Radiohead’s Recent ‘Statements’ vs Trent Reznor’s Full Disclosure

Radiohead’s singer Thom Yorke has recently been talking a little about the unusual way they initially released the band’s latest album “In Rainbows.” See this BBC story and this interview in WIRED‘s latest edition.

The release was exciting for me because I’m anxious to see new things happen in media distribution, especially when they sidestep the typical gatekeepers.

Basically the deal was, in case you missed all this: Radiohead announced that their new album would be available as a digital download for whatever the customer felt like paying. That amount could be Zero or Ten bucks or a Million. Whatever you decide! (Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails actually claims to have paid $5,000 for the download, just to support the idea. More on him in a minute.) In addition, fans could opt to purchase a “Diskbox” containing the Album on vinyl, an extra CD with 8 additional tracks, a hardcover book of artwork, some stickers etc for about $80. And the transactions taking place would be directly between the band and the fan. No record label.

For Radiohead to do this at this moment in time was newsworthy because it is increasingly becoming unclear what role labels will continue to play. You know the story: Digital music and online promotion have made it possible for music products to hit the market and succeed without the kind of investment that has traditionally made the major labels necessary. And it’s no secret how unfair record contracts usually are for artists. Meanwhile the trade organizations that represent the labels are suing music fans over file-sharing. The labels seem to be doing everything they can to make us want to hate them. So when Radiohead’s contract with EMI expired and they made this announcement about going direct to the fans etc, all us New Media Enthusiasts went ape shit. Understandable, right?


More recently, Radiohead took down the “experiment” and announced that they’d be doing a more typical retail distribution thing. There’s speculative numbers on how well or horribly the pay-what-you-want offering went. I’ve heard 1.2 million downloads in the first week alone with an average price paid of $6… WIRED is saying that ComScore says it’s more like $3 million total, again at about $6 per customer, on average. Which brings me to why I’m spending all this time writing this:

Why does it need to be a secret?

Some of the key points from Yorke’s recent minglings with the press are:

  • The 1.2 million downloads number is “absurd”
  • They are doing this retail thing because it’s important to have an “artifact” or “an object”
  • More money was made from the initial digital download release of In Rainbows then was made from digital sales of all their other albums combined “forever”
  • Some [or most?] of those past albums didn’t even have a cut of digital sales for the band defined contractually at all (which basically makes the last point meaningless)

Basically, ever since I started hearing about Thom Yorke’s recent statements, I’ve wondered what Radiohead is thinking in keeping their plan to do regular retail a secret until now. Also, I wonder why they are keeping the numbers on the pay-what-want digital release a secret. Saying that 1.2 million downloads is “absurd,” certainly implies that it’s a vast over-estimate doesn’t it? How vast?
Originally I got this sense of activism from the whole release and now Thom Yorke is talking about “moral justifications” in the band’s decisions, but all the secrecy seems self-serving to me. Was the whole thing a marketing stunt? A failed experiment?

Also, there always was an artifact: the $80 “Diskbox” version of the album that you couldn’t pay-what-you-want for. So in saying there needs to be an artifact, is Yorke really saying “there needs to be a cheap artifact.” or “there needs to be an artifact available to people who don’t buy things online…” or what?

I love Radiohead. And this is such an uncertain time for Media distribution, so I can understand if the first steps we take into the unknown future are awkward ones, and to an extent, Radiohead are already heroes for doing t6hings differently, but all the secrecy and vague language is a little annoying.

Meanwhile, Trent Reznor recently produced an album by a relatively unkown arist, Saul Williams and the team decided to release the album in a similar fashion to Radiohead’s initial release of In Rainbows. The download is available for a suggested donation of $5.


Unlike Radiohead, Trent Reznor recently went public with their numbers as follows. I’m pasting so much of it here because Reznor doesn’t have a permalink or anything so when he takes it off the NIN front page, it will be [practically] gone (c’mon, Trent. Just get a regular blog going with a feed and all! Jeez.)

“It’s a strange time to be an artist in the recording business. It’s pretty easy to see what NOT to do these days, but less obvious to know what’s right. As I find myself free from the bloated bureaucracy of major labels, finally able to do whatever I want… well, what is that? What is the “right” way to release records, treat your music and your audience with respect and attempt to make a living as well? I have a number of musician friends who are either in a similar situation or feel they soon will be, and it’s a real source of anxiety and uncertainty.
I’d like to share my experience releasing Saul Williams’ “The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust” and what I’ve learned from the process. Perhaps by revealing of all our data – our “dirty laundry” – we can contribute to a better solution.

A quick history: Saul makes a great record that I produce. We can’t find the right home at a major label. We decide to release it ourselves, digitally. Saul does not have limitless financial resources so we shop around for a company that can fulfill our needs. We choose Musicane because they are competent and are willing to adapt to what we want. The results are here:

We offer the entire record free (as in totally free to the visitor – we pay bandwidth costs) as 192 MP3s, or for $5 you can choose higher fidelity versions and feel good about supporting the artist directly. We offer all major CCs and PayPal as payment options.
Here’s what I was thinking: Fans are interested in music as soon as it’s available (that’s a good thing, remember) and usually that’s a leak from the label’s manufacturing plants. Offering the record digitally as its first appearance in the marketplace eliminates that problem. I thought if you offered the whole record free at reasonable quality – no strings attached – and offered a hassle free way to show support that clearly goes straight to the artists who made it at an unquestionably low price people would “do the right thing”. I know, I know…
Well, now I DO know and you will too.

Saul’s previous record was released in 2004 and has sold 33,897 copies.

As of 1/2/08,
154,449 people chose to download Saul’s new record.
28,322 of those people chose to pay $5 for it, meaning:
18.3% chose to pay.

Of those paying,

3220 chose 192kbps MP3
19,764 chose 320kbps MP3
5338 chose FLAC

Keep in mind not one cent was spent on marketing this record. The only marketing was Saul and myself talking as loudly as we could to anybody that would listen.
If 33,897 people went out and bought Saul’s last record 3 years ago (when more people bought CDs) and over 150K – five times as many – sought out this new record, that’s great – right?
I have to assume the people knowing about this project must either be primarily Saul or NIN fans, as there was very little media coverage outside our direct influence. If that assumption is correct – that most of the people that chose to download Saul’s record came from his or my own fan-base – is it good news that less than one in five feel it was worth $5? I’m not sure what I was expecting but that percentage – primarily from fans – seems disheartening.
Add to that: we spent too much (correction, I spent too much) making the record utilizing an A-list team and studio, Musicane fees, an old publishing deal, sample clearance fees, paying to give the record away (bandwidth costs), and nobody’s getting rich off this project.

Saul’s music is in more peoples’ iPods than ever before and people are interested in him. He’ll be touring throughout the year and we will continue to get the word out however we can.

So – if you’re an artist looking to utilize this method of distribution, make of these figures what you will and hopefully this info is enlightening.


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