Pot of Gold at the End of Radiohead’s “In Rainbows”?

Radiohead In Rainbows Website

While the record industry continues to eat its own young by claiming in court that even the act of ripping a copy of a CD you already own is piracy, the mega-group Radiohead has cut the umbilical cord and is going it alone. No label; no music distributor; and even more brazen— no fixed cost per album.

Radiohead In Rainbows Pay What You Will

You can pre-order Radiohead’s new album, in rainbows, for as much or as little as you want to pay for it. Think about that for a second. They are offering it to a legion of fans for free. Or you can choose to place whatever value on it you wish. No Warner, or EMI, or Universal, or Capitol Records. Not even iTunes is invited to a slice of the pie. Just you, the consumer, the fan, faced with a rare honest choice: take it or pay for it. No really. It’s up to you.

Radiohead In Rainbows It’s Up To You Really

It will be available for download on October 10th, 2007. Or you can go all out and purchase the much cooler £40.00 ($80) ‘discbox’, which consists of enhanced CDs, extra tracks, vinyl, artwork and booklets. This will be shipped by December 3rd, but you will also get an invitation to download the digital formats in October. Word on the street is that discbox sales are out pacing the ‘pay what you will’ downloads.

Radiohead In Rainbows discbox

TIME writes that this may be another ‘death knell’ to the recording industry but RollingStone says Radiohead is still looking for a label to distribute a traditional CD version in 2008. (Remember, not everyone has a computer, an iPod, and a credit card.) Michael Arrington of TechCrunch weighs in to say that since the production costs of music distribution are next to zero, the rules of economics will push the price close to zero as well. There is a lively debate raging in his comments section on this topic.

Have albums become loss leaders? Is the real money in live concerts and merchandise? Prince thinks so. He gave away free copies of his new album Planet Earth in the July 15th edition of UK paper The Mail on Sunday. Columbia Records was so pissed off that they refused to distribute his album in England (the local HMVs had to stock the newspaper to appease customers). But when Prince subsequently announced 21 concert dates, they sold out immediately.

Nine Inch Nails front man Trent Reznor has been giving away his latest album Year Zero in bits and pieces, even offering re-mixable multi-tracks for fans to create their own versions. NIN planted USB keys at their own concerts with high-res versions of videos and music that hadn’t been released yet, prompting DJs to ‘unofficially’ play new singles. Reznor has called his own record label “Greedy fucking assholes” and recently told fans in Australia to “steal and steal and steal some more and give it to all your friends and keep on stealing.”

Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s lead singer, is slightly more diplomatic:

I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘Fuck you’ to this decaying business model. (TIME)

Radiohead In Rainbows New Record

As historic a moment as it is, Radiohead’s new venture has not yet proven itself a success. Will fans pay for the album? How much (I paid £5.00)? Will the digital download be a wide enough distribution? Will their servers be able to handle the traffic? Will fans flock to the inevitable concert tour? Will Radiohead continue to turn a profit on their talent? The answer is most likely yes, but it will be interesting to watch this new experiment unfold.

SIDENOTE: Since there is no album art for In Rainbows as of yet (October 10, 2007) I have created a Flickr group and a Facebook group for uploading, sharing, and eventually voting on user-generated covers.