With the exception of A&R people, just about everyone hates the old record-industry model and considers it an oppressive anachronism in the digital age.
Unfortunately, while it’s easy enough for established artists to work around the industry, it’s much trickier for up-and-comers. Traditionally, labels have been most valuable on the front end: providing promotion and distribution muscle to break new artists. While they no longer do that very well, building a mass audience for yourself through internet word of mouth remains a dodgy proposition.
If there is any contemporary band that doesn’t need a record label, it’s Radiohead. The band’s six studio albums have averaged sales of nearly 1.5 million units in the U.S., and their audience doggedly follows whatever experimental path Thom Yorke and his mates choose to pursue. That’s why the group’s decision to make their new album, In Rainbows, available on October 10 only as a digital download (and special-edition box set) makes perfect sense. After being plagued with online leaks for 2003’s Hail to the Thief, Radiohead can now beat the leakers at their own game.
The truly remarkable thing about Radiohead’s move, and the source of most media fascination with the new release, is that they’re allowing buyers to name their own price for the album. It brings to mind the old euphemism about Spinal Tap’s audience becoming “more selective,” not smaller. In this era, settling for a “more selective” fan base makes sense when you cut out the middle man. If Radiohead sells only half as many copies of In Rainbows as they did for Hail to the Thief, and gets $5 per copy, they should make nearly twice as much money on this album.
The latest word from the band’s management is that the group will soon sign with a label and plans to make physical copies of the album available before the end of the year. These days, even trailblazers are hedging their bets.