In Rainbows = Pot o’ Gold

I’ve been thinking about the Grammys all day and must ask: Why didn’t they recognize Radiohead‘s pay-what-you-want In Rainbows a bit more?

(At first I was surprised that it was in this year’s running, but I learned that it was because the album’s “hard copy” was released on January 1, 2008. But they didn’t talk about the digital release last year much either…hmm…)

Many organizations, such as the Metropolitan Museum, have taken this route for years—and they’ve found long-term sustainability in not quantifying the arts. Judging by the fact that I rarely see anyone at the MET without their colored aluminum tag “en lapel,” people are not willing to be perceived as cheapskates even though the minimum donation is merely “suggested.” 

This leads to why I am proud of the outcome of Radiohead’s “little” experiment. No one knows if you download In Rainbows for free—there’s simply no shame in it. But most people paid anyway, affording the music makers viable compensation for their work.

Distribution costs are out. Perfect infinite copies are in. People know this and so I’m also not surprised to read that as many as 60% of listeners may have downloaded for free. If 60% of something in the traditional model was stolen that would be a problem. But in this model, so what? The option was provided to do so and the band-mates were better off in the end anyhow.

I’m not arguing that it should have won album of the year; I did not even listen to all the options.

However, I might argue that it was downplayed during the awards ceremony out of fear. General fear of the content-makers who bravely turn away from “this decaying business model.” And fear by those struggling to run the show that soon there will be no need for music categories when everything is blurring anyway, televised “live” performances that can be rewound with DVRs over and over, or high-brow awards when public rankings and reviews are what mean the most to consumers in the end.

So, thanks for sharing, Radiohead (because I know you’re reading this).


Note, added 2/11/09: So the video at the top of this used to work…case in point!



Filed under Case Studies

3 responses to “In Rainbows = Pot o’ Gold

  1. At least it wasn’t Lil’ Wayne.

  2. This is a great topic, Christy.

    While I appreciate the tactic Radiohead took with its “pay what you want” effort, it was only done after they had already built their following of fans through the traditional model first.

    The Grateful Dead broke the mold here decades ago by allowing their fans to record and trade their live shows for free. This built a fan base that then paid to see the band play live (which is where bands actually make most of their own money anyway).

  3. christypill

    Hey Matt,
    Good point that their fan base was established before this worked. Prince had the same foundation when he gave out albums in London newspapers. And, Madonna leaving Warner to go to Live Nation further proves your point about live concerts being where the money is for these big names. (This also makes me wonder about something I’ve heard through the grapevine: Radiohead doesn’t typically do traditional tours due to their environmentally unfriendliness. Has anyone read about this?)

    It will be interesting to see if musicians in the future can use this model to leverage themselves from the bottom to the very top (i.e. iTunes single of the week,, etc. have built on this for some…). Goodness knows I’ll be rooting for them.

    Thanks for commenting! $.25 thanks to you!


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