Now playing: Radiohead’s In Rainbows

This morning I received an email from downloadinrainbows@waste.uk.com providing a link to a 48.3MB zipped file. Three minutes later I was listening to Radiohead’s new album In Rainbows. I am listening to it now as I write this.

What is particularly interesting about this is that Radiohead was entirely in charge of the whole transaction. They even extracted five pounds 45 pence from me simply by asking. I could easily have downloaded the album for free this afternoon.

Radiohead - In RainbowsAside from being one of my favourite bands (no, I don’t find them remotely depressing, which makes me wonder about my base state of mind), Radiohead are an interesting and smart bunch. They are currently outside music industry contracts and so have control of their product. And so they decided on a unique project – they would let people decide how much to pay for their next album. Literally.

Aside from a 45p admin fee, you could type in exactly how much you wanted to pay for the album. It’s a fascinating experiment and I hope Radiohead releases the results so we can see just how people’s behaviour breaks down.

The Net effect

Because of their brains, self-reflection thanks to introversion, and enormous fame, the members of Radiohead have been pondering the impact of the Internet for some time. Lead singer Thom Yorke is, I think, less enamoured of the Internet than the rest of the group.

I remember him saying with disdain at one concert that peope would “probably be listening to this tomorrow morning on your iPods” – referring to the massive pirating around Radiohead’s music. He’s right – I have downloaded several albums’ worth of live material of theirs at concerts. My favourite is a gig two years’ ago in London’s Koko club. I couldn’t be there, so what the hell is the problem? It’s not as if Radiohead was offering me the material.

The fact is though that listening to this is more likely to want me to go to see the band live – and there you really do have to pay. I even flew to Barcelona once to see Radiohead. Made it an extended weekend with friends. It was possibly the greatest gig I have ever been to.

The rest of Radiohead already have more money than they want and love nothing more than tinkering with music and so have been working on ways to use their fame constructively – and good on em. Oddly enough it produces a sense of loyalty in me that the people behind the music I like also share some of my values.

Press speculation

The pricing experiment has, naturally enough, caused a frenzy of commentary in the press – most of it hopelessly ill-considered.

Some hailed it as the future. Which it quite clearly isn’t – at least not in this form. Radiohead is one of very few bands that can get away with this approach because there are less than a handful of bands in the world with their profile.

Others railed against the decision and fed the music industry line that Radiohead would never have existed without music industry backup and significant investment.

The truth is, as ever, somewhere in between.

The music industry is probably the most loathsome I have ever come across, and I have worked in the media for a long time, which has also provided windows into engineering, politics, computers, health and others. I think perhaps only modelling and arms dealing do a better job of destroying people by treating them as nothing.

The music industry does have some good parts but mostly it is an immensely cynical and exploitative industry that is hugely resistant to change and which constantly feeds lies about itself to protect profits.

How such an industry has managed to evolve to control music – something that people of all walks of life are inspired (and have always been inpsired) to spontaneously create, is fascinating. A good chunk of it is the mad egoism of those willing to put themselves up on a stage and play to crowds. Such unusual behaviour provides for all the self-interest an industry needs to divide and conquer the workforce.

Independence

What digital technology has done however is enable musicians to live within their own little worlds without needing such a strong guiding hand. The distribution channel has opened up. And that threatens to create a new stream of business of independent producers, promotors, agents and so on. If enough bands are able to get over themselves and not feel the need to act like rock-star children, and if a big chunk of the market starts going the independent route, then the music industry may have no choice but to adjust the balance of its role, providing less control and more “enabling”.

It will fight every step of the way of course but if I were a young and ambitious man (or woman), I would be looking at guiding bands the way of digital technology at a fascinating career path. Come to think of it, I am a young and ambitious man but I find musicians extremely difficult to work with – and this is the music industry’s secret knowledge.

As much as we like to think of these wonderfully creative people being screwed by nasty men in suits, the truth is that most musicians are a petulant, self-regarding, selfish and difficult bunch. There needs to be some growing up on both sides.

The music industry needs to stop pretending that only it is able to get music into the ears of the rest of the world. A claim that is resolutely ludicrous given the extent of the music and its importance to the human race.

Get over it

And musicians need to stop buying into the fame and fortune nonsense, start behaving more professionally and see the possibilities out there. Plus of course try to find the strength not to sell out their independent partners to the music industry as soon as they have some degree of success.

Listening to Radiohead and writing this, I feel, as I often do when listening to good music — elated and thoughtful in equal measure. Not many things that can do that to me. And that’s why we all love music.

9 Responses to “Now playing: Radiohead’s In Rainbows”


  • Hello!
    Just read your post, listening to Radiohead.
    I am one of those fools who are not Radiohead lover or fan, but I am one who thought this move to be FAIR. I do not know if this will be the future of the music industry (probably not), but this is for sure a disruptive method of distribution/retribution. I do not believe that Radiohead’s decision will change the world, but it is a strong voice that is singing outside the RIAA chorus.
    Long Life to these decision, long life to those who have the power to change the world and do it.

