Radiohead Payment Model, The
By WM. FERGUSON
It could be a Zen koan, or a fragment of a Fifth Dimension lyric: The value of music is what the listener will pay. But as of Oct. 10, it became a viable business model. That was the day Radiohead made its seventh studio album, “In Rainbows,” available for download online. Customers were invited to pay whatever they wished. Clicking on the question mark on the Radiohead site led to a screen that read, “It’s up to you.” Clicking on that led to another message: “No, really. It’s up to you.” According to early estimates, 1.2 million downloaded the record in the first two days, earning the band somewhere between $1 million and $5 million. Soon after, the withered husk of the recording industry gently commenced to collapse on itself.
Or possibly not. For while there was joy among Radiohead fans and those eager to get on with the post-scarcity economy, it remains unclear whether a new paradigm has been established. According to Tyler Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, Radiohead’s experiment isn’t likely to succeed with just any artist. “Radiohead fans are a partisan group,” Cowen says. “It’s very easy to get donations from them.” Moreover, an e-commerce survey claims that more than 60 percent of “In Rainbows” downloaders paid nothing; Radiohead disputed the findings. The exact numbers, however, remain known only to Radiohead.
But it’s a bit unrealistic to expect five dour introverts from Oxfordshire to come up with a universal fix to save the record industry. The Radiohead payment scheme, whatever the final tally, worked for Radiohead. (It may be portable; Paste, a magazine devoted to indie rock, ran a monthlong pay-what-you-want subscription deal in the wake of “In Rainbows.”) And yet at least some aspects of the old model may still prove useful. The CD of “In Rainbows” — an actual, tactile, old-economy product — will be available in record stores on Jan. 1. And EMI, the band’s spurned label, has proved resourceful itself, quickly assembling a Radiohead boxed set in time for the holidays, happily riding on publicity it didn’t pay a thing to create.