How Radiohead struck a blow for freedom (and consigned the CD to history)

It's good news for fans, but will this new trend bankrupt the business?
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The Independent Culture

As a band, Radiohead are no friends of convention. Spurning the sponsorship which blights many a rock'n'roll reputation and releasing albums that are, shall we say, challenging, it seems the Oxford quintet may last week have driven one of the final nails into the coffin of the music industry.

The band's website crashed last week under the heavy load of millions of fans logging on to order a copy of their new album, In Rainbows, which is released on Wednesday (October 10). The album is being sold exclusively over the website and fans can pay whatever price they like. It is a scheme that bypasses the record industry completely and has seen the blood again drain from the faces of the once all-powerful besuited executives.

They are already reeling from Prince's decision to give away three million copies of his last album, Planet Earth, on the front of The Mail on Sunday in July. Then there are the Charlatans, the Madchester survivors who are giving away copies of their new single and then album over the internet.

Album sales are down by around 11 per cent this year, and the outlook is not good.

Radiohead argue that the internet release allow fans to access the album much more quickly. If they relied on a record company, it could take three to six months to find its way into the shops. A physical hard copy will be available in January.

Alan McGee, the Brit pop guru who manages the Charlatans, said: "If you talk to a 19-year-old kid, they don't buy CDs. In Eastern Europe, nobody buys a CD – everything is digitally downloaded from the internet for nothing. I came to the conclusion, why don't we just give it away for nothing? The band will get paid more by more people coming to the gigs, buying merchandise, publishing and synch fees."

How do bands make money if they give away their music? McGee believes the cash is in touring and merchandising, while Radiohead trust their fans to pay a fair amount. Their manager, Chris Hufford, told Today: "Hopefully what it will do is encourage artists and record labels to think about things a lot more rather than to just accept the status quo."

Radiohead, whose seven-album deal with EMI ended after the release of their last album Hail to the Thief in 2004, are also releasing a disc box of CDs, vinyl and artwork for collectors.

The more pressing worry for the industry is that, while rich and successful artists such as Prince and Radiohead can guarantee live ticket sales, up-and-coming bands are more reliant on income from CDs.

Nicola Slade, editor of the music industry newsletter Record of the Day, says: "You have to remember, Prince and Radiohead have had the benefit of years of record company investment, and they wouldn't be where they are without it."