The final nail in the coffin. The big middle finger. The death of the record industry. There’s been no lack of hyperbole attached to Radiohead’s choice to release its highly anticipated album In Rainbows digitally, without the aid of a record company, and – maybe most shockingly – allowing the buyer, er, listener, to name his price for the album. Most Internet pundits seem to think the death of the music industry has arrived, the tipping point finally reached. But is this really the end for the record companies? One heralded band’s album ends decades of label tradition?
The release is certainly groundbreaking. Radiohead believes relying on word of digital mouth – blogs, Pitchfork, the band’s website – is preferable to a record company to promote its album. It’s no secret the members of Radiohead are outspoken proponents of liberal causes. Lead singer Thom Yorke incessantly blogs about his dislike for the Bush Administration, the world’s poor environmental policy and the need for fair trade. So it comes as no surprise the group would be anti-big business and, therefore, anti-major label.
What is surprising is that the band skipped out on any record company at all. It had been speculated that Radiohead may select a tiny independent label to market its upcoming, mandatory chart-topper. The notion would have fit well with the band’s mindset: Avoid big business while helping an indie record company reach instant prosperity and stardom. But maybe that was part of the problem. By selecting one unknown label to distribute the record in just a night’s span, the label would wake to find millions of dollars at its bedside and thus another devil-incarnate record companies would be born.
But even with all the methodology behind the album’s release, people forget this is Radiohead we’re talking about – possibly the biggest band in the world with one of the greatest followings. For a startup indie band, the online release of an album would be worthless. MySpace essentially plays this role and rarely, if ever, have we seen a band come to fruition through some sample songs placed on a site geared toward teens and stalkers.
Jeremy Peters, director of licensing and publishing at Ghostly International, an Ann Arbor-based indie record label, said only a big name could pull this off.
“This type of method only works for bands with the cachet of Radiohead,” Peters said. “It may be a nail in the coffin for the common model, but not for the industry.”
Inventing a new model for the industry is tough, though, and even tougher when music is readily available online and for free. Peters said companies are trying to market special editions to draw customers and are capitalizing on the reemergence of vinyl as a new angle to sell albums.
Though probably not the demise for the record industry, what the Radiohead digital release may signal is the tipping point for death of the local indie-music store. Considering the huge number of copies Radiohead would have sold had it released the album by traditional means – the band still plans to sometime later in the year, with or without a label – the revenue is removed from a sector of business that is already struggling to keep up with the digital age.
Steve Bergman, founder of Ann Arbor-based Schoolkids’ Records in Exlie, understands the effects firsthand. The local record store has had trouble competing with online retailers, chain stores and the pirating of music online. Now residing in the upstairs of the Shaman Drum Bookshop, Bergman hopes to stay through the end of the month and then will make the eventual shift to online sales.
“Music as a standalone is gone,” Bergman said, who’s been in the retail music business since 1973. “In order to survive, you have to sell used (albums) or other merchandise.”
Bergman said the future may be in special releases, offering digital downloads along with a vinyl release, for example. “In the end, people still want something tangible,” he said. “And a great music store is still a special thing.”
But even Bergman doesn’t blame Radiohead. Rather, he puts blame on the record companies.
“They’re right on,” Bergman said. “It’s a benign move on Radiohead’s part. They’re doing it for the fans and away from the short-sided greediness of the record companies.”
Radiohead has essentially eliminated the middlemen between the fans and the band’s music, thus turning a full profit as opposed to dividing the money between record companies and the retailers.
“Technology has changed the way music is marketed, and the record companies need to learn that you can’t change change,” Bergman said.
Music has adapted to fit formats for centuries, and there’s no evidence this will change now. Maybe Radiohead is redefining the cost of music or the ways it will be marketed, but there will always be a niche for record companies, though they may not be the domineering entities that they once were. As for the record store? Said Bergman: “Schoolkids can’t make it anymore, but some other store will eventually find a way.”