The Rabbit Hole
On Sunday, Radiohead announced that its new album will drop Oct. 10. They're calling it In Rainbows. It's big news for fans and one more huge headache for a dying music CD-manufacturing industry. Releasing sans record label, In Rainbows will have two flavors, the band says: digital download and "discbox," which includes the album on CD, on vinyl and an extras CD, all encased in a book-and-sleeve combo.
The discbox will run 82 bucks. That ain't cheap.
If you only want the music, though, you can just buy digital copies of the songs. Amazingly -- and here's where the industry headaches happen -- each buyer gets to choose how much he or she pays. Seriously. I pre-ordered the album Sunday night and paid two cents (plus credit card surcharge, total: 93 cents).
For diehard fans (and Radiohead has plenty), 80 dollars is a steal for a nice collectible box. They'll sell a ton. Everyone else will cop a nearly free album, presumably earning them more fans. That's not the point, though.
The point is this: Radiohead -- like Prince, like the nonstop-touring Kenny Chesney -- understands the difference between artistic value and monetary value. The artistic value of the band isn't in question. Artistic value lies, as it always has, in the music. With the rise of digital media, though, artists' monetary value has shifted dramatically from the recordings themselves to fans' live experiences with that music. CDs themselves don't make money the way they used to. Digital sales have never made much. Concert ticket sales, though, are through the roof. Kenny Chesney made $73 million touring last year. Having sold roughly 24 million records, that's probably close to what he's made off CDs in his whole career.
It's a fascinating phenomenon: The art has become its own marketing. Radiohead has hopped on; its former label(s) should too.