Wednesday, October 03, 2007

How Much Will You Pay?

This big music-related DMS news this week was not the (eventual) arrival of the The National's Boxer and St. Vincent's Marry Me, which took for freaking ever (thank you Amazon.com). Nor was it the KC and the Sunshine Band that I played after the Browns beat the r*vens.

No, the big music news of the week is that Radiohead is releasing their new album, In Rainbows, on October 10th. But not only that, the only method to get it is via download at their site. But wait! The real amazing thing is that you can name your own price. (The website assures you: really!)

That sort of shuffling sound you just heard was record company execs shitting their pants.

While it's probably not the gloom-and-doom scenario that some execs and countless musicians are predicting / hoping for, it's if nothing else the first shot fired across the bow of a decaying business model.

I've read varying figures, but artists get something like $1.50 to $2.50 for every album sold. That means when you pay $13 for a CD, more than 80% of your money is going to someone other than the artists: the record label, the packaging, the music store, iTunes, everyone takes their little piece.

So if consumers can name their own price, Radiohead would only have to average a donation of a few bucks per person to exceed their financial gain over releasing it via a record label. Also, even the people who choose to download it for $0.00 could be a possible financial gain: it's not as if these people would have paid for the CD anyway, and they might be inspired to go buy a previous album, see a show, or buy a T-shirt. Almost like those damn samples at the grocery store. I'm always like, "Sucker! They're just giving me free food!" and then I end up buying their product because it's good. I'm the sucker.

While it would probably be foolish for a lesser known band to do something like this, established bands with a worldwide, loyal fanbase could pull this off.

It immediately reminded me of a chapter in Freakonomics where Dubner and Levitt chronicled a bagel maker who left a box of bagels and asked everyone to pay a dollar. The bagel maker kept scrupulous notes, giving an insight into some fundamental questions about humanity: Are we basically honest? When are we more likely to be honest? What occupations are likely to be most honest?

And sure enough, yesterday on the Freakonomics blog, Steve Levitt entreated Radiohead to allow him to sift through the data of what amounts to an historic social experiment.

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There are so many ways to appreciate this endeavor: musically, economically, socially. So I leave it to you, the reader: how much will you pay for the new Radiohead album, In Rainbows?

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