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posted 10 Jan 08     

The Sound of a Brand New World

Radiohead has a best-selling CD
after all. Does this change anything?

So In Rainbows, the album distributed online in October in a pay-what-you-will fashion, showed up at number one on the sales charts in both the U.S. and the U.K. in the first week of January.

In the U.S., it added up to about 122,000 copies sold for the week, about one-quarter of which were purchased via iTunes. While the total is well below the 300,000 figure that the band's last CD, Hail to the Thief, sold in its first week back in 2003, it's safe to say that the difference was more than made up for if you add both the number of downloads sold and the number of special, high-priced "discboxes" the band sold during the pre-release promotional period.

And because of the direct nature of the download sales, plus the fairer-to-the-artist contract the band now has with Dave Matthews' ATO label, it's also safe to say Radiohead will be making much more money from In Rainbows than they did from any of their previous albums.

On top of that, the album is by all accounts (including mine) a musical success as well. Everybody wins!

So why isn't everyone smiling? Why, in fact, did the whole In Rainbows gambit make so many people kind of grumpy?

As the story played out over these past few months, Radiohead was repeatedly taken to task for their bold and unexpected move. Both big-label honchos and workaday independent musicians--two groups which don't normally see eye to eye--were often united in slamming the band for releasing In Rainbows electronically and allowing consumers to pay anything they wanted for it, including nothing at all.

The record company criticism was of course unsurprising. "Radiohead tried to spin this as offering a service for fans," said one unnamed source from a major label quoted in the Times (U.K.), "but it was nothing more than a marketing ploy to make themselves relevant again and prepare for their next release."

We've come to expect short-sighted foolishness from record company officials, but what was with all the grumbling from independent musicians on the matter? One such musician, in an "open letter to Thom Yorke"
published in Philadelphia Weekly in early December, summed up his gripe this way:

"I can't tell you how many MySpace messages I've gotten in the past couple weeks asking, 'Radiohead gave away their new album for free. Why can't you?'" And his answer:

"Because it's what I do for a living."

But Radiohead does it for a living too. The smarter answer to the MySpace hordes would be to correct their mistaken idea that Radiohead was "giving away" their "album" for "free." This conjures a false image of stacks of In Rainbows on a table at a concert, with the sign "Free! Take One!"

Radiohead did not give away their album for free. Instead, they offered the electronic files in advance of the CD release, and didn't require you to pay for them although you were certainly encouraged to.

Our independent musician/writer goes on in his essay to state his distress at the idea that Radiohead might start a trend, and that so-called "rich bands" who can afford to let people pay or not pay for their albums would make it even harder than it already is for struggling bands who rely on CD sales for some of their very hard-earned income.

This argument is understandable but simplistic, and makes the mistake in logic of presuming the inevitability of a not-inevitable circumstance--namely, that in the future, no one will pay for CDs.

This presumption appears premature in the face of the goodly number of people who actually went out and bought the physical In Rainbows CD.

That the album turned up at number one on the chart in its first official week of release renders all the hubbub about who did or didn't pay for the pre-release download even more ridiculous than it already was--and it already was pretty ridiculous.

You see, we never really found out how many people actually paid for the original download, and, if they paid, what they paid. Radiohead refused to satisfy inquiring minds on the matter, and did not release any statistics.

That didn't stop an online consumer research company called comScore from stepping into the vacuum in early November with a press release claiming to be "a study of online sales of In Rainbows." The results were widely and forcefully reported. The idea--as put forth in the report--that 62 percent of people downloading the album did not pay for it rapidly became the de facto truth.

Such was the meme-like power of this 62 percent figure that Radiohead's own statement on the matter--they called comScore report calling it "purely speculative" and "wholly inaccurate"--didn't make a dent in the coverage. The 62 percent might as well have come straight from the notarized spreadsheet of Radiohead's bookkeeper.

Our aforementioned writer/musician in Philadelphia launched his "letter" off the veracity of the report, saying at the outset, "We now know about 60 percent of the people who bothered to download it did so for nothing."

This not-in-any-way-official 62 percent figure was, perversely, used to malign Radiohead both coming and going. There were those who scoffed at how many people apparently just took the album for free--an interpretation prodded along by the title of the
comScore press release: "For Radiohead Fans, Does 'Free' + 'Download' = 'Freeload'?"

Simultaneously came an assault from economists, as reported in the New York Times, among other places, who scoffed at people who paid for something that they didn't actually have to--behavior that will forever elude the unfeeling formulations of the economist's trade.

So let me get this straight: Radiohead was silly for expecting anyone to pay, and those who did pay were silly for paying?

