Saturday, December 29, 2007

Radiohead: Just what is going on here?

A few months ago Radiohead put out its latest album, In Rainbows, in two formats. You could get a "discbox" with a vinyl pressing, bonus CD, album art, etc. for a fixed price, or you could just download the tracks as .mp3 files and throw whatever you wanted (or nothing) in the tip jar.

So what happened? Who paid what? Do we have a whole new paradigm for music sales? An interesting one-off experiment? An out-and-out boondoggle? All or none of the above?

It's hard to see In Rainbows as a whole new paradigm, if only because there are so many special circumstances. Radiohead is an established band with a loyal following and a formidable reputation. The band happened to be between record contracts for this album. The downloadable version was a companion to a more traditional offering. And Radiohead is Radiohead. What works for them might not work for anyone else.

In fact, it may not even have worked for them. Certainly the band saw the online release as a one-off. They are currently in negotiations with both record labels and iTunes, and the download offer has been discontinued (effective New Year's Eve).

Beyond that, the picture gets very muddy very quickly. One report, by Gigwise, claims downloads of at least 1.2 million copies of the album. How much did people pay? Those who know aren't talking, but one survey indicates an average of 4 pounds (about $8), with 1/3 of downloaders paying nothing. Another, hotly disputed by the band, suggests that 62% paid nothing and the average price across all downloads was $2.26.

So basically, we don't know how many copies were downloaded, how much people paid for them, whether the price paid changed over time, why there's a discrepancy between the two surveys, or much of anything else. Except that the band most likely pulled in millions of dollars for the downloads, some further amount for the discboxes, and expects further income from traditional distribution. That's not even counting the T-shirt sales. Not bad for a bunch of guys from Oxfordshire.

If the tip-jar/download approach is not obviously the future of music distribution, but it's not a massive flop either, what is it, and why is the band discontinuing it? Is it the tip of the iceberg, or an evolutionary dead end like the million dollar homepage?

My guess, and it's only a guess, is that the tip-jar model is not going to dominate, though it might not disappear entirely. Rapper Saul Williams is currently spinning a variation on this with a low-bandwidth version of his latest release. The hi-fi version is available for a $5 donation.

Why is the band discontinuing the offer? My recollection from the original page is that it was never promised indefinitely in the first place. Most likely the band has gotten the good out of it. I would expect that people who care enough to pay also care enough to download early (which might explain some of the discrepancy between the two surveys). The band also seems not to have burned its bridges with traditional distribution channels, and continuing the "It's up to you" offer would only muddy the waters there.

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