This ‘shunning physical CDs in order to distribute your album online for whatever price people want to pay’ idea doesn’t half do wonders for, er, your physical CD sales. Check Radiohead out: despite the innovative digital release of In Rainbows last year, when it was released on CD right at the end of 2007, it stormed to the top of the UK charts.
The same happened in the US, where in its first week on sale, the CD version of In Rainbows shifted 122,000 copies to top the chart there too. On one level, the news supports Radiohead’s decision to release the album on CD for those people who couldn’t buy the digital version.
But I’m wondering how many people bought both. I know I did, with the result that I ended up paying £15 for In Rainbows. Anecdotal evidence suggests there are plenty of other people who did the same thing too.
Such as? Around the release of the digital version, the NME ran a Vox Pops piece asking people how much they’d paid under Radiohead’s honesty-box scheme. The really interesting thing wasn’t the average price, as you might expect, but the fact that most of them said ‘I paid x, but I’ll buy the CD when it comes out too…’
People are paying twice for In Rainbows. And the result is that even if they only coughed up a quid or less for the digital version, Radiohead eventually made even more money from the secondary CD sale (and don’t forget, in both cases, the band got to keep a significantly bigger share than they would have done under their old major-label record deal).
I should make it clear now that I’m not about to accuse Radiohead of ripping their fans off. In Rainbows was one big experiment, and it’s clear the band didn’t know how popular it’d be, and how fans would react to the idea. They stuck their necks out, and have made a lot of money as a result. Which is fair enough.
But I hope other bands won’t look at the dual success of In Rainbows’ digital and CD editions, and repeat it in exactly the same way. A lot of people I’ve talked to say the reason they bought both was because of the 128kbps bit-rate. “If I’m going to play it through my hi-fi, I need the CD version,” said one friend, slightly peeved at the fact that the original digital version hadn’t been offered as higher-quality files.
I don’t feel cheated by In Rainbows, not least because I’m not sure what the cost / bandwidth implications would have been of offering the digital version as, say, 320kbps MP3s. But if this honesty-box model is to catch on, I hope bands think through this idea of fans paying twice for the same album.
Stuart Dredge is editor-in-chief of Tech Digest. He still worries when buying an album digitally, in case his computer blows up. So still buys CDs.