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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Where the industry ends and artists begin

    Evan Lisull columnist
    Evan Lisull
    columnist

    Looks like the karma police have finally caught up with the music industry. The world of music was blind-sided by Radiohead’s almost nonchalant announcement online that its new album would be released this month. While it was known that the music itself had been finished for quite some time, the record’s release was postponed indefinitely until the band signed with a new label to distribute the music. Radiohead’s decision to release the record online, without any label, is a dramatic shift in the dynamics of the music industry.

    That’s not all that makes this record unique. Consumers are allowed to name their price for the record, and paying nothing is an option. This is not simply a revolutionary statement made by a rock band for kicks; the idea draws from the basic workings of market forces. Consumers can directly determine the price of the album, rather than having it arbitrarily foisted upon them. Under the current iTunes model, virtually all albums are $9.99. This means that Britney Spears’s album has the same value as Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited, which has the same value as a Limp Bizkit CD. Yet different people will value these albums differently, and that should be reflected in the prices.

    The band also offers one of the more deluxe music packages of all time: an $80 (!) hand-assembled package including two CDs, two vinyl records, original artwork and photographs, all enclosed in a hardback book. At a first glance, this seems gimmicky, but it reflects the dichotomy between music files and tenable objects like vinyls. The digitization of music has been for the better of the art, but music aficionados still revel in the scent of a stack of LPs as though they were sixth graders trying inhalants for the first time. There is definitely an appeal to an item you can hold and grasp and display in your house, which is why music downloads haven’t completely phased out records. Radiohead provides a novel solution by offering the best for both worlds.

    The self-release also marks an important change in the artist’s relationship with the record company – typically, the Recording Industry Association of America. For time eternal, the conflict between artist and label was a Herculean struggle, often resulting in the artist’s loss, the label’s financial gain, or both. Yet the record company was at the same time essential, to promote the record and to distribute the hard copies. In the Internet age, when music can be downloaded and publicity uploaded, the middleman is being erased. While the RIAA managed to barely survive the onslaught of file-sharing by painting downloaders as criminals, what can it say about Radiohead? Once this model proves successful, the RIAA will be left high and dry.

    Furthermore, Radiohead’s “”stunt”” may turn out more than a handful of dollars and cents. The average artist makes 68 cents per record after the middleman takes his share. Is it so unreasonable to imagine that the average price will work out to more than that?

    It is very fitting that Radiohead is the band behind this revolutionary release; after all, it was the group’s fourth album, Kid A, that demonstrated how powerful a force the Internet can be. The album was leaked in a publicity stunt, but it seemed to quickly backfire. Napster users quickly downloaded the album, and experts predicted that sales would suffer as a result of the rampant sharing of the album. Instead, the exact opposite happened: The album went platinum, and it became the only Radiohead album to debut at No. 1 in the U.S. It is worth noting that this album was also the band’s most experimental at the time, and was released without any singles or music videos. So much for music sharers leaving artists destitute.

    Just as the music industry cringed at the success of Kid A, it should cower in the face of In Rainbows. Each of the elements behind the release – potentially free music online, deluxe packaging, individual releases and online press statements – has been done before. Prince released his most recent album 3121 for free online, and the original packaging for the Rolling Stones’s Sticky Fingers was an Andy Warhol work. But no group has put the elements together as masterfully as Radiohead.

    From Napster to BitTorrent, from MySpace pages to mp3.com, the Internet has dramatically changed the music world. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman has described this use of the Internet as the “”flattening”” of the world, providing a ground on which anyone can compete. In this case, however, it seems that the RIAA is not just being flattened; it is learning how to disappear completely.

    Evan Lisull is a sophomore majoring in economics and political science. He can be reached at letters@wildcat.arizona.edu.

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