"Pay What You Want. It's Up To You."
On October 10, 2007, Radiohead released their seventh studio album, In Rainbows.
The album marked a milestone - not only for Radiohead fans (like me) eagerly awaiting the release of the band's first album since 2003's Hail To The Thief, but also for the manner in which it was released.
In Rainbows was released by the band themselves - without a record label, through their own website. What's more: they "sold" the record using a pay-what-you-want Honesty Box system. In other words, you could literally pay whatever you wanted - nothing, if that's what you wanted, or $1,000, if you were so inclined. Literally any (or no) price you wanted to pay.
No band had ever done something like that before, and certainly not an artist as big as Radiohead. The move met with varying reactions. Some in the music business decried it as the death knell for the traditional record label. Others said the band were demeaning smaller acts, by essentially devaluing music by giving it away for free. Still others felt this represented the way forward for the industry, as it grappled with the internet, music piracy and more.
More than a decade on, the music industry has certainly transformed, though questions still remain as to what an appropriate and viable business model is for artists, not only those that are up and coming, but also for established artists (particularly when you hear stories of artists with tens of millions of downloads of their songs receiving a mere few thousand dollars in return).
To add to the debate, there is also the question as to whether there is even such a thing as "a" viable business model, considering that income sources range to include online, offline, streaming, physical versus downloads, merchandise sales, touring, etc.
Fair questions, with no clear answers. If there are any takeaways, they are the following:
Innovation is essential. Radiohead blazed trails with their approach to pricing. In Thom Yorke's words, they didn't do it to be a model for the rest of the industry, it was simply a one time test for themselves (noted by the fact that they haven't done it since). To see what would happen.
And while official figures aren't available, we do know that they made more money off In Rainbows than they did off of Hail To The Thief. Their digital revenue from In Rainbows was more than their entire digital revenues from all of their prior work combined (although they were starting from a lower base). It helped, of course, that they were established, and it also helped that the album itself was very good. But there's a general consensus that the album was a critical and commercial success.
In other words, even when you're an established success, push your boundaries, test new ideas, break the status quo. You gain nothing in the long term by resting on your laurels.
Engaging with your audience is critical. As I referenced earlier, Radiohead were an established act well before In Rainbows. But what's also clear is they had built a true community among their fanbase, which served them extremely well when they conducted their experiment.
This connection came from their artistic purity, their commitment to experimentation and pushing the boundaries of their music (and not playing Creep over and over again at every concert), their less-than-formulaic approach to concerts (where they change up the setlist at every show), their willingness to be vocal about their values (regardless of what “looked good”), to their experimentation with involving their fans in their music (for one of the tracks off of In Rainbows, they released every isolated instrument track in the song to the public and invited them to remix and re-envision the song as they'd like).
In other words, you lose nothing and gain everything by honestly, respectfully and courageously engaging your audience in what you do, being true to your values, treating them like a true community and not keeping them at arm's length.
This breeds true devotion, true commitment, and why, when you go to Radiohead concerts, fans are reciting the lyrics to some of their most experimental music off of one of their most experimental albums (Kid A).