Radiohead released its new album today. But you won't find "In Rainbows" in music stores. For now it's only available as a download via the band's Web site. And the price tag for that download is whatever people say it is.
But you probably know all this already, given the amazing amount of publicity Radiohead has received ever since it announced the name-your-own-price pay plan.
Of course, Radiohead isn't the first to try to bypass the traditional record company release. In July, Prince gave away 2.5 million copies of his latest album. The CDs were slipped into Sunday papers in Great Britain.
"The strategy is this: most artists don't make money from their recordings," explains Aram Sinnreich, a media professor at New York University. "Artists view recordings as a form of marketing to bring people into concerts. When Prince decided to distribute CDs for free through the paper in UK, he was essentially throwing his hands in air and saying, "I don't hope to make money on recording again. But I hope to get royalties from radio and concerts. Actually, I can probably make more fans this way." Sinnreich says some complained that Prince's move devalued music, that it implied his songs were worth no more than the advertisements stuffed in the newspaper alongside it.
"Radiohead is saying their recorded music does have some market value," says Sinnreich. "They're also placing a trust in their fans that was not implicit in Prince's move."
Sinnreich says that while their approaches may be different, both Prince and Radiohead are really sending out the same message -- that the old-school record industry doesn't work any more.
For better or worse, we're now living in a digital world, a world where an estimated 20 billion songs are illegally downloaded or swapped each year.
Sinnreich says both artists and record labels need to figure out how to react to this new reality. And, so far, it seems the artists have been the more consumer friendly of the two.
Explains Sinnreich, "We've seen where record companies are suing people. This is the opposite maneuver. Radiohead is saying to audience, "We trust you and trust that you'll pay for music." That kind of trust is going to be rewarded with a long-term relationship that doesn't exist when there is litigation involved."
Since 2003, record companies have filed some 26,000 lawsuits over file-sharing. Just last week, the record industry won a $220,000 judgment against a Minnesota woman. Music labels say the illegal sharing of copyrighted material dramatically reduces record sales. And, really, Radiohead was only able to release its new album without copyright protection because it's not currently signed to a label.
Band members has been pretty much mum about the sales strategy for the new disc. A Radiohead rep simply says the group finished its album and wanted to get the music out to fans as quickly as possible.
"What Radiohead is doing clearly demonstrates a feeling that the band has that there isn't a lot of value for them in the major label system," says Michael Bracy, the policy director of The Future of Music Coalition. "They would rather control their art themselves and make it available as they choose to make it available."
Bracy says Radiohead is the kind of band that profited from the label system and now has enough loyal fans to make it on their own. But that doesn't mean all bands should go label-less.
The Radiohead example had led some to assume music labels are a thing of the past. But Bracy argues that's the wrong interpretation. He says instead of throwing away the label system, we need to revamp it.
"What we need to be able to say is, 'There are certain bloated business models that will go away, some things that won't happen again, like artists having to sign away copyright to get on radio so radio can then participate in extraordinary payola schemes.' We gotta get past that," says Bracy. "The challenge is to figure out ways for labels to succeed."
It's one thing to be a struggling indie band with a My Space page. But Bracy isn't convinced established bands want the hassle of marketing and studio management and Web site maintenance.
"We need people to work on the business side of music so artists don't have to be mega-entrepreneurs that have to spend days Web coding. Hopefully we'll be able to work towards business structures where artists can focus on art and they can have business relationships they have control over."
Bracy says it would be a mistake to turn the entire music industry into a do-it-yourself project. He sees Radiohead's move as just one step in a much-needed evolution of an outdated model.