That can't be right. And it isn't. In fact, the analysis of the 62 percent number was shoddy from the get-go. One assumes the band disowned the number because the actual percentage of so-called "freeloaders" was lower than that, but for the sake of argument, let's say that roughly 60 percent of people downloading In Rainbows did in fact take it for free, and roughly 40 percent paid something for it.

Give these numbers an accurate context and they're actually nothing to sniff at, especially from the band's point of view. First, it's important to realize that not everyone who downloaded it for free did so from the same place and for the same reason. Free downloaders can be divided into three distinct groups: 1) people who never would otherwise have bought this Radiohead album; 2) people who might have bought it but now won't because they got the electronic version for free; and 3) people who downloaded the album online for free because they were still planning to buy the physical CD upon its release.

To be as precise as possible, let's divide that first group, furthermore, into two segments: a) people who never would otherwise have bought this Radiohead album because they rarely buy anything, opting always to find free (if illegal) downloads of the music they want; and b) people who never would otherwise have bought this Radiohead album because they were never previously interested in listening to Radiohead.

Okay, now we have some context. And you can see that Radiohead in this case lost revenue only from group 2--people who might have bought In Rainbows if they had to but didn't because they didn't have to. Group 1 people, who weren't going to buy it anyway, represent no loss for the band at all, and in fact there's a bit of a gain, exposure-wise, if you consider that the experiment attracted the 1b types who never previously listened to the band's music before.

And now don't forget that all the income from the sales went directly back to the band. In the past, because of their major-label contract, the band received exactly zero percent of online sales. Be aware too that among the (let's say) 40 percent of people who paid for the download were no doubt at least two interesting subgroups: people who would not otherwise have bought the album at all, and people who bought it and would also buy the CD.

One of the most bracing things about the experiment, to me, was how Radiohead, in offering the album as they did, was forthrightly acknowledging that group 1 exists in the world, something no one in the traditional music industry seems ready or able to do. Outside of filing lawsuits, the music industry does not appear to know how to respond to the fact that there are a significant number of music consumers in the 21st century who pretty much don't pay for music, at least not in the direct, old-fashioned way of buying a song or an album from a record company or independent artists.

The band was saying, okay, let's see if we can still earn a living out here, working around the reality of how many people might be inclined not to pay for a download. If they were not the first, they were certainly the highest-profile musicians to give this a shot.

Hooray for Radiohead, a band of truly innovative, serious, and talented musicians. Boo to those who
snipe at them every step of the way. And now: where do we go from here?

Answer: I don't know. The whole thing is a still-unfolding mystery. But I do know five particular things that are relevant and seem to be continually overlooked in discussions about the brave new world of music in the digital age.

1) There is a difference between electronic files and physical CDs.

While there's no turning the clock back to the days when you had to buy a CD to get music, the fact remains that a physical CD is different than an electronic file. Physical CDs sound better, for those who can hear the difference. Physical CDs carry with them at least some little bit of the "album-ness" of albums that I talked about in my previous
Commentary piece, and there are still people who care about that. A physical CD is just that: a physical product, which lends to it an intangible "suchness" that the electronic file lacks. To the extent that the music world has barrelled along in the '00s without much awareness of this difference does not eliminate the difference by any means; as a matter of fact, it may be setting the stage for an unexpected comeback of the physical product.

The fact also remains that a good percentage of people who still buy music still do buy CDs, naysayers and doom-and-gloomers aside. Take In Rainbows as a good, current example--of the 122,000 copies sold the first week, three-quarters were actual physical CDs. While we don't know how many of those people who bought physical CDs had also previously downloaded the music online, I'm guessing that many of them certainly did (for instance, me; I actually paid for it twice; go figure). If this isn't a de facto argument for the viability of the CD in the digital age, I don't know what is. Radiohead does happen to be a band whose fans particularly enjoy the album packaging, but there's a hint for musicians around the world: make the package part of the worth of the music.

In discussing the matter, people seem constantly to talk as if the anticipated future of nobody buying CDs at all is already here. There are two things blatantly wrong with that: first, that future isn't here yet, by a long shot; second, there is little if any guarantee that this anticipated future is the future that's in store for us. People glibly act as if a downward trend must therefore be downward to zero eventually. So if three-quarters of people buying music now buy CDs, this means eventually nobody will. Rarely is anything so cut and dried; rarely if ever do trends go all the way down. As a matter of fact, judging by the track record of those who predict what the future holds for us, from a consumer products point of view, I'd say that there's overwhelming evidence to suggest that anticipated futures such as "no one will buy CDs anymore" are the ones that never arrive.

