Radiohead: We Record, You Decide

Radiohead, the internationally known band, is free from the chains of its record label and able to do anything it thinks is in its best interest.

So, they’ve decided to give away a digital copy of their upcoming album In Rainbows (for a small handling fee).

Fans can still pay for it – and they decide how much to pay. It’s kind of like “We record, you decide".

The fan reaction is overwhelming. Radiohead’s site has been crippled by the demand. Some of my students were unable to get online much to their disappointment. One student was even willing to pay $8 for the digital version of the album. (Hey, I’m going to record an album!).

Of course, fans can still buy the old fashioned box-set directly from Radiohead.

That includes the album on CD, two vinyl records (Guess we’ll have to find something to play them on), a CD with more songs, lyrics, cover art and photos. All this for the low-low price of 40 pounds (UK).

Did I mention that the proceeds go directly to the group and not to any label?

This experiment will be an interesting one to watch.

Obviously fans are flooding the Radiohead website already to download the free music. What we don’t know is how many of them are volunteering to pay for the music. It will be interesting to track that as it develops.

Also, how many box-sets will be sold. I imagine they’ll sell a surprising number of them.

So, there we have it. An industry of artists that want to be the next Clive Davis. Prince stuffed his new CD into the pages of the London Daily Mail tabloid newspaper. The giveaway netted him 21 tour dates in London – all sold out. The question is, could Prince have sold out the 21 dates without giving away his CD?

Or, think of it like this, is giving away the CD a very cost-effective way to sell concert dates considering the relatively low price of manufacturing them.

Now, maybe Clive will get a hankering to go on tour. Whitney Houston can do his hair and makeup – she’s owes him!

The Radiohead music giveaway is something that big, established bands and artists can do. Arguably, well-known acts don’t really need record labels today.

They need management and touring help.

Big groups don’t need radio and, if you don’t believe me, consider this – lots of big acts don’t get the kind of radio play that they used to get anyway.

You can’t blame some of the well-established groups for going it alone.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Radiohead’s first attempt at managing their own music was a success. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Madonna did it next – and if not, I would be disappointed if she didn’t scare the hell out of Warner that she might go it alone. Result: a bigger deal (her Warner contract is up soon).

Unfortunately smaller acts and unknown performers can’t do the same thing.

They need a label, right?

Well, not necessarily.

Unknowns or little knowns need the marketing savvy that record labels don’t have. They need social networking expertise, Internet marketing, merchandising and unorthodox ways to get exposure. That doesn’t sound like any record label I know.

And what about radio?

Radio used to be the home of the hits. No longer. Radio stations tried legal payola (getting labels to pay for information about adds) and ultra short playlists to get better ratings. As a former PD I know short playlists work, but in the Internet world radio no longer controls the inventory. Kids do. Online.

So it’s ironic that the group trying the free music giveaway has “radio” in its name.

Radio. Head.

Had radio used its head and focused on remaining the source for fresh, new music it would probably have a stronger position in this changing music industry.

But young people do not look to radio to mold their musical tastes anymore thus making it plausible for a group – a well-known group with lots of fans – to go it alone without airplay.

It’s too early to jump to conclusions but we do know that new ways to bring music to the public are cropping up with greater frequency. Circumventing the traditional record label model and radio station role as a hitmaker.

If you’re a label exec or radio programmer looking at this latest development you should be saying, “Great – I want in”.

Not like labels that usually say, “get me legal on the phone” (their favorite mantra).

Or like radio stations who break into defending why music can’t live without radio airplay.

I refer you back to a previous piece I wrote about music someday being sold for the price of a text message.

We’re a tiny bit closer to that today.

Once the labels and the stations lose control of the artists, they’re really done.

They already lost their customers a long time ago.

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