Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The Radiohead Effect

Three years ago, Radiohead did something that has altered the way music was consumed and numerous band’s pounced on the idea. They released their then brand new album,"In Rainbows",online and allowed customers to choose their own price starting at free. I remember the day of the release (I think it was) when I stumbled across the article detailing that "In Rainbows" would be available as a download at around 6 a.m. Growing up during the 1990’s, my earliest and only memory of Radiohead was seeing their music video for “Creep” getting constant airplay on the radio and MTV and after that I sort of lost interest. However, I was intrigued at the concept and woke up promptly at 6 a.m. in my freshman dorm room to download the album. I will be honest, I chose to pay nothing for the download as I was low on money and I was not sure if I would like the album. Since I was able to get the album for free, I decided to take a chance.

Turns out, I loved the album. Every song resonated with me and "In Rainbows" quickly became my favorite album of the year. Since I was able to hear a full album from Radiohead with very little risk, I found out I liked the band and was interested in digging around through their back catalog. As a direct result of the "In Rainbows" download campaign, I went out and bought two older Radiohead albums. So while the band might have missed out on profits from my download of "In Rainbows", they in turn caused me to go out and buy two of their albums and I will probably buy their future albums as well.

I noticed that this experiment had an immediate impact after the release of "In Rainbows", but three years later it is clear to see just how much of an impact was made. Countless bands, established or young unknowns just starting out, were selling downloads of their albums for a pay-what-you-want price. Bandcamp, a popular digital music retailer, even allows bands to set the price of their albums as pay-what-you-want. Then there are countless donation-based record labels such as Death To False Hope Records and Quote Unquote Records. These labels most likely did not use Radiohead as an inspiration and would have been around anyway, but they are still part of this shift in the way music is distributed.

Although I call the increasingly popular pay-what-you-want method “The Radiohead Effect”, the truth is they were not even the ones to first toy with the idea. Harvey Danger, an indie-rock band from Seattle, toyed with a similar concept by releasing their 2005 album Little By Little as a free download on their website. What made Radiohead’s campaign the figurehead for this wave of change was the fact that they were a critically acclaimed band with worldwide success putting out their music for free. This is what made journalists all over the world go crazy over the campaign and stay up all night in order to download the album and try and beat their peers for that coveted first review.

I am a fan of this model and while I think established bands could benefit from a similar release model, I mostly like the implications for underground artists. Underground artists do not get the same exposure and rarely make it on the radio or TV and people are less apt to spend their money on a record from a band they have never heard of. Now, with the help of a website like Bandcamp, artists can let people choose their own price and gain a lot of fans through word of mouth and the fact that there is little risk involved for the listener.

I am excited to see how musicians and artists will build off of this idea and what kind of unique distribution methods will follow.

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