What's Radiohead Worth?
Call me the Anguished Downloader. I know taking copyright-protected music without paying is illegal, and illegality makes me queasy. But I do it anyway. I tell myself I'll buy the album if I like it. Or I'll buy a concert ticket and support the artist in some more direct way--otherwise, I'll delete it from my IPod. And hey, I'm waging war against a bizarre, antagonistic, outdated, exploitative and artistically craven business model.
There are more post-hoc justifications where these came from: more partially true but simplistic accusations; more promises that, even as I murmur them to myself, I know I won't always keep. I'm like a remorseful addict: trapped in a cycle of swearing off illegal downloading, then downloading illegally, then swearing off illegal downloading, on and on.
On October 1, the wildly successful and critically venerated British rock quintet Radiohead took to the Web to address their millions of fans, particularly Anguished Downloaders like me. The band announced that its long-anticipated seventh studio album, In Rainbows, would be released October 10 as a "pay what you want, even nothing," download--no record company or middlemen involved. Goodbye, Anguish!
Flush with admiration and gratitude, I started thinking seriously about my payment. My goal was not to work through the constellation of disputes and options that define today's music business, just to buy In Rainbows at a price that felt fair and respectful.
I turned first to Radiohead. Speaking to Gothamist.com, guitarist Jonny Greenwood said the band wanted to "make people pause for even a few seconds and think about what music is worth now...[and] compare it to whatever else in their lives they value or don't value." After a few days of puzzling over this approach (how many pizza slices is a new Radiohead album worth to me? What fraction of an opera ticket?), I started soliciting advice.
Monica Hooks worked at Sony Music from 1994 to 2003 before judging the major label model "broken" and starting her own firm. She said fans should pay "whatever they have the ability to pay. If the music touches them, if it makes their lives better, then they'll contribute to Radiohead directly when they can. If it doesn't, they'll stop listening...it's almost irrelevant what they pay, since the songs are just a commercial for everything else the band does for money, like touring and licensing."
I admit it was nice to hear my own downloading mantra echoed by someone with actual experience in the music business (or, as Hooks describes it, the "comedy of inefficiency"). I also admit that I can name at least ten bands that have genuinely touched me without seeing a dime for it. Maybe Hooks is right that I'll get around to supporting them when I have more cash. But I'd set out to honor Radiohead's noble gesture, and didn't feel like an indefinite IOU would do the job.
I kept pondering.
I downloaded In Rainbows for free on October 10, and promised to pay before filing this article. Ironic, I know, but I was getting antsy, and also hoped that hearing the album might speed up and inform my decision. Maybe I'd even be dazzled enough to order the $80 deluxe box set.
Since it took me months of listening to appreciate some of Radiohead's previous albums (particularly their disconcerting electronic masterwork Kid A), I'm loath to judge In Rainbows after less than a week. But I'll say this: it's a warm, confident album by a band with chops and vision. The opening of "Nude" is the most oddly stirring thing I've heard in a while, and closing track "Videotape" the most haunting. I will listen to this album a lot this year.
Between listening sessions, I kept calling around. Jon Birge, president of the record label Valley Entertainment, called Radiohead's move "smart," and described himself as "surprised and pleased" that secondhand reports showed Radiohead averaging between five and ten dollars per customer on the first million downloads. However, he also mentioned that he's "seen some inside speculation...[that the album's] just dressed-up demos." "If Radiohead had a good enough record, they would have made a deal up front for a buttload of money," one label exec who asked to remain anonymous told me.
I suspect sentiments like these stem from a desire to see Radiohead fail without corporate support. Birge said he'd seen little "spectacular press" for the album, just observations that "it's sort of a continuation of their last record, not anything great." But on a scale of 100, the review aggregator metacritic.com currently rates In Rainbows at 87, which it takes to signify "universal acclaim." Only one album released this calendar year--The Field's From Here We Go Sublime--has earned a higher score.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), led by Capitol, Radiohead's former label, recently won $220,000 in damages from a single mother caught sharing twenty-four songs by multi-platinum performers like Aerosmith, Linkin Park, and Green Day. I tried to talk with RIAA rep Liz Kennedy for this article, and about the ideas of fair pricing and payment in general. Once she heard my idea, she decided "to pass on this one."
I wrote back. "Just to clarify: the RIAA has no position regarding what constitutes a fair, responsible and respectful price for a record?" That was six days ago, and I haven't heard back.
Early this morning, my deliberations ended and I re-purchased In Rainbows for $10. If that works for an industry defender like Birge, it's probably good enough for Radiohead. It felt great.