Earlier this month Radiohead released its new album In Rainbows, making the music available using an ingenious "pay what you want" scheme. You can download the album for whatever you think it's worth (which could be $0) from the band's website. The plan was smart for several reasons. First, the move garnered an unbelievable amount of publicity for the album; it was written up by everyone from music blogs to Harvard economics professors. And furthermore, though nobody was required to pay for the album, many did. All of the money (one estimate was $10 million in the first two weeks, though Radiohead disputes that figure) went directly to the band.
Many believed that Radiohead's experiment indicated that the band was sticking its tongue out at the current system of purchasing music, or at the very least, trying to innovate a new system. So it made some fans very angry when they learned that the band also planned to release a hard copy of the album with a major record label sometime in 2008. But I believe that, far from sticking it to the man, Radiohead's scheme actually validates our current iTunes/Virgin Megastore music-distribution system. Find out why after the jump.
The Radiohead experiment aims right at those music thieves, along with those of us who love to copy albums from friends (which is legal, but only just). It attempts to replace our sense of entitlement with a sense of guilt. Music takes money to get made, and bands deserve to be compensated for their creativity. That should go without saying, yet most coverage of record-label litigation is unfairly negative, as my colleague Leslie Shapiro has argued.
According to a company that tracks illegal downloading, by the time I post this article more people will have stolen the album (can you even steal something that's free?) over BitTorrent networks like Pirate Bay and TorrentSpy than have downloaded it from the band's website.
It would seem that those who claim they would purchase music under "better conditions" are full of baloney. Radiohead's experiment wasn't perfect: You could argue there's no moral imperative to pay for something that's being given away, especially when there's no recommended price. But those who trade the album for free over BitTorrent are still stealing. Even if you didn't pay Radiohead one dime, downloaders at least gave the band a legitimate e-mail address.
And what, pray tell, is music worth now? Not much, according to many people. Even most of the consumers who paid for the album showed that they value owning 10 songs forever less than one trip to the movie theater. To me, this just goes to show that the cultural distribution system in our country is inherently unfair: Some artists (book authors, film directors) are guaranteed better copyright protections than others, not for legal reasons, but for practical ones.
Though Radiohead made a ton of money of this experiment, if in the long run only one third of consumers pay for the music they download, a lot of artists (and — dare I say it? — their producers and distributors) will lose out. Don't expect The Man to back down on this issue any time soon. The second disc of In Rainbows will cost real, live money, and will be available in stores next year.
S.E. Kramer is a freelance writer in Manhattan. Kramer has traveled the world as a writer for the Rough Guides, and contributed to Wired, Condé Nast Traveler, AOL's Switched, and Portfolio.com.