Saturday, October 06, 2007

There has been quite a bit of interest in the news recently about the rock band Radiohead’s decision to make their album available for downloading online for whatever price their fans to wish to pay. There is some precedent for this; a few artists have tried it before with some success. It certainly puts more control in the hands of the musicians and the fans, setting them free from the label-driven marketing schemes which tend to be rigid and inflexible, and the RIAA’s sue ‘em first and ask questions later methodology. Most rock and pop musicians (musicians in general?) seem to make the majority of their income through live performance, or if they are lucky some endorsements or teaching jobs as well. Maybe what Radiohead is doing will set a new paradigm for music distribution away from overpriced compact discs (is it any wonder people use file-sharing systems when CDs are retailed at $18.99?) and toward computer delivered music that can offer many more things – lengthy liner notes (a lamented casualty of the CD era) photos, videos, etc. could all be added to downloads as perks. It will certainly endear anyone who does this to the public as a fan-friendly band.

I wonder if jazz and blues musicians could benefit from this practice as much as their rock counterparts. Considering that jazz and blues musicians often print discs in small batches on small independent labels and then face problems distributing them; allowing the music to be downloaded from the Internet would eliminate some of the challenges they face. According to press reports, patrons allowed to set their own prices for downloads have been paying a comparable amount to the regular download stores, and by cutting out the middleman, more of the money would go to the artist. There’s will certainly be people who will pay nothing, but they could have gotten the album from a file sharing service for free anyway. If an artist gave the record away for a suggested price from their own web site, then they could ask people to register with an e-mail address that could be targeted with an update when then the band was touring. There are fans that still prefer the physical object, be it a compact disc, LP record or what have you. I wonder if there are print-on-demand music publishers like there are in the print publishing field that could allow very small batches of CDs and LPs to be printed when fans asked for them. This is routinely done in the book business and the technology certainly exists to do so with music.

Regardless of the outcome, Radiohead’s experiment is sure to engender a great deal of conversation about the future of recorded music distribution, and that is a good thing. We’ve gone from 78’s to LP’s to CD’s to MP3’s over the course of about 60 years, so it’s clear that technology continues to march on. Some people have touted music rental subscription systems like Rhapsody as the answer, but I think that people like to own things and the issue of digital rights management and the inability of DRM protected music to be played on some digital music players creates even more headaches. An industry standard that would allow for the maximum amount of control in the hands of the artists and consumers would be ideal, but with most of the music industry dominated by a few major players beholden to their stockholders, that is an unlikely outcome at least in the near term.

Send comments to: Tim