by LUKE BAUMGARTEN & r & & r & Trickle Down & r & & r & This Radiohead thing -- essentially giving their forthcoming album, In Rainbows, away for free as a digital download -- has created a storm of commentary, enough to make less marketable, longer-toothed bands (Oasis, NIN, Jamiroquai) consider jumping on the label-free, release-it-yourself-digitally bandwagon. Most of the commentary, though, including this column last week, has been centered on what it will do to the industry, the big labels.
What's more interesting is what Radiohead's innovation could do for smaller artists.. Any way you stack it, offering to give an album away for free is a huge risk. Radiohead, millionaires that they are, can take that risk. Johnny Fingerpick, who bums from town to town on the five CDs he sells a night, can't.
Or maybe he can. Why can't Johnny bundle his album the way Radiohead promises to? Imagine: He's on tour, and he's just had a great show. The crowd really responded. Back at the merch table, people come up expecting to be able to buy an $8 CD. Johnny says, "Sorry, I don't do CDs. For 12 bucks, though, you can get a Johnny Fingerpick T-shirt and a voucher for a free digital download of the album."
People would eat that up. Already expecting to pay $8 for an album, they're now getting a (perfectly dope, I'm sure) gig shirt for $4 more. If you go DIY, with T-shirts from Goodwill and a screen-printing kit, shirt-making won't be much more expensive than burning CDs, printing cover art and buying jewel cases. All of which yields more money to get Johnny from town to town.
Fans won't mind not having a physical copy of the album because they were probably just going to rip it to their iPod anyway. Besides, Johnny's given them something physical -- something much better than some wack-ass CD-R -- to remember the show by. In doing so, he's also made some awkward scene kid in Tuscaloosa a walking advertisement for the force of nature that is Johnny Fingerpick. That's Music Industry 2.0 right there.