iTunes - no.1 album selling 30,000 units in the US in the first week."
  • "The physical CD has sold 1.75 million to date and is still top 200 UK & US."
  • "Nearing 17 million plays on last.fm."
  • "The digital income from the experiment made a material difference to WCM's UK digital revenue this year."

Lots more good stuff in the full piece, be sure to check it out. While it's unclear if this model would ever work for a band that didn't already have a deeply committed fanbase, it's easy to imagine a similar tactic being adapted by megabands like U2, the Rolling Stones or – if rumors of their comeback are to be believed – Guns N' Roses. (Of course, if Chinese Democracy actually does ship this year, the real news story will be the 305,426,901 free cans of Dr. Pepper, but we'll see what happens.)