After what must have seemed to fans an eternity of silence, Radiohead have thrown down the gauntlet to the music industry by releasing their new album, In Rainbows, as a DRM-free online download and without the backing of any major label. Worse still, fans can choose how much to pay (!) for the album and have been downloading it en masse since its launch last week. Not only is this approach deliciously subversive, it also gives Radiohead great anti-establishment publicity, increasing the buzz and coverage around the album.
Not least, the pay-what-you-like approach makes for an interesting economic experiment. What are people willing to pay for music? Will they pay what they think it's worth or just enough to make them feel like they're not stealing it? How many will just freeload? The industry should pay attention to the outcome because the long-term business model for music distribution may well lie in the analysis of these economics. Wikipedia cites reports that:
by 10 October 2007, the album had sold 1.2 million copies. According to an Internet survey [...] of 3,000 people, about one-third of people who downloaded the album paid nothing, with the average price paid being £4. [..] There was a hardcore of 67 fans who thought that the record was worth more than £10 and a further 12 who claimed to have paid more than £40...
Of course, Radiohead are not purely in the game of experimenting with new economic models. Tempted with the 'teaser' of the downloadable album, many fans are shelling out £40 for the special box-set that ships in December, including the album in CD and vinyl (yes, vinyl!) formats with custom artwork, a lyric booklet, and additional tracks.
And the music? The Guardian was bowled over. And my colleague Evan Frank was humming it all the way to Barcelona and back last week. Nuff said.