Big Label Letdowns
Last month the blogosphere had a little hiccup of sorts when legendary rock/electronica band Radiohead (after months of downtime on their “Dead Air Space” blog) casually announced that their new record would initially be available only as a download through their new website, InRainbows.com. So what's the catch that got everyone talking? You choose how much you pay for the new record. As their website states, “It's up to you.”
This bold move, clearly a nod to the efficacy of P2P networks and the potential for publicity and exposure through free downloads, may not be as risky as some might imagine. An article on the Mashable website claims that Radiohead sold 1.2 million albums in the first week of sales, adding up to a profit of about ten million dollars at an average user-specified download price of $8. It seems that those lovable avant-garde musical tricksters are laughing all the way to the bank.
One group that's not laughing at this situation, however, is the corporate recording industry. I must confess I feel a guilty pleasure when imagining those RIAA executives nervously fidgeting in their expensive seats as yet another threat to their media monopoly presents itself loud and clear on the Internet. After years of price-fixing and suing their own customers, perhaps this new trend in user-priced digital downloads represents a sort of technological karma.
And Radiohead is certainly not the only band to adopt this model. Lesser known bands have been doing this for years, and the trend seems to be catching on. On November 1st, Saul Williams new album became available on the Internet in the same format as “In Rainbows." His third album, “Niggy Tardust” is available on his website for the price of $5, or $0. It's up to you. For $5 you get the album in FLAC lossless format for best quality, or 320Kbps MP3 files. For the free download you get lesser quality 192Kbps MP3 files, but both versions come with PDF versions of the liner notes, lyrics, and album artwork. In typical Saul Williams fashion, the album, produced by Trent Reznor and mixed by Alan Moulder, is as much a political statement as it is a musical release, elucidated in a statement from Williams' site about the album:
“The wall of sound that we've created is tagged with such graffiti that a passerby would seek out doors and ways to ENTER. Once inside a world defined by dreams come true they'd find aligned with the simplest act of sharing what we treasure. Most people aren't aware of the world of art and commerce where exploitation strips each artist down to nigger. Each label, like apartheid, multiplies us by our divide and whips us 'til we conform to lesser figures. What falls between the cracks is a pile of records stacked to the heights of talents hidden from the sun. Yet the energy they put into popularizing smut makes a star of a shiny polished gun. The ballot or the bullet for Mohawk or the mullet is a choice between new times and dying days. And the only way to choose is to jump ship from old truths and trust dolphins as we swim through changing ways. The ways of middlemen proves to be just a passing trend. We need no priests to talk to God. No phone to call her. And when you click the link below, i think it fair that you should know that your purchase will make middlemen much poorer..."
And you can bet your bottom downloading dollar that when Trent Reznor's new NIN album comes out, finally free from the limitations of a major label, it will probably be released in this format as well. To me, it seems that this musical innovation is part of a larger picture that has been developing in conscious communities in recent years: the increasing loss of control of corporate powers in our lives, and a shift to more independent, sustainable means of production and distribution of products. Hopefully, more musicians will take note of this possibility, and decide to take their music into their own hands.
Tristan Gulliford is a writer, dreamer, and aspiring myth-keeper who makes electronic music under the name "Dreamcode". He is currently attending the University of Colorado at Boulder.