This morning I received an email from firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
Aside 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.
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.
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.