Radiohead’s Thom Yorke says the band won’t be repeating the band’s digital deal which allowed users to download a version of its most recent album for free.
“I don’t think it would have the same significance now anyway, if we chose to give something away again,” he said, describing it as a “one-off response to a particular situation”.
That’s despite the gimmick paying off handsomely – both in promotional terms, and financially. Radiohead have done better out of this deal than many pundits suppose – and I’ll explain why in a moment. So why not do it again?
The short answer: the job’s done, and they don’t need to. Don’t be fooled by the guilt-ridden, right-on rhetoric: this is a group of canny businessmen with offshore bank accounts. And so they make hard-headed calculations, as canny businessmen should.
A crisis in the Strategy Boutique
Radiohead’s commercial goal was to recapture some of the huge worldwide audience that followed OK Computer a decade ago. It took almost four years to release new material. The back-to-back follows-ups, Kid A and Amnesiac, were self-consciously experimental.
In the meantime, Radiohead-influenced bands such as Muse and Arcade Fire had captured a slice of their former audience, the epic rock seekers. Competing with these arriviste pomp-rockers was risky, as the bumpy 2004 release Hail To The Thief made clear. So a more accessible direction was a natural course for Radiohead to take.
But back in Oxford, there was a big problem.
Radiohead had an upbeat title and the sunny, warmer graphics concept all set. The trouble was, there just wasn’t a lot in the creative larder: all the band had was a few familiar riffs and mannerisms. These were more appealing on the surface than the Warp-influenced albums of 2001, but there wasn’t very much you could hum. Or at least, you couldn’t hum it without sounding like a faulty air conditioning unit.
In addition, Radiohead’s refusal to deal with a strong outside personality – they’d been friends since school – ruled out the option of involving someone who could develop some of these odds and ends into another Karma Police – a Phil Spector type. So what they had, simply had to do.
Bring on the ‘tards
The band had an ace up its sleeve, however. That huge former fanbase still viewed the fading memory of Radiohead with affection, and they’d been patiently waiting for three years since the last new material (excluding solo stuff). This was enough to create an instant buzz – and the band bet that enough of these fans were so dedicated as to pay twice: once for the “preview”, and once for the physical release.
But it was the Music Freetards who catapulted Radiohead from the Culture pages in the papers into the Business Section, and even the front page. After a decade of digital music shenanigans, hacks were still asking the question, “What’s the new Business Model?” To which the anti-copyright crowd replied: “give stuff away for free!” For hacks who can look no further than bloggers for their ideas, this was the cue they needed.
(Here are some field recordings samples of Music Freetards captured in their natural habitat, and doing what they love doing best – bullying and whinging.)
Radiohead made a low-bitrate version available several weeks ahead of the physical release of In Rainbows. The management even waived the credit card charge – and you could get the album, in its entirety, for free.
Such was the buzz around Radiohead’s approach to market that few people noticed that it really wasn’t very inspired. No one seemed to mind very much. Contractually free of their deal with EMI, the band signed with Beggars Group indie label XL Recordings to release the physical version – which went on to top the charts in the UK and the USA. Many fans paid twice for the same recording – and some of these are fans who’ll complain about the music business’ practice of getting us to pay for the same record twice as one format supersedes another.
How the honesty box worked
Despite investing £20,000 in new servers to cope with the demand for the digital preview, Radiohead benefited from the “honesty box” release in several ways. There’s the one I’ve mentioned: the bet that people would pay twice – once for the preview, and again for the physical release.
There was an instant cash-flow dividend, too. There was no waiting around for a royalty statement from the Accounting Department of the Mega Label. And best of all, the renewed interest from overseas – particularly the United States – gave the band far higher royalties than they’d gain from a physical release with a major label.
So although fewer fans put less money into the honesty box than many people claimed, it didn’t really matter. Enough had done so to recoup the one-off costs – and the album was available as a sampler for weeks.
But one-offs, by definition, are not to be repeated. Neither Trent Reznor nor Coldplay have generated anything quite like the publicity that In Rainbows digital preview enjoyed.
Without the Freetards, the publicity coup could never have happened. Even the most inventive major label marketing genius with the biggest budget would have struggled to get such an indifferent “product” to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
And the real money, you’ll note, is in the CD, and getting fans to pay twice. Which looks a lot like the Old Business Model to me.