Radiohead launched their new album, In Rainbows, two weeks ago, on a "pay what you think it's worth" basis. There's much speculation on music and technology blogs about how much money they've made. One source claims that 1.2m people downloaded it in the first couple of days and that the average price paid was £4. Another estimate puts that average at £2.50. But whatever the figures, two conclusions have emerged: Radiohead have made a ton of cash. Yet the majority of people paid nothing at all for the record.Indeed, a good 500,000 people quickly chose to download the album from file-sharing networks, figuring that as they could get it for free anyway, they may as well get it much faster (one fan complained that "on day the album was released, the official website was almost inoperable"), far easier (no credit card required) and without surrendering their e-mail address to Radiohead's marketing database.
Blogs are awash with indignant Radiohead customers clashing with righteous file-sharers. "I've noticed," said one, "that people who download music without permission always have an excuse as to why it was perfectly fine to do so."
But are the file-sharers actually doing anything wrong? Or has the idea of free music now been legitimised to a point where Radiohead are unable to complain? The band are probably ecstatic, having grossed between £2.5m and £5m from sales of the record, while large numbers of fans with no spare cash have been able to get hold of it. But Radiohead are in a privileged position; to claim that this model now somehow "works" is grossly misleading. Their profile had already been created with millions of dollars from record companies.
Many blogs have trotted out the often-repeated line: yes, musicians can afford to give their music away, and that the money is in touring and merchandising. But many independent artists have been giving their records away on a donations basis for years; they've gained a larger audience, but come away with comparatively feeble sums of money. Touring, for all but the biggest bands, is a costly business that often requires record company support. And if a band isn't signed, and they can't sell their music, they'll be emptying their own bank accounts to entertain you.It's entirely possible that music will become a free commodity.
As Ant commented on the Cyberclinic blog, record labels are preparing for this moment by constructing "360-degree deals" encompassing publishing, image rights, endorsements and so on. Rather than creating a nurturing, supportive framework for musicians, the notion of free music is threatening quite the opposite: a return to the days where only the privileged few have a realistic chance of success.
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