Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Somewhere after In Rainbows

It's been a little over a month since Radiohead independently released In Rainbows as a digital album. You may have heard about it; few topics in music have been mulled and opined about at year's end as much as this one. Also much discussed was the name-your-own-price experiment - possibly even more controversial than Radiohead's decision to go label-less.

I have followed these events and read some of the discourse, but not felt very strongly about it. It's safe to say that In Rainbows is a highly symbolic event, and who knows, maybe even a sea change for the music industry. It's hard to say to what degree Radiohead themselves consider it to be symbolic; from the few direct quotes I've read, I gather their choices were first pragmatic and then somewhat whimsical.

Recently, though, I've been having more specific thoughts about all this, and I've gravitated towards being more actively mystified by it, rather than passively indifferent. Radiohead can't help but have realized that their actions would be interpreted as symbolic, but in truth, the symbolism is muddled and contradictory, which is starting to feel like a missed opportunity, or at least the squandering of one.

My first intrigue is how letting consumers pick their price is consistent with eschewing label distribution. On the one hand, we infer, 'We're leaving a record label because we want more control and a bigger share of the income.' On the other hand, we infer, 'We are in such a privileged place that we can afford to give this album away for free.' Isn't that a slap in the face to the 99.9% of artists who do need the income (badly) and would be thrilled to be dependent on a big, profit-siphoning label to promote them? (Or who are out there self-promoting and not getting nearly the same volume of hits to their websites?)

Next, doesn't allowing consumers to set the price actually cheapen the product? Perception of value is a big component of capitalism; just consider teachers' salaries in this country. Wouldn't the more consistent decision have been to price In Rainbows at $2.00, saying, 'Even at that paltry price we're making more money per unit than if we had a record label or even iTunes distribute this'? That would actually encourage fans to reflect on their perception of value with music and CDs in general.

Now that In Rainbows has been released as a CD-quality CD, I have another dissonance. In December Radiohead fans paid something for the lower quality audio files. Or they didn't (about 60% of them) and the implication across the media was that those who didn't were freeloaders; there is a consensus that something should have been paid. But if those Radiohead fans now want the same music at higher quality, they have to pay again. How is that a good experience? Many people have now paid more for In Rainbows, not less, and they can't help but be aware that Radiohead have already profited more from this album than all their other work combined. Why should fans care about changes in the music industry that don't benefit them, or worse, have drawbacks?

And why is the list price for In Rainbows $13.99? That's a price commensurate with a standard record deal, and Radiohead made only a distribution deal, which I would think at least excludes marketing/promotion and label overhead, accounting for about a third of the cost. If symbolic weight were being considered, shouldn't at least this cost reduction have been passed on to consumers? If the download was negotiable, why not set the price of the CD at gross cost plus whatever-you-want-to-pay? At least that would be consistent.

Radiohead's grand experiment was symbolic, whether they considered it that way or not. Few other artists are in the position to do such a thing (one thinks of some of the battles Pearl Jam has fought) and even fewer would elect to do it. But all the more reason for the symbolism to be, well, symbolic, to have real resonance and scrutability, so that real discourse and maybe real change could come out of it. In Rainbows was a provocative concept in December; now it seems like with more thought, it could have had significantly more impact.

Radiohead official website