|| Print ||
|Written by Kris Millett|
|Wednesday, 31 October 2007 19:00|
Some called it a daring, visionary move. Others insisted we were about to witness the demise of one of modern music’s greatest bands. A computer-geek friend of mine told me if he were made responsible for devising a way to do this, he would quit. One unforeseen glitch and the album would become an infamous laughingstock, joining the likes of Kid A, Van Halen III, The Very Best of Chris Gaines, and, when it comes out, Chinese Democracy.
Unless you have been living in North Korea, you know by now thaton October 10, the English rock group Radiohead released their latest album, In Rainbows, as an online download, without any assistance from a record company, and with a ‘suggested donation’ payment system. That’s right, you can pay nothing and still receive the album in its entirety. What’s more, fans were given no indication that the album was even finished until an announcement that was made 10 days prior to its release, giving one of the most critically-hyped bands of all-time no time for the critics to generate any hype.
The pessimists, my computer-geek friend, and Garth Brooks, all turned out to be morons. After one week, an estimated 1.2 million people went online and downloaded In Rainbows from Radiohead’s own site. Impressive numbers from a band whose biggest U.S. sales week to date (for 2003’s Hail to the Thief) moved merely 300,000 copies. Compare 1.2 million to the 335,000 units Bruce Springsteen’s new album Magic sold during In Rainbows debut week, putting The Boss at no. 1 on the Billboard album charts (Radiohead’s release did not qualify for the charts). In Rainbows sales even eclipsed the combined first week tallies of 50 Cent and Kanye West. Moreover, the band has made an estimated $10 million through the downloads in less than a week.
The ‘pay whatever you want’ process has proven to be sheer genius. People who chose to pay nothing would most likely have illegally downloaded the music from the internet anyway, and it appears those that paid the band for their music donated more than the $0.67 per album the record label royalties pay artists. I can only speculate, however, because I paid Radiohead nothing to download their album. I don’t have a credit card.
But enough about my credit history, I should probably get to the meaning of all this. I’m told the theme for this month’s issue is ‘the fall’, and Radiohead’s pie in the face of the establishment points to the long, steady free fall that the major record labels are experiencing. The record industry as we know it is a bloated, obsolete beast that may no longer be needed, and unable to recognize its own fate.
Industries that succeed over time adapt to and facilitate technological developments. The record industry of America still seems to be living in a 1950s fairyland when White rock n’ roll artists were making mainstream society less uncomfortable with the new genre, and young people were finally not overseas fighting in wars, but were home, working part time jobs, with disposable income. The music was good, the kids wanted to buy it, and the record labels, in concert with AM radio, recruited the talent and distributed it to the masses. Labels like Chess Records out of Chicago and Sun records in Memphis took regional hits and made them national.
Somewhere along the way, the record companies confused themselves with the rock stars, thinking they were more important than the product or the consumer. Maybe the delusion began during the 1960s, when the Boomer Generation’s rise to adolescence coincided with the peak of industry’s success, and arguably the peak for the product itself. At this point, a case could be made that the major labels weren’t just distributors but also tastemakers, finding and signing artists such as Bob Dylan and The Beatles, whose music enriched many people’s lives. They helped singers such as Neil Young and Patti Smith forge long careers and impressive bodies of work, supporting artists that they believed had true talent, even though the sales figures did not always match.
History, however, will likely view the major labels as the opposite of tastemakers. As profits continued to increase in the 1970s, greed slowly transformed the labels from facilitators of good music into regurgitators of bad, pushing anything that could sell to keep the gravy train rolling (remember "Are You Jimmy Ray"?). The label reps seemed to have forgotten that kids were capable of liking good music. Instead, they crammed previously successful forms down people’s throats in concert with the corporate radio networks that they paid off. The industry attitude seemed to be, "Oh, so you like Nirvana, huh? Well, here’s a thousand Nirvanas! You shall have only Nirvana for breakfast, lunch, and dinner!" Listening to commercial radio today, I can’t tell the difference between a Fall Out Boy song, and anything by the likes of Panic At the Disco, Yellowcard, Simple Plan, AFI, or My Chemical Romance. These guys are just the 2000s equivalent to Warrant, Slaughter, Cinderella, Winger, Ratt and Poison. These ‘guyliner’ bands even look a bit like their 80s hair metal ancestors, only they have managed to sound even worse (I’m only kidding Ratt, I love you!).
The corporate music industry - the once vital but now outdated impediment to the flow of music - may now be properly usurped through the new social networks enabled by technology, with more money put back in the pockets of the artists and consumers alike. Critics will postulate that Radiohead’s internet success will only work for established bands with large built-in fan bases, and that emerging artists still need the tutelage and promotion of a record label. What new artists don’t need from their labels is a lump sum that they have to pay back, to feverishly create a product for which they receive no more than 0.3 per cent of the price tag. It is a recipe for a short career: touring constantly to pay impossible debts to the record companies that are losing so much money they must cut you if you don’t sell big after the first or second album. It’s no wonder many view music as a futile profession. Major label rosters tend to have a couple artists that get stinking rich, and a sea of signed acts living meal to meal. Artists now have the ability to create, promote and sell their own music on their own terms without any radio exposure or middlemen, making the prospect of earning a middle class living from music a reality.
The spokesmen for the industry have blamed slumping sales on everything from fans ‘stealing’ music to Prince. The Radiohead experiment has proven that there is a shitload of people out there willing to pay for music. The product and audience are still there; only the existing medium is no longer necessary.
It all could have turned out differently, though. In the 1990s, the record companies could have seen how the World Wide Web was making their business services obsolete. Instead, they saw the future and declared it illegal, prosecuting the very music fans that could have sustained their dying form. They flirted with online distribution, then changed course by crippling downloaded media in various ways through Digital Rights Management and their successful lobbying to put tariffs on recordable media. The major labels could have embraced the rise of Napster and got in on the ground floor, swam with the current of technology like they did when ushering in cassette tapes and compact discs. (Of course, that was just an excuse to sell people the same thing twice.)
Unfortunately, this old beast is a battler, and will go down kicking, scratching and clawing, taking as many innocent lives as possible. Since Radiohead’s release, other recording artists such as Jamiroquai, Oasis and Trent Reznor have announced they are ditching their labels. The Bouncer has been notified; the music companies are about to be kicked out of their own bar. Unless they sober up and face the facts, it’s only going to get more embarrassing from here.
By the way, I was just kidding about Kid A.. but not about Ratt.