Nine years ago, Radiohead released ‘In Rainbows’ via their own website, allowing fans to pay as much or as little as they wished.
Some people hailed it as a revolution for the music industry, and a new model for other bands to follow. Others fretted that Radiohead were potentially destroying the careers of thousands of smaller bands by making music seem worthless. There was, it’s fair to say, a lot of over-excitement.
Nine years on, though, who was right? ‘In Rainbows’ was a hugely important, influential moment that should inspire today’s bands for two reasons.
First: because it showed that the best response to music piracy is to explore new, legal ways to get music into fans’ hands. Don’t get hung up on the specific method used here – the pay-what-you-want ‘honesty box’ – but rather see it as a simple example of Radiohead trying something new.
Second: ‘In Rainbows’ absolutely didn’t kill the idea that music should be paid for. What it did do, though, was show that the idea of setting a single, one-size-fits-all price for an album was long overdue a rethink. Not just because a lot of people wanted to pay less or nothing, but because plenty of fans wanted to pay more.
Before explaining those properly, it’s worth remembering some of the criticism of ‘In Rainbows’ after its launch in October 2007. A Guardian piece that month linked Radiohead’s scheme with Prince’s decision to give his new album away with the Mail on Sunday, suggesting they’d “made it increasingly hard for new acts to survive”.
Some big RAWK dinosaurs were also unimpressed. Gene Simmons of Kiss, for example: “That’s not a business model that works. I open a store and say ‘Come on in and pay whatever you want.’ Are you on fucking crack? Do you really believe that’s a business model that works?”
Others thought Radiohead didn’t go far enough. Trent Reznor, for example, criticised ‘In Rainbows’ as “very much a bait and switch, to get you to pay for a MySpace quality stream as a way to promote a very traditional record sale”.
Meanwhile, U2’s manager Paul McGuinness reckoned the move had “backfired” citing piracy stats showing “60-70 per cent of the people who downloaded the record stole it anyway, even though it was available for free”.
(In fairness, his client Bono stuck up for the band in a letter to the NME, saying they’d been “courageous and imaginative in trying to figure out some new relationship with their audience… Such imagination and courage are in short supply right now”.)
It’s true: a lot of people downloaded ‘In Rainbows’ for free, including on BitTorrent. In November 2007, market research firm comScore claimed that only 38 per cent of ‘In Rainbows’ downloaders had paid, while 62 per cent chose to get it for free – meaning an average price paid overall of $2.26 per download.
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Radiohead quickly slammed that research as “wholly inaccurate”, but some better stats came later from British collecting society MCPS-PRS and internet metrics firm BigChampagne, who estimated that 400,000 copies of ‘In Rainbows’ were downloaded on BitTorrent on its day of release alone. Over its first 24 days, the album notched up 2.3m torrent downloads.
A big fat failure, then? Not at all.
“In terms of digital income, we’ve made more money out of this record than out of all the other Radiohead albums put together, forever — in terms of anything on the Net. And that’s nuts,” said Thom Yorke in December 2007, when interviewed by David Byrne for Wired Magazine.
In October 2008, Radiohead’s publisher Warner Chappell revealed more stats on ‘In Rainbows” performance at a music industry conference in Iceland.
The album had been bought 3m times, including downloads, CDs and the £40 ‘Discboxes’ that were pre-orderable when the original download went live. 1.75m of those sales were CDs, and 100,000 Discboxes (a cool £4m in gross revenues from the latter alone).
To put it another way: giving ‘In Rainbows’ away didn’t make it worthless. In fact, it was worth a lot more to the band than their previous albums when they’d been signed to a record label.
It showed that a lot of fans really did value Radiohead’s music – it helped that the album was great – but also that they valued it at different levels. Letting people choose what they wanted to pay, right up to the £40 Discbox, paid off.
What about ruining things for other bands? It’s tough to make money from music in 2016, for reasons – yes, piracy – that existed well before 2007.
Making a career in music means hard work, forging a connection with fans (whether there are 50 of them or five million), trying new things, and making money in a bunch of different ways. iTunes downloads, Spotify streams, gig tickets, merchandise, CDs sold at gigs, YouTube ads, legal BitTorrent bundles, Kickstarter crowdfunding and many more.
US journalist Mike Masnick gave a famous 15-minute presentation at music biz conference Midem in 2009 about why bands should connect with fans and give them a reason to buy – based on a case study of Trent Reznor rather than Radiohead, interestingly.
But it’s exactly what Radiohead did with ‘In Rainbows’. The pay-what-you-want aspect isn’t something to be followed slavishly in 2016: it’s the willingness to try it and the connection with fans that made it successful that should be an inspiration.
In many ways, the equivalent of ‘In Rainbows’ was Amanda Palmer’s $1.2m Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign from 2012, which was hailed/criticised as a model for other artists in exactly the same way ‘In Rainbows’ was.
Compare this quote from Thom Yorke in that 2007 Wired interview – “It’s not supposed to be a model for anything else. It was simply a response to a situation” – with this from Palmer in 2012 about her own strategy:
“The truth is: there is no next model. Show me 1,000 talented musicians, each with a unique style and personality, and I’ll show you 1,000 ways to make a career in music…there is no longer an off-the-shelf solution.”
‘In Rainbows” honesty box wasn’t an off-the-shelf solution either. Rather than copy either, smaller bands should take inspiration instead from the general principles: connecting with fans, and being open to new ways of getting their music out there.
Also, perhaps treat Gene Simmons’ views on digital business models with a pinch of salt. Or crack, according to preference.