Hail to the Thief: Radiohead Conquers the Music Business

Bush Flips the BirdEarlier this week Radiohead gutted the music industry like the fat, fat fish it was.

Their latest full-length album, In Rainbows, was released Wednesday exclusively on their web site, www.inrainbows.com.

You can pay whatever you want for the new album.

And the tracks are unprotected, so you can play them on whatever device you please.

This is a watershed moment in music history.

Radiohead is arguably the best band of our generation.

And, with In Rainbows, they’re serving their fans a big plate of respect and trust even as they flip the bird at the music establishment.

Distribution, pricing, and copy protection are the major issues that pit music as an art against the narrowly controlled business side of the medium.

And Radiohead is taking them all on at once.

Eschewing the traditional method of content publishing and distribution, a near-criminal racket run by a mere handful of major conglomerates, Radiohead is delivering their product direct to the people, hot out of their own oven.

The band doesn’t even have a record contract, for crying out loud.

Instead, they’re leveraging the incredible weight they have as a major international music phenomenon to self-publish, self-distribute, and self-promote their new effort.

Hence, hit their web site if you want to dig the new tracks. It’s not in stores anywhere or on any other internet outlet.

Then there’s their whacked-out pricing model: you decide what you want to pay. This is, to put it mildly, a little different from the commercial outlets’ pricing models.

Apple and Steve Jobs take a one-size-fits-all approach by insisting that all albums must sell for $10 on iTunes.

Meanwhile, some other online services such as Microsoft’s Zune Marketplace think we’re all into the musical smorgasbord thing.

The “subscription model” is an all-you-can eat flat fee system that lets you download and listen to as much music as you want.

The only problem is, if you forgo your monthly dues, that musical horn of plenty goes stale along with all the tracks you ever downloaded.

Your music’s freshness factor, in either case, is based on a nefarious software tool called DRM — Digital Rights Management.

This is basically industry shorthand for, “all your tracks belong to us.”

While record labels view musical copy protection as a means of limiting the distribution of their commercial products, consumers interpret it as a form of disrespect and mistrust.

DRM says we are all musical thieves who must be placed under technical house arrest.

Most tracks you buy online, be they from iTunes or the Zune Marketplace, contain this built-in licensing system that restricts how you can enjoy your music.

Microsoft, as mentioned before, forces you to pay up every month for the privilege, while Apple generally insists you plug into an iPod.

A few months back, however, European music-haus EMI released their entire catalogue DRM-free, which makes enjoying artists like the Beastie Boys, Lily Allen, and Norah Jones a whole lot easier.

With In Rainbows, Radiohead has made both the price and DRM arguments academic.

Forget the suits combing through pie charts and bar graphs, grasping at the statistical straws that represent music consumption.

Radiohead has said, simply: pay what you please and listen where you like.

It’s a refreshing attitude that puts the power back in our hands and builds a direct relationship that makes one feel connected with the artist.

Of course, only a band like Radiohead could pull off this coup.

They’re big, independent, and, well, weird.

Their entire 14-year career has been all about inventing and defining that musical über-genre called “alternative”.

They conquered the contemporary musical landscape, with hundreds of bands riding their coattails to unoriginal success (think of Muse, Hot Chip, and even Coldplay).

Radiohead’s now stepping it up and taking on music’s industrial oligarchy in an effort to do to the business side of music that they did to the artistic side: reform it.

It’s unlikely that In Rainbow’s pricing model of “you decide” will take hold on a widespread basis too quickly.

Few musical acts could accept that degree of financial risk.

However, their point is taken: nobody knows what music is “worth.”

Let the market decide, or at least have a say.

In Rainbows is a great new album.

It’s perhaps not as musically revolutionary as, say, OK Computer or Kid A, but it’s a great return from a 4-year hiatus.

The problem is, I suppose, we won’t know how In Rainbows’ done, in terms of the traditional measures of success.

Radiohead is not releasing sales figures, nor are they sharing information about how much fans actually paid for the album.

But that’s part of the gig: perhaps sales and revenues are not a valid measure of artistic success.

In Rainbows is in search of a new method of valuation.

As far as I’m concerned, the true sign of success is the bloody mess on the floor that was the music industry’s guts.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 12, 2007.

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