Everybody’s talking about it, Radiohead’s new album In Rainbows being released on the internet on a ‘pay what you think it’s worth’ basis.
Over the last five years or so it’s become more and more obvious that the traditional distribution model for getting music from the artist to the fans is under strain. CD sales have fallen, downloading and file swapping (most of it illegal) has risen exponentially. Somewhere in the middle old style fixed price distribution has formed an uneasy marriage with new style music downloads in the form of DRM restricted online music stores, though in reality this has become just another market segment rather than the new dominant model. The obvious and uber-simple concept of just letting your fans download your tunes has been at odds with the question, where does the money come from to pay for music production in the first place?
Enter Radiohead who, whilst not the first to offer their music this way, appear, thanks to their huge popularity and devoted fan base, to have marked a tipping point in a new model of distribution that embraces the new of downloading with the old of fan loyalty. This is no longer the market economy, but the gift economy. The band ‘gifts’ their work to the world and the world ‘gifts’ their money in return.
Of course, the gift economy only works so far – Radiohead can afford to do this because they are already well established and have a fan base loyal enough to cough up a bit of money. The average seems to be about £4 according to research into 3000 downloaders by music industry newsletter Record of the Day, though about a third didn’t pay anything at all. Already other big names, including David Bowie, Jamiroquai and The Charlatans are considering distributing their music in a similar way with others looking on in interest. These bands make money from gigs, so there’s always the possibility that getting their tunes into more people’s lives could mean more people at gigs. And no matter how generous you feel, musicians, producers and studios still need to be paid somehow, so there’s little sign that gigs will soon be on a gift basis too.
In an interesting parallel, Gerd Leonhard, author of The Future of Music has recently started publishing his next book for free on this blog, one chapter at a time. His blog-book, End of Control explores "how technology is shifting control over media to the people formerly known as consumers". Chapters one and two are already out.