For the time being, I would suggest that musicians draw a sharp distinction between their electronic files and the physical product. The more interesting, instructive, and intrinsic to the music itself the CD package is, the clearer the distinction between the electronic file and the physical product will be.

I think this inability to make the distinction--crucial to the success of the In Rainbows experiment--between music as electronic file and music as physical product is what keeps so many musicians stubbornly unwilling to offer a free and legal MP3 or two from every album they make. I am continually amazed by the number of independent artists I encounter who won't do this. It seems that they think they're protecting their work but in reality they're just protecting their egos, not to mention shooting themselves in the foot. The Radiohead experiment shows at a massive level the promotional value of offering songs, legally, online, that people don't necessarily have to pay for. This is not the same as offering free CDs and never will be.

2) Like it or not, when music exists electronically rather than just physically, the rules must change.

I'm not saying it's a great thing that people have gotten used to having a lot of free music in the digital age; lord knows Fingertips exists because I feel strongly about not pirating music willy-nilly just because one can. On the other hand, I don't believe in sticking my head in the sand about this either. Digital reality has changed many many things. Look at how strange, for instance, software is: it's a product that a company sells, and yet it is entirely and effortlessly replicatable. If you buy a flat-screen TV, you can't make a quick copy of it at home, and then send it to your friends via the internet.

Because software was by its nature digital from the outset (duh), the software industry has by and large figured out how to deal with this, although it's been its own sort of bumpy ride. (Should software be subject to copyright or patent, or both? Should software simply be free?: there are any number of people out there who do in fact believe that.) Those products that used to exist non-digitally but have since been digitized--pictures, music, film--are the ones in which the new digital reality causes the most upheaval. As we will continue to see.

3) In the digital world, something can have value and still be free.

This is the sticky wicket many old-model music people have trouble with. Label people and independent musicians alike are known to fume about how "music has value" and that anyone giving it away is undermining the idea that music is actually worth something. The Times, for instance, quoted one technology investor as saying that the Radiohead experiment "shows pretty conclusively that the majority of music consumers feel that digital recorded music should be free and is not worth paying for."

This argument--and a rather overstated argument in this case--overlooks the reality that the very people who are often taking music for free do nevertheless value their music a lot. What the bean counters of the world don't understand is that these music lovers have detached the idea of financial value from inner-worth-value. That is, they don't feel inclined to back up their sense of music's value to them with cold hard cash.

I don't think this has to do with the inherent evil of 21st-century humankind. I think it's actually a somewhat sensible response to the aforementioned change associated with the digital world.

Back when a song had to exist on a physical piece of vinyl, there were literally only so many copies of the song "XYZ" in the world: they could be stacked and counted as they were produced, and each could be given a particular price, a particular financial value. Now, the song "XYZ" is transportable invisibly, and can multiply incessantly. It makes no sense to try to apply the old idea of value to such a product.

I think this is what people are responding to, unconsciously, when they seemingly "steal" music--why people who would never go into a store and pilfer a physical CD have no qualms about going online and downloading music for free, whether it was being officially made available for free or not. I am not saying this to justify piracy, which I still ardently oppose. I still don't think MP3 blogs should be posting songs that have not been made available legally (and the vast majority of them do, alas). But I do understand why we've gotten to where we've gotten.

4) Digital content is not by and large seen as having financial worth

This is another tough nut to swallow, I know. But look: the overwhelming majority of web sites that actually make money do so either by selling concrete, non-digital things or by selling advertising based on the number of people visiting the site. There is very little money in digital content, except in the most specialized areas.

As a writer, I saw the proverbial writing on the wall on the matter pretty early--it was 1997 or so when I began to notice, to my chagrin, that the same writing I used to be paid to do in physical magazines was worth nothing or next to nothing online. Print magazines paid nothing extra for putting their copy--my writing--online; and web-only publications paid embarrassingly little, if not literally nothing at all, for the words with which they filled their screens. I spent a little time bemoaning my fate; I spent a lot more time adjusting my approach to the business. (In the long run, I used it as a convenient reason to stop doing the sort of freelance writing I had been doing, which I realized I didn't even like in the first place.)

If there is one way to sell digital content for money, it's going to have something to do with how iTunes has managed. Let's ignore for the moment everything wrong with iTunes regarding its proprietary technology and its artist-unfriendly relationships with the major labels, and let's look simply at the fact that Apple has convinced millions and millions of people to pay for music online. (Hell, they even convinced a whopping number of people this last week to buy, via iTunes, for $9.99, the very album they could have bought via Radiohead for any price they wanted.) They've done so with a combination of low perceived cost (just 99 cents a tune; much less than $1.00, right?) and that Apple-oriented magic of the iTunes "store" feeling like a spiffy place to go and look around. They've done the more-difficult-than-it-looks job of organizing millions of items in a way that seems friendly and accessible.

