To fans long famished for a new Radiohead album (we’ve been waiting since ’03, with an admittedly lovely Thom Yorke solo effort last year to tide us over), there came today some very welcome news: their latest record, “In Rainbows,” is due to be released October 10th (hallelujah!). What’s worth noting here is how they’re doing it. With the release of their “COM LAG” EP in 2004, a collection of mainly b-sides from “Thief,” Radiohead wrapped up a 6-record contract with EMI. Rather than renewing or seeking a deal with another label, the band bucked the industry, opting to take charge of its own distribution. Well today they announced their first major act as their own boss, a simple website where you can pre-order (and soon purchase) their new album in two forms: 1) a beautiful collector’s discbox (pictured above) containing a CD (with bonus tracks and digital photos), two vinyl records, artwork and lyric booklets, all “encased in a hardback book and slipcase”; and 2) a digital download. Price of the discbox is 40 British pounds. Price of the download: it’s up to you.
Clearly, the band figures that these days mp3s fall more in the gift economy sector of making and distributing music. The big money is to be made off of touring, or, to a lesser degree, through the sale of lovingly crafted physical artifacts packed with all the juicy supplemental stuff that fans revel in. But yes, it’s true: a small transaction fee notwithstanding, the download can theoretically be obtained for nothing. I expect, though, that this good faith gesture might predispose fans (including this one) to voluntarily cough up 5 to 10 bucks (or rather, quid). It’s a very cool move on Radiohead’s part, one that acknowledges the fact that valuation of digital media is today very much an open question, and that figuring out the answer is best done not by the industries but through dialogue between the makers and the listeners (and all those folks in between).
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Another quick thought: by offering a pay-what-you-want download of the entire album, Radiohead is in a way cleverly pushing back the larger trend in music buying/sharing/pirating of disaggregation: i.e. tracks as the fundamental unit rather than whole records. They’re one of those bands whose music still justifies the album form and is crafted to fit that shape. Naturally they’ll do what they can to ensure that people experience it that way.