Radiohead fans apparently like to buy the cow when they already get the milk for free. Though the band already offered downloads of In Rainbows essentially for free in October, the album will debut atop the Billboard albums chart next week, begging the question: Who might be next in line to give the pay-what-you-want experiment a whirl?
With Madonna leaving Warner Bros. for a deal with concert promoter Live Nation, Nine Inch Nails striking out on their own, and a number of major, established acts either not under contract or working album-to-album, it seems like the time is ripe for Act II in the name-your-price sweepstakes.
Not long after Radiohead announced their intentions, a number of groups said they were considering following suit, including British funk-dance act Jamiroquai and Oasis, who are without a label and released their first digital-only single in October. But not long after the news about Oasis broke, singer Liam Gallagher quickly put an end to the rumors, saying he'd give an Oasis album away for free "over my dead body."
Another English act, however, the Charlatans, have confirmed that they will release their yet-untitled 10th studio album in March as a free download through online radio station XFM. They already tested the waters last summer with a free single, "You Cross My Path," and a second freebie, "Oh Vanity," is reportedly due out in February. Another once-popular British act, Ash, claimed in 2007 that their most recent album would be their last traditional release and that they would only put out digital and physical singles from now on.
One manager (who requested anonymity) of a major artist considering a set-your-price scheme said the key to success is twofold: 1) It should be an artist established enough to draw a large group of fans who might choose to pay a reasonable amount. 2) Unlike Radiohead, the band should avoid appearing to pull the bait-and-switch of offering low-quality MP3s for the pay-what-you-want price and then selling a more polished album at a later date. "We would never have put songs out at that bit rate," the manager said. "What's the point?"
But for a world-renowned artist like Prince, who does not have a label deal, Radiohead's model could be tantalizing. Prince has already experimented with everything from giving his albums away at concerts to including free copies with British newspapers and delivering fresh tracks directly to fans through his now-shuttered NPG Music Club site. Though a spokesperson for Prince could not be reached for comment, the move would be in keeping with his unpredictable approach over the past few years, as well as another stick in the eye for the major labels, with whom he famously battled during the 1990s.
And then there is NIN's Trent Reznor, who famously split with his label last year, telling fans, "I have been under recording contracts for 18 years and have watched the business radically mutate from one thing to something inherently very different." As an alternative, he said he wants to have "a direct relationship with the audience." Reznor's manager said an announcement of the NIN leader's next move would come by the end of January.
Reznor has suggested he might release his next NIN album on his Web site for much less than the nearly $20 his former label charged for his most recent album. His first experiment with the process, rapper/singer Saul Williams' name-your-price The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, left Reznor in a foul mood, however. Of the 154,000 who downloaded Williams' album, only 28,322 (just over 18 percent) paid the recommended $5.
"Is it good news that less than one in five [fans] feels it was worth $5?" Reznor asked. "I'm not sure what I was expecting, but that percentage ... seems disheartening."
A recent Billboard article suggested a number of other major acts who might be considering the move, including ex-Hole leader Courtney Love, who expressed affection for the Radiohead stunt on her MySpace page and is currently without a label to release her long-delayed How Dirty Girls Get Clean. Also mentioned were recent Interscope defectors ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead — who left the major with great animosity and are said to be considering a digital-only release in advance of their next album — and French techno duo Daft Punk.
Though they are still signed to Virgin, Daft Punk's Thomas Bangalter told Billboard last summer, "What we might be interested to do from an artistic point of view might not have the same agenda as a major label for using physical formats. ... Personally, we still buy music, but we hardly buy any physical music. We've definitely changed our habits."
The other potential player is Seattle veterans Pearl Jam, who have been selling live CDs directly to fans through their site for years and have signed one-off deals with J Records since leaving longtime label Epic several years ago. Even as its physical-album sales have shrunk over the years, the group's large, devoted fanbase has continued to turn out for arena shows. They are the musicians who could most likely make the pay-by-choice option work in their financial and artistic favor. A spokesperson for Pearl Jam said the band is not discussing its future plans at this time.