And it was positively brilliant of them to link the online store to the iTunes player, so it doesn't even feel like you're on the web when you're buying stuff--you're in some Twilight Zone-ish place that's neither online nor offline. The buying procedure, once you've registered, is credit card free and seamless. The whole experience feels entirely unlike a web-based transaction--which at least partially removes our built-in resistance, otherwise, to buying digital content online.

5) The digital age isn't just about online music distribution; it's about low barrier to entry. This changes the market just as much, if not more, than the existence of MP3s.

The 21st century has brought with it an unprecedented ability for a musician to record and distribute his or her music to the great wide world. There are way way (way) more people doing this than there were 15 or 20 years ago.

The total amount of money spent on music could be going up healthily every year (and it may well be, if you consider indirect spending on things like technology on which to play music) and it still couldn't possibly assure a living for everyone out there with a musician shingle up. The idea that in the future musicians will make money from touring but not CDs--a highly unlikely circumstance that has nonetheless achieved meme-like status in discussions like these--is severely undermined by the reality of just how many bands and musicians are theoretically going to be out there touring. Where on earth is all the money coming from to support all these tours? There just aren't enough people interested in going to concerts night after night after night. Supply has outstripped demand--it's really as simple as that.

Never mind the fact that moving forward in our climate-changed world, there's going to have to be a lot less touring, not more touring. And--sorry to say to the hundreds of thousands (literally!) of bands haunting MySpace, looking for a big break--there are going to have be fewer bands. A lot fewer. Or--this is the only option, although not a pretty one--they are going to have to be okay not making any money from their music.

Call me elitist (and idealistic to boot!), but I don't think the really really talented folks get completely screwed too often. Choose the hoary aphorism of your liking--the cream rises to the top, talent will out, etc. By and large, I believe it. That doesn't mean the talented people don't have to work really really hard to make ends meet sometimes. Very few musicians get success handed to them on a silver platter.

On the flip side of this assertion, there are a whole lot of bands out there that don't need to exist, judging by aesthetic standards, and if they fade away, or if they must make music on the side of their "real" lives, I don't see the harm in it.

That's one of problems I encounter when people complain about musicians "needing" to be able earn money from their music. Somehow quality squirts away from the conversation. No one presumes that an inept plumber "deserves" to make his living fixing pipes, but somehow with music, people get all touchy about the artist's right to exist and be paid and forget about the audience's right not to support uninteresting, mediocre music.

The hard truth is most of the music being made out there isn't really worth a lot of money. Music is not an inherently financial endeavor. I admire anyone who tries to make a living as a musician, but the mere fact that someone wants to try by no means guarantees that his or her music is of high enough quality to garner financial support.

And the fact that 21st-century technology has allowed the number of people trying to do this to mushroom as never before means that from here on in, it's only going to be harder, not easier, to find a living in this arena.

To believe that this living is being compromised by a band such as Radiohead allowing people to download their music files for a price of their choosing--or a band such as the Charlatans, who having begun releasing their next CD via free and legal MP3s online--is benighted. The enemy is not the internet, and the enemy is not any band trying to have a real relationship with digital music distribution.

The real enemy--as always--is something that lives inside of each of us, something that perpetuates insecurity and fear and then believes that other people, places, and things are at the root of this insecurity and fear. One outside-of-the-box way to look at the situation is this: the digital age in music is giving many people an incredible opportunity to confront themselves. Those who do so, successfully, will, like Radiohead, have the most interesting stories to tell in the years to come, and may produce some really great music in the process. And I for one will gladly pay for it.



A discerning few of you may have noticed over time that Fingertips does not offer "comments" sections in any way, shape, or form. To explain that particular quirk would probably take its own "Commentary" essay (and watch out, I'm thinking of writing it); suffice it to say that I am very interested in what people have to say, but I'm not interested in publishing quickie reactions from random visitors--which often turn into their own conversations--on an equal footing with carefully thought-out essays. Just because 99% of all web sites do this doesn't mean it makes sense.

So, if I receive responses that are thoughtful and respectful--however much they agree or disagree with what I've written--I will post them here in a manner that extends the conversation, as I might also, then, respond to the response, and so forth.

"The Future (or not) of the Album" - posted 2 Aug 07
"The Secret...okay, a different one" - posted 24 Mar 07
"Foulplay" - posted 16 Jul 05
"14 Arguments for the Elimination of Pop Music Critics" - posted 10 Feb 05
"Alarmed" - posted 16 Mar 04

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