In Rainbows we trust

In RainbowsRemember that scene from Clerks, when Dante leaves a pile of cash on the counter, hoping that people would be honest and respectable enough to make correct change and leave with only what they paid for?

It’s a throwaway scene, really – a cut to show how lazy Dante can be – but it’s always stuck with me. I’ve always wondered if it would work; if there was some portion of society that could be trusted to monitor its own spending habits in the face of deceit and theft.

If Radiohead’s new album, In Rainbows, is any measuring stick, we now know that it can.

The story is simple. Radiohead is without a record company. After a lengthy discussion, the band decided to release their album to the masses early – without backing of any record company – for free. “We’ll simply have our fans pay whatever they think the album is worth,” they thought. They sat back and prepared for the worst.

Amazingly, it worked.

The estimates (according to gigwise, as of Saturday) are that consumers downloaded 1.2 million copies of In Rainbows. Additionally, an Internet survey of 3,000 consumers by Record of the Day in England revealed that fans claimed to have paid an average of £4 ($8) for the download. A third of those surveyed claimed to have not paid a penny.

That’s $8 x 1.2 million. About $9.6 million in first week sales. If sold through iTunes, Radiohead probably would have seen only bout $1.50 per album had they been on a label that sold music through iTunes. Instead, they saw roughly $8 per album.

$9.6 million. Unfiltered. All straight to Radiohead.

How realistic are these numbers? Who knows. A sample of 3,000 doesn’t dictate sales of the entire 1.2 million. And how many people downloaded the audio files only to pay for them later after sampling the music?

Still, you have to admit that Radiohead’s foray into a completely independent album release process – no prepackaged compact discs, no record label, just the band and its music – came across as quite a success.

It takes a lot of guts to do what Radiohead did. To put yourself out in public, naked, without the safety net of a record contract, with nothing but your music, your entire lifeblood, for people to take or leave as they feel driven.

If you fail, you lose out on thousands – millions, maybe – of dollars. Or, as Radiohead has shown, you could bypass all of the bureaucratic bullshit and make millions without filtering it through anyone.

I keep thinking – who benefits from this? Probably only a select few. The independent band hasn’t built up the loyalty to expect long-standing fans to help buck the system. A lot of mainstream artists couldn’t get away with it either – after all, the fans of many popular musicians aren’t as loyal. They have no emotional connection. They will take music for free because they don’t care about the performers, don’t feel as though they’ve been with them since the beginning.

Radiohead, like Pearl Jam or Nine Inch Nails, has the luxury of being a mainstream artist with a surprisingly loyal fan base – the type of fans that would be willing to shell out money for new music even if they don’t have to. I know. I was one of them. I paid $5.00 for the 10 tracks.

In fact, I may have overpaid. Sure, I may have the benefit of feeling honest and warm and fuzzy by legitimately paying. But it doesn’t change the fact that I was screwed – that thousands of people received the exact same album for free, that I, when compared to other people, paid too much for my music. Was I goaded into it by guilt? Was I acting as a true fan? Or was I just a sucker?

It was all pre-meditated, I think. Radiohead knew that a good chunk of people wouldn’t pay for the music. It’s commonly known that, when it comes to digital music, those who want, take. There’s no need to pay for music if you know the ways around it. So they weren’t getting those dollars anyway. Why worry about that? Instead, they focused on the people they knew would pay. And pay they did.

In the meantime, Radiohead have produced an album (which, by the way, is very good) that garnered them not only millions in karmic value points but also millions in real, non-middlemanned Euros. And they’ve set themselves up for another successful run the next time around – a feat of permission marketing, inviting your consumer to tap into the potential of your music and creating a closer culture between band and fan.

So Radiohead might not have changed the world. They might not have done much more than skirt the middleman, pocketing a modest sum while forgoing the conventional wisdom that a record label is needed.

But they did seek change – change from the marketing machine, and change from a lifetime of answering to bigwigs while on their quest for art. And in finding no one suitable to help them, they placed their product on the counter. They waited, achingly prone to failure and bracing for the worst for people to respond.

And what they found is that, like the people in Clerks, they were able to reach out, count their sales, and make their own change.

This was lovingly handwritten on November 12th, 2007