Last week, the biggest music story around the world wasn't taking place on stage or in a fancy recording studio. It was happening on everyone's computer at Radiohead.com.
On October 10, the 15-year-old U.K. rock quintet Radiohead independently released its new album In Rainbows for download only. Fans can buy the music at the group's site without copy restrictions for whatever price they choose to pay. "It really is up to you," InRainbows.net states. Spend nothing or charge $1 million to your credit card — it appears no offer will be refused.
The stunning In Rainbows announcement came in the form of a four-line Radiohead.com blog item on October 1, obliterating the standard six-month lead time for major-label CD releases. The news ricocheted around the Net — appearing on MySpace, Facebook, and cell-phone-based blogging site Twitter within minutes — and out to those off the electronic grid.
Industry analyst Brian Zisk at San Francisco's Future of Music Coalition thinks Radiohead is making a huge move, and with no middleman, the group may net tens of millions of dollars by the end of the week. What astonishes him is Radiohead's injection of anxiety and guilt into stealing music. He claims that the standard downloader's defense of not paying because "the record company keeps all the money anyway" can no longer be made.
"[The Radiohead tip jar] changes the dilemma in people's minds when they evaluate whether it's appropriate to take it or not," Zisk says. "It personalizes the plight of the musician... Hail to the Thief [Radiohead's last album] might've actually been about us. Maybe they were saying, 'You're the ones stealing the music. You made us what we are. Hail to you.' Now, they found a way for us to tap into something better."
According to a poll by the U.K.'s NME, fans are prepaying an average of $10 for In Rainbows. The Wall Street Journal estimates the cost to Radiohead is $3.40 per unit. So take $6.60 in profit, multiplied by a conservative million downloads, and Radiohead looks like the smartest five guys in the room. And that's before you factor in future CD sales in 2008, tour dates, licensing, or the $80 In Rainbows enhanced box set — which ships December 3 with bonus tracks, double vinyl, and killer art.
Industry insider and Fader magazine founder Jon Cohen says In Rainbows' unique distribution and cost methods represent a huge "fuck you" to the majors. In his eyes, the independent launch essentially tells the majors, "We don't need you. We have no faith in your methods."
If the band's innovative experiment works, by the time you read this, Radiohead should be laughing all the way to the bank.