    PS: The album is good!

    Carlo

  • Hi Carlo,

    Well what I think will be the revolution is when someone creates very simple open-source software like blogging software that enables people to quickly and easily set up online stores.

    Then bands can do it for themselves – act as their own distribution channel. Now that would have some interesting knock-on effects.

    Kieren

  • I’m just listening to the album now (track 4) and I seem to be enjoying it which is nice.

    As far as the actual method of distribution goes, I can only see it to be a step forward. That is not to say it is a step forward TO any particular method of distribution, but a step forward to the day that music wont be locked into the major music companies.

    For me the music industry is evolving, VERY VERY slowly for the moment, but it is evolving. Music is taking the middle ground. It is now harder for smaller bands/groups/individuals to gain popularity. And also there is a backlash against the high CD sales etc, making larger groups/individuals less likely in the future.

    The net result will be a multitude of good/great bands that just don’t get world wide recognition. What they will do is create amazing music, have a seizable following and importantly, distribute their music in whatever way they see fit. There will soon be a myriad of methods and music will – if not be free – will begin to fit the listener and the creator as opposed to the company.

  • Hi Kieren,
    the power of blogs is that they are spread and not centralized. For a music store I would like to have everything in the same place, without the need to browse many stores to get different music.
    More than this there is the problem of DRM: Radiohead did not set it (and I appreciate it a LOT) but there are many that requires it…
    …there is space for an interesting debate. How do you see it?

  • I think you’re right Anthony. To be frank, I’m not a big fan of mega-bands. Particularly concerts that are so huge that you only get to see a few specks moving in the distance.

    I am very attached to particular songs and artists and I don’t really care all that much if any one else likes them or not. What is great though is discovering new bands from friends and also recommending bands to friends. It always has been – ever since we were swapping cassettes of 60s bands as kids during the 80s (I really don’t like 80s music).

    With the rise of the Internet as a social networking tool, this pleasure at sharing bands is inevitably going to come to the forefront. And of course if bands are smart they will encourage a loyal following by using their websites and web places to communicate with fans.

    The music industry will always have to play a significant role, not least because most bands need help realising and shaping their music. And of course because musicians do not want to spend their whole time dealing with the business side of things.

    But I see (finally) the Internet bringing its own special creative destruction to the music industry’s models.

    Kieren

  • I think DRM is going to die a slow death. I may be wrong. It all depends where the market is. But, for example, I have purposefully researched and found ways around the protection mechanisms in iTunes and Windows Media Player and so on so that I can have my music in a format where I know it can’t be controlled.

    My collection is defiantly in MP3 for example (although it’s not really the MP3 codec anymore). And I will resist any move to have me shift to other formats. The problem is that the music industry has always dealt with technological advancement by providing different formats – vinyl to tape to CD.

    It started breaking down after CD – mini-disc, digital tape – but the industry is trying to find the equivalent of different digital formats so it can retain control. It will be an appalling shame if they manage because there is no need to have restrictive formats.

    What I think they should do is take the advantages that digital technologies bring. For example, given a choice between a free MP3 file and a file that contains that open-source music file but also contains meta data on the band, plus possibly the musicians talking a little bit about the songs, possibly some information about upcoming gigs, future plans and so on — I would pay for the later.

    All it requires is a little creative thinking.

    Kieren

  • Kieren,
    the DRM will always be a battle between the copyright holders and the hackers. There is no way that this could be won by the first. Apart from this I fear that DRM will not stop…
    …however…
    I think that metadata like those you spoke about are not something I would save in the file, because they are some very volatile information (gigs and future plans are only relevant in a specific moment, and possibly location). I can see a better interaction with online dynamic metadata, available to some new generation MP3 players.
    The problem is that the market is dominated by few powerful lobbies, and playing against them is hard… to create a completely disruptive market you must be an idealist, knowing that you will fight against the windmills, like Don Chisciotte!

    I believe that something is changing, but it is changing too slowly in my humble opinion.

    Cheerio

    Carlo

  • You don’t think that the really bright thing for a music company to do would be to create an open-source file – which it leaves open, sends to the various format bodies as open-source and makes public assurances that it will always remain open source – and as part of that file, allow it to seamlessly integrate other information?

    That way, they use their great advantages – ready access to information, marketing clout, connections to the wider music industry (including player manufacturers) – but without trying to control the actual music itself.

    If I ran a music label, this is what I would be doing.

    Kieren

  • Your idea can be shared by the NON dominant. As a recording company I would know that in this moment there are no threats for me, therefore I would not go around looking for anything “Open”
    Yes, your idea opens a lot of possible applications, but it starts from the fact that you must share information. Where do you see the money return for the musician in there?
    I mean, how do you pay for something that is completely Open and how do you divide the income between the artists and the label?

    Carlo

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