15 October, 2007
Radiohead are by no means the first band to give away material free of charge (well, virtually) via the web, but they’re by far the most high-profile act to do so. It matters little to the music industry when a band like The Brian Jonestown Massacre make their entire back catalogue available for free online, but when one of the world’s biggest bands does it, everyone sits up and takes notice.
Much has already been written about the ‘paradigm shift’ (horrible corporate buzzword but sadly it fits here) in music distribution Radiohead’s move represents, so I won’t go on about that side of it, other than to applaud the concept of costing an album (or indeed any other creative work) based on its artistic merit/value to the customer. Applying this concept across my music collection, I probably owe Tom Waits thousands of dollars for all the pleasure he’s given me over the years, and should be sending invoices to numerous others.
What interests me most about the marketing of In Rainbows (because it has been marketed very, very well) is the way it’s allowed the listener to focus purely on the music. With no press ads/interviews, no pre-release radio play, and no sleeve art/packaging, the songs are left to speak for themselves – the music is all there is. Remember how, during all the hype about Oasis’ 1997 album Be Here Now, it took a while for people to realise that most of it wasn’t very good? No such problems with In Rainbows – Radiohead are communicating directly with the listener, with no background noise or visual disturbances, allowing us to focus on the music alone (and, for the most part, what fine music it is).
This, after all, is surely what all musicians should want to do – get their music heard by as wide an audience as possible by any feasible means. That’s why it was disappointing when Metallica sued Napster – sad that these hard-rocking monsters, who had restored metal’s reputation and put their minds and livers on the line for their art, should care so much about the bottom line.
Radiohead, label-less and free to do their own thing, are now showing how simple it is for a band to get straight to their audience, even when that band is one of the world’s most popular. The message for marketers? If you’ve got a brand people trust, you don’t need hype. If you’ve got a quality product no-one else is offering, people will be willing to pay for it, even if they can get it for free.
Radiohead’s music can survive being stripped of its packaging, its advertising and any sort of context – how about your products?