Friday, October 05, 2007

Fading Rainbow or Guiding Light?

I know the world and his wife are writing about Radiohead’s new ‘free’ album, but I’ve been encouraged to join in. Are Radiohead really undermining the music industry? A few days ago I would at least have argued that they were causing trouble. It’s less the fact that the album is being made available to download (this really is nothing new or particularly exciting) and more the timing of its release that is significant. The last ‘official’ word we heard on Radiohead’s latest was that it had now been put back for a 2008 release. Then came a series of bizarre red herrings before an official announcement that a new album would suddenly become available within ten days. This has caused a stir largely because it bypasses all the official channels, and it will be as damaging to the veritable institution of conventional music journalism as it will be to ‘the music industry’. There will be no advance speculation, previews, reviews or promotional interviews. Instead, with refreshing immediacy, the album will just appear, and everyday listeners will have the welcome opportunity of being the first to judge it.

This all ties in rather neatly with my analysis of Andrew Keen’s attack on Web 2.0 culture a few weeks ago. There is much talk now of the ‘death of the critic’. I still feel this is largely narrow-minded and hysterical – there will always be room for authoritative critical writing, it just may come from different places. Much of the initial reaction to ‘In Rainbows’ will now inevitably be generated from the Blogosphere. Naturally, I think this is rather exciting and healthy.

The other significant aspect of all this is the pricing system, which allows the consumer to decide how much the music is worth. Many have stated they will not pay in excess of £5 for it. Radiohead are no doubt able to do this because artists themselves receive only small proportion of revenue from physical CD sales (much of it is eaten by record label, distributors and vendors). By selling the record directly from a website, the band will receive 100% of the lucre. Even if everyone who downloads the album worldwide only spends £1 on it, that will probably still result in a healthy profit.

Particularly in light of further developments though, I don’t quite feel this is the death of the traditional music industry just yet. First and foremost, it’s worth noting that the band can only do all this by virtue of their massive level of success and acclaim, all achieved for them by the machinations (and budget) of EMI. Also, not only are the band releasing a boxed physical version that will ship in December for an extortionate £40 (‘Can you buy a good meal with that?’ questioned the group’s manager – of course you can!), but they have now announced that they will be signing a new major deal within a few days. Their manager has conceded that they still need the infrastructure and network of a major label to process and distribute physical product. How boring and conventional!

I suspect a lot of this may have to do with the realisation that Radiohead’s fanbase is broad, covering a wide range of ages and consumer habits. Teenage music fans (who would have been less than ten years old when ‘OK Computer’ was released!) may well embrace this means of distribution, but older listeners may well prefer the physical product. There are some consumers who are stuck firmly in the middle – I like maintaining libraries of CDs, vinyl, books and film, but I’m also rather excited by the new freedoms and flexibility offered by new technology.

There has long been a DIY, entrepreneurial spirit of independence in the music industry, but it has traditionally been a struggle to break even. This may well be changing, albeit more gradually than the loudest voices would suggest. A friend of mine genuinely thinks record labels as we understand them will soon be a thing of the past. I’m not sure what I think about this – but I certainly recognise a shift towards pockets of collectives building their own audiences (look at the Loop and F-IRE Collectives reigniting London’s tired jazz scene) and the increasing opportunities for artists to recoup their own investment, rather than forever being tied to major label debts.

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