Who's going to buy the new CD release of Radiohead's In Rainbows? The whole thing has been available for download since October, and not just as files floating around on file-sharing networks. You can officially download the full album from the band's website and pay as much—or as little—as you want. It's supposed to be a grand experiment, a bold step into the future of music distribution, a fan-friendly, anti-DRM end-around move to circumvent the big corporate machinery of the music industry. This is how we'll all make, distribute, buy, and listen to music in the future, and it's starting right now.
Yeah, well, tell that to the British fans who made the physical version of In Rainbows the top-selling album on the U.K. charts this week. The album even found a place on Billboard's U.S. albums chart the week before it was officially released. It seems like most of us aren't quite ready to be rid of all that plastic.
As experiments go, the honor-system download-only debut of In Rainbows didn't add up to much more than a stunt. Good for Radiohead for trying it; the move seemed like a genuine attempt to interrupt the way people think about and buy music. And the economics of it would seem to work out to everybody's benefit, except the labels. The production and distribution costs are slashed, so there's more profit, even if listeners only pay a couple of dollars on average.
That's the problem with In Rainbows as a measure of a digital-only pay-what-you-want release. Radiohead's one of the biggest bands in the world; they're guaranteed hundreds of thousands of downloaders. They can afford to take a risk, especially one as calculated as this. But what about a band that's going to be lucky to sell 100,00 copies of an album, or 50,000, or 12,000, or fewer? Can they trust that enough of the people who can get the music from a file-sharing network are going to drop even two dollars for a digital version? The pick-your-price model probably won't work for those artists. It certainly won't work as well. And who's going to be the first to try?
One or both of the model's that are already out there—Napster's and eMusic's subscription rates, iTunes' and Amazon's by-the-song pricing—will, probably, eventually, win out. Prices seem to have stabilized in the last couple of years; buying a digital version of an album is still cheaper than buying a hard copy, and who can complain about paying less than a dollar for a song? More significant than how you're going to pay for music on-line five or 10 years from now are the questions of what you'll be getting (MP3? FLAC? WMA?) and what you can do with it (Can you copy it? Put it on your iPod? How big is that lossless file, anyway?).
In Rainbows is, of course, in case you forgot, more than an economic hothouse—it's also the first Radiohead album in four years. It's an entirely pleasant selection of songs, from sweeping ballads ("Weird Fishes/Arpegii"), some surprisingly burly riff-rock ("Bodysnatchers"), and a lot of spacey drones ("House of Cards"), and it's all haunted by hints of Thom Yorke's poetic and understated despair ("Don't get any big ideas/They're not gonna happen," on "Nude;" "I am the animal trapped in your hot car/I am all of the days you choose to ignore," on "All I Need"). Much of the sonic detritus that marked the last few albums has been cleared away, though electronic chirps and clanks hover around the edges of songs. In short, it sounds a lot like every other Radiohead disc since Kid A—a little clearer and more song-oriented, but pretty much what you'd expect.
If you love Radiohead, you already have In Rainbows on your iPod but need the disc so you can file it between Hail to the Thief and the new $80 box set. If you like them, you got the download for cheap. The way it's selling, a lot of people love them. Based on the record itself, like seems a more reasonable response.