It's not surprising, then, that as of two weeks ago, Paste Magazine, like Radiohead, began offering its main product for whatever price people want to pay for it. That's totally unprecedented for a magazine and, to my mind, incredibly significant for the music industry.
Paste's decision suggests something about the choose-your-own-price model of doing business (other than the advertising value of hopping bandwagons). Music industry wonk Bob Lefsetz argues that Rahiohead giving away In Rainbows wasn't a sales strategy. It was a marketing ploy. A big, rich band like Radiohead doesn't need album sales, he says, and giving away albums will surely translate into greater profits from merch and ticket sales.
Paste, though, doesn't have those things to fall back on. Sure, there's advertising -- more readers means they can charge advertisers more per ad -- but that doesn't defray the added cost of printing those extra copies. A smallish, private magazine that's only been around since 2002, Paste doesn't have the kind of cheese to just give away subscriptions. They're banking, clearly, that people who already love Paste will acknowledge the magazine's impact by paying well for it.
That gambit suggests that a similarly smallish band with a loyal following can use variable pricing to use their albums as both profit sources and advertising streams. Core fans, feeling an intense connection to your hard-hop/shoe-gaze hybrid, will pay normal price -- or more -- for your music, wanting to ensure there'll be more later. Meanwhile, new fans can get your music for free, obliterating financial barriers to entry and giving you a bigger pool from which to draw hardcore fans.
Good marketing, definitely, but hardly a ploy.