Exit Music (For An Industry?)

For me, Radiohead’s splendid OK Computer provided the perfect soundtrack to being a PR guy in the waning days of the 1990s tech boom. The lads in the band would probably find that odd, but such is the stuff of pop music.

Anyway, in a few hours, the band will do something pretty extraordinary. Free from a record label for the first time in a long time, they’re releasing a new album online. All by themselves. Furthermore, they’re letting buyers decide what to pay for it. Would you like to download it for nothing? OK. Would you like to pay $200 for it? Fine. Up to you.  Pay the band what you think it’s worth.

What’s most remarkable to me, though, is that this has taken just about everyone by surprise. Even longtime, die-hard fans of the band. No promotion. No satellite media tour interviews. No advances to press, reviewers or radio stations (not that I can see anyway), and consequently no pre-release Internet leakage. None of the usual song and dance. Just a note posted to the band’s website on Oct. 1 by guitarist Jonny Greenwood: “Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days.” And they’re handling it themselves, thanks much.

Of course, they can do this because more than a decade of old-school record label promotion helped make them big enough to do so.  And, presumably, they can afford to give a record away if that’s what essentially happens. But in any case, one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed rock acts in history has pretty much just dumped the promotional middleman in a bit of classic nonchalance. 

For zillions of musicians who feel they’ve been chumped by labels over the years, it must be a sweet thing to see. But is this a defining moment in the way major artists’ stuff will be promoted and sold? And if that’s true, what other middlemen does the Internet threaten? That we’ll have to watch.

 — Hornseth

4 thoughts on “Exit Music (For An Industry?)

  1. bbenidt says:

    Radiohead is brave with this, not the least because they broke through a “you can’t do that” barrier.

    Let the buyer set the price? You can’t do that. But it’s working. A story yesterday said the average price downloaders are setting for the album is $9.

    Jorg Pierach of Fast Horse cited the Radiohead gamble in a seminar Tuesday as an example of cutting-edge marketing thought. We encouraged the people in the seminar to come up with as many ideas as possible that smack up against a “you can’t do that” response. When you hit that response, you’ll know you’re in new territory. The ideas won’t always be good ones, won’t always work, but some will and they’ll get you places no one else has even contemplated, let alone arrived at yet.

  2. jl says:

    I think you’re right, BB, this type of For Sale By Owner is much easier to pull off for a well-established band, with an existing fan base…that was built up by big bad labels. It’s also easier to be the first, because lots of us want to be part of something new and romanticized.

    But if I’m a young person short on cash, will I really pay a fair price for an unknown garage band? The online music ripping phenomena suggests a deep hunger for free music, not a deep hunger for paying a fair price to help emerging artists. We’ll see. Interesting times.

    And assuming that the Self-promotion Revolution has begun, what does that mean for the PR industry? If Radiohead can do it’s own marketing and promotion, why can’t all current PR and marketing purchasers do the same?

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