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Radiohead, the world-renowned British band led by front man Thom Yorke, has once again taken an innovative step in the digital age of music. You might remember that in 2007, the band released their “In Rainbows” album online with a revolutionary payment system: pay what you think the album is worth. The struggling music industry watched to see what fans would do, and although exact numbers remain undisclosed, it’s reported the band made a significant profit. This month, the band took another step toward trying to recapture revenue that the music industry has been hemorrhaging since Napster.
The band’s much-anticipated new album, “King of Limbs,” was miraculously released to the public before any illegal copies began circulating online. Although predictably, unlawful copies appeared shortly afterward, the controlled release of the record could be perceived as a victory against online pirates fishing in the Internet seas for copyrighted content before its official release.
How did the band do it?
Aside from pumping up the release of the new record, the band also set an official release date — then released the record online a day early. Radiohead released two very different versions of the record. The digital version is available for nine dollars, and is your basic run-of-the-mill online mp3 recording. The hard copy version, however, (also referred to as the “newspaper album”) is a whopping forty-eight dollars to purchase, but includes two ten inch vinyl albums, a CD, and 625 pages of artwork related to the record.
Quite the package.
The early release of the record didn’t prevent pirates from sharing illegal copies over the Internet through peer-to-peer networks very soon after its release, but somehow the band managed to keep the content under a tight lock and key beforehand. Controlling the release of an album arguably leaves bands the opportunity to hype up the record so that consumers might be more willing to pay for it. Moreover, keeping the record off the Internet before release gives other media outlets, like Rolling Stone Magazine, additional lead-time to promote the release through editorial reviews and commentary.
In addition to the secret release, the band is taking a novel approach to marketing their album. The packaging scheme accompanying the hard copy is quite obviously directed at longtime loyal fans — those willing to pay nearly fifty dollars to obtain not only the record, but arguably the personality of the band along with it. The resurgence of vinyl in recent years demonstrates a market for fans who are sick of lower quality recordings that come from digital downloading. The “songster” phenomenon leaves many fans feeling disconnected from the overall message bands send through a complete album. However, the big difference with this release is that you can’t get the tangible parts of the record by downloading it. Vinyl doesn’t play on iTunes, and the artwork isn’t available on a Kindle.
These moves by Radiohead may signal a potential shift in the way bands are approaching their careers. CDs are outdated, and perhaps stricter copyright laws and enforcement procedures aren’t really the solution. It remains to be seen how successful the “newspaper album” turns out to be for the band, but they clearly didn’t rely on legal protection to ensure the success of their new record. They’re on their own. Although innovative and largely successful, Radiohead’s tactics say little about the ability of less-successful artists to generate enough revenue using similar means. Radiohead prospered under the “old model,” and can now rely on that previous fame to produce a steady supply of fans who are willing to fork out the dough. The up-and-coming bands in the industry better keep a lookout at sea for those pirates.
– Lauren Kilgore
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