Regardless of who follows Radiohead's lead, in these perilous times for major labels, selling just one copy of a physical album after offering it online for free could be considered a success, according to Eric Garland, co-founder and CEO of online media measurement company BigChampagne. "I will go out on a limb and say if Radiohead [or any other band] give away one copy of that pre-release version, and they succeed in getting someone to register at their official site and download that album and open that communication channel, even if they don't pay for it, it's a net win," he said. "Because unlike every other artist in the world who is being victimized by people downloading their music on some rogue P2P site, they have at least a chance to create a dialogue with that fan."
When Radiohead first announced the download plan, a number of managers and label execs told MTV News they thought the offbeat approach was a good public-relations move for an established act like Radiohead but would not likely work for lesser-known acts who might, literally, not be able to give their music away. But once the second, retail-store half of Radiohead's plan came into focus, Garland said his view changed.
"Given what they ended up doing, I think any band can do that if they want to sell a CD and capitalize on some of what you already know will be occurring, which is unauthorized downloading," Garland said. "Will it increase sales and add money to the bottom line? There's not a guarantee, but I guarantee you will get some benefit, where before there was none, because if there's any demand for the record, it will be downloaded without your permission."
The one sector that appears to be taking the Radiohead model most seriously is exactly the one that could have the hardest time making it work: mid- to lower-level bands and formerly popular major-label bands that have been out of the spotlight for several years. What's funny is that many of these bands got on the free-download wagon way before Radiohead, most not bothering to ask for payment at all.
Harvey Danger, who had a minor hit in 1998 with "Flagpole Sitta," self-released their album Little by Little as a free download last summer. "In preparing to self-release our new album, we thought long and hard about how best to use the Internet," the band wrote in a note explaining the move. "Given our unusual history, and a long-held sense that the practice now being demonized by the music biz as 'illegal' file-sharing can be a friend to the independent musician, we have decided to embrace the indisputable fact of music in the 21st century, put our money where our mouth is, and make our record ... available for download via BitTorrent, and at our Web site."
Like other indie acts who've given it away — such as Rancid leader Tim Armstrong, who posted free copies of the tracks from his 2007 solo debut, A Poet's Life, last year — Danger also released a physical version with bonus material.
This time last year, Anti- Records singer Tim Fite gave away his second album, Over the Counter Culture, for free. And though the new album from Bob Mould (formerly of Sugar and Hüsker Dü) is coming out traditionally via Anti- in February, in October he asked fans on his official site if they would support some other models he was considering. Among them: $1-$2 individual songs that would be available in DRM-free formats as Mould finishes them; DRM-free albums for $10-$20 that fans would be notified about via e-mail as soon as Mould finishes them; or an annual fee of $20-$40 that would cover all the music he releases as it's created, in addition to some exclusive content.
More recently, punk stalwarts Pennywise announced that on March 25, they will be offering a DRM-free copy of their new album for free for two weeks, through a deal with MySpace and the text-messaging company Textango. The album will also be released in a physical version with some bonus material on the same day. In a press release, singer Jim Lindberg explained, "I think for a band like ours that has put out eight albums already, it's a great way to give back to our fans for their support over the years. We can also potentially expose our music and message to people around the world who may have never had the opportunity to hear it because they either couldn't afford to buy a CD or they didn't have access to music outlets or good distribution."
Punks aren't the only ones getting in on the action. Over the holidays, emo-rap act Atmosphere posted a copy of a new mixtape, Strictly Leakage, on the Rhymesayers Web site for free download as a thank-you to fans, in the hope that it would create some hype for their next album, due in the spring.
But while major and independent artists alike are taking matters into their own hands, it's the superstars who would seem to stand to gain the most from doing so. After all, while bands like Radiohead have ridden the traditional industry into the ground, they've amassed much of their money and promotion through the old system. It's the established artists who would seemingly be able to exploit the DIY approach to its fullest.
Regardless, what all the acts that are making the move realize, Garland said, is that having fans get the music for free directly from the artist (in exchange for e-mail addresses) is better than having them go to a shady part of the Internet to do it. "You can't steal what's already being stolen," he said.
[This story was originally published on 1.10.08 at 5:44 p.m. ET]