However This Shakes Out, Let's Hear it for Radiohead

Ivan Pollard From London

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There's been a lot of coverage over here about the release of the new Radiohead album, "In Rainbows." You've heard the story: The rock band sidestepped its record company and released the album on its website for a price of "It's up to you. ... No, really, it's up to you."

It's a literal application of free-market economics to the music business. It couldn't be simpler or more worrying for the record companies -- or could it? Maybe this isn't going to work out for the good of the consumer and the band. Maybe there still is an enormous need for the record-company marketing folks. Think about it.
Ivan Pollard
Ivan Pollard is a partner at Naked Communications, a communications-strategy shop with offices in six countries.


This is a great route to market if you're famous and already commercially successful. Your fan base has a vested interest in keeping you going. It also works wonderfully if you spawn millions of dollars worth of column inches as a result of being the first major band to orchestrate this type of release. But if you are the 755th and you're not the Rolling Stones or even the Sultans of Ping (FC), then you're in a bit of bother. How do you get people to your download site in the first place? Maybe you'll need those razor-sharp record-company people to work on it for you.

Secondly, if by some superhuman effort in cyberspace you do start to spread the word, how much can you make? Enough to make it worth your while or enough to feed the cat next week? From the 12th Century Troubadours to Shania Twain, we have always paid well for entertainment. Radiohead's well-meaning insurrection could actually make things worse for struggling artists by abolishing the sense of a "fair price" for artistic effort. Again, this could lead to a strengthening of the record companies, not a rebalancing of power with the artist.

Either way, it shows how the machinery of the new world can be used to challenge the hegemony of the old. You have to love the way this stuff is changing almost everything we touch -- even if it doesn't change the way you expect. It could be a short step from what Radiohead did to having limited-edition releases bid up on the net through record-company hype.

Giving someone the option of buying great music -- which Radiohead undoubtedly creates -- for as little as, well, nothing is a brave departure from the paradigm. Hurrah for Thom Yorke and his comrades for striking this blow. And hurrah for the way the big companies will have to respond.
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