Opinion: Radiohead's In Rainbows is their bravest decision yet

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stu-col.jpgStuart Dredge writes…

As a band, Radiohead aren’t shy of taking risks. Witness how they’ve evolved musically, in the transition between The Bends and OK Computer, and then onwards into their more electronica-influenced recent albums. The easy path would’ve been to have cranked out a few more emotive rock albums and become The New U2.

Now the band has made its bravest move yet, taking the decision to sell their new album ‘In Rainbows’ directly to fans as a digital download, for which fans decide how much they want to pay. Admittedly, there’s also a £40 ‘Discbox’ option for the hardcore fans, which should reduce the risk.

But if successful, In Rainbows could lay down a marker for other established artists to follow, and pose serious questions for the music industry establishment. Here’s why I think it’s a great idea.

Firstly, there’s the economics. Surely letting fans decide how much they want to pay for In Rainbows is a bad idea? They’ll all just choose 1p, and while Radiohead might then sell ten million copies, they’ll only have £100,000 to show for it. But I don’t think that’ll happen.

See, Radiohead are one of those bands that has a sizeable hardcore fanbase – to the extent that even after their ‘difficult’ Kid A album, they were still selling out arenas and huge one-off festival dates around the world. I’d bet there’s several hundred thousand people who’ll take the honest route and stump up, say, £7.99 (the price of an album on iTunes) for In Rainbows.

And then there’s hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of people who WILL put in silly money for the album, like 1p or 5p or a quid. But given that most of them probably wouldn’t have paid full-price for it, it’s not exactly lost revenue. There’s no CD to package and send out, no marketing costs at retail, no expensive TV ads…

The only significant cost I can think of is bandwidth, so in the next few days, it’ll be interesting to see if anyone comes out with an estimate of how much it costs Radiohead to distribute one digital copy of In Rainbows, as a guide to how much they need to be selling the average copy for.

So, the band are still making money from their fanbase, while getting their music into the computers and iPods of potentially millions of people who wouldn’t otherwise have bought it. I can’t think of a catch.

There are questions, obviously. Will the downloads be DRM-free, and what bit-rate will they be encoded at? What happens if everyone goes to download the album on 10th October and the site crashes? Will it be possible to buy a CD version without shelling out for the box set?

Will any of these sales count towards the ‘proper’ charts, and if not, does it matter? Will Radiohead launch some form of preview in the coming days so people can listen to snippets of the album before ordering? And will other bands follow Radiohead’s lead in the coming months?

Pretty much every major artist nearing the end of their record contract will be watching developments eagerly, to see how In Rainbows does. I’ve signed up for my copy already, so will be reporting on the answers to those questions in the coming weeks.

Stuart Dredge is editor-in-chief of Tech Digest. He would buy the Discbox, if it didn’t mean also buying a new record player. But is still tempted.

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Stuart Dredge