Thanks for deciding to fuck the music industry in all three holes by giving away your new album, In Rainbows, for free on the internet. Yes, we've heard the old saw that there’s nothing more expensive than free. And we appreciate your generosity in allowing us to pay whatever we feel like giving you when we download your DRM-free mp3s. This is a very bold and brilliant idea, and we can’t think of a band we’d rather see come up with it. Just one problem: it’s a fucking scam. You tossers.
Once we read the fine print, it became apparent that your “pay what you will” philosophy was just a smokescreen for a marketing plan that owes far more to conservative, old-world distribution plans than the blogosphere realizes. Let’s start by outlining what’s actually happening: beginning October 10, In Rainbows will be released in two very different packages. The free-download version (or, we should say, the email-us-a-few-bucks-if-you-want version) contains 10 songs, no extraneous packaging or information, all spartan and Fugazi-like. The deluxxx model is an $80 boxset that adds a double-LP, the CD version of the album, a bonus disc of additional tunes, and an original, signed copy of the Magna Carta, shipped directly from England sometime on or before December 3. At some point in the indeterminate future, In Rainbows will be released in something approximating traditional CD form. By someone, somewhere. You might be able to buy it in a store, even.
With one fell swoop, you’ve solved the blood-from-a-stone riddle that’s been plaguing the music industry since Napster: to wit, how do you get people to pay for free music? “Give it away” might seem a strange answer, unless you’ve been breathing for the past seven years. Everyone was going to download the album for free anyway, so you might as well do it yourself and pass the hat while you’re at it. From the perspective of a band that knows its albums will be file-traded, every penny donated is a penny more than you’d have got otherwise. And if you’re a downloader, why would you bother googling for a zshare link when you can go right up to the front door and grab it from Radiohead themselves? Once you’re there, you might even feel guilty enough to PayPal them your allowance.
So, sure, “giving the album away for free” is genius PR. It’s thinking waaaay outside the box. If someone’s keeping a doomsday clock for the CD as a viable medium, please wind it another hour closer to midnight.
The amazing part about your plan, Mssrs Radiohead, is that if fans want the “object” – the physical manifestation of the music – you, Radiohead, are willing to gouge people for far more than the traditional record industry would ever dream of. I mean, I was pretty pissed when I had to pay $19 for a Madonna record. But I’ll blow David Geffen before I pay $80 for a Radiohead album. And before you Radiohead fans start typing, “Hey asshole, they’re giving the album away for FREE, remember?,” well, last time I checked, “Down Is the New Up” is on the fucking bonus disc. And I love “Down Is the New Up.”
Of course, Thom, you know as well as I do that I’m not paying $80 for “Down Is the New Up.” I’m gonna illegally download that bitch from Oink, or from someone who got it from Oink who puts up a sendspace.com link, and I’m not gonna feel bad about it. I might even PayPal you the going iTunes rate, if iTunes doesn’t make like Tower Records and croak now that Amazon.com is selling DRM-free mp3s and the Biggest Bands In the Universe are suddenly giving their records away on their own sites. Insert cute cat photo with “I can havz it free?” caption here.
If In Rainbows is a model for how the music business is going to pan out, being a music fan is going to get really weird, innit? The album becomes an objet-d'art destined for well-heeled connisseurs. The digital download becomes a freebie that nobody pays for. And the CD-as-we-know-it goes straight to the cut-out bin (or the Wal Mart sale rack) several months after the fact, so your mom still has something to buy you for Christmas. So congratulations, Radiohead. You just ruined everything!
Except that you didn’t. Go back and read that last graph again: What’s so genius about the marketing plan for In Rainbows isn’t that it’s some radically new vision of music-industry-future. It’s simply a realistic reflection of how the music industry actually works right now. It ain’t what we grew up with, but it is crushingly simple:
Down is the new up, motherfuckers.