J's Indie/Rock Mayhem

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Thursday, October 04, 2007

Notes From Underground - #18
I'd Buy That for a Dollar


So, by this point you've heard about the new Radiohead album, In Rainbows. You might have heard about it on the news, read about it on various media sites, or even heard Ed Cone, Joe Killian and myself discussing it on this week's show. And all the discussions about it have largely been driven by exclamation-points about the future of music and the end of media as we know it and blah, blah, blah. That's all well and good, as it was the main focus of our discussion on Wednesday as well. But I want to focus in on two things here:

1) Radiohead has been somewhat notorious (and as I labeled them this week, "curmudgeonly") by refusing to allow their albums out onto digital download services; their stance on this being that the album needs to be absorbed as a whole, not broken down into purchasable bits. Quoth Joe Killian: "I think it's a...misapprehension that there was ever a time where an artist could decide how [the listener] is going to listen to the music." Killian's point was that once the album, track, whatever is purchased by a user, it's out of the control of the artist. Radiohead may want you to consume OK Computer as a whole, but if I'm in the mood for "Climbing the Walls," I'm not going to wade through the first eight tracks just to get there; I'm hitting the skip button. If I didn't like all the songs, I could rip my favorites and ditch the rest. I don't think that's what Radiohead's getting at in avoiding ITunes and its ilk; they're more concerned with just selling the album as a whole piece of art. But if Thom Yorke isn't going to throw a hissy fit each time you skip to "Anyone Can Play Guitar" on Pablo Honey, then why does he get in a huff over you wanting to buy that song and only that song?

I think this is, potentially, illusion of control. And if there's one thing the internet has shattered, it's the way people are forced to interact with digital media. The giants are still trying to force our hands (DRMs, limited lifespan of files, etc.), but ultimately there are (non-legal) ways around all those things. If ITunes wants to charge you extra for a DRM-free album, why wouldn't you just go buy a DRM-free album at your local music store, for roughly the same price, and get the bonus of liner notes and packaging? Or why wouldn't you just go (gasp!) illegally download it from somewhere? Radiohead has taken a step ahead of others by saying, 'okay, come download it, and pay us what you want to pay.' This is either a grand commercial experiment gone awry, or it's one of the most brilliant, forward-thinking artist statements in some time.

Which brings us to our next point.

2) What is art worth? The debate has already begun to swarm about what people think they are going to/should pay for this album. The quote I found most interesting in this article was:

"Of course, not everyone is feeling so generous. On Tuesday Adam Baruchowitz, 34, a magazine business director, was browsing at Other Music, the downtown Manhattan record store. He said he would pay only $5, partly because he believed that Radiohead already had plenty of money."

Our narrative about what music is 'worth' has long been driven by the insane pricing schemes of the record industry. And it has continued into the digital age. CDs in big-box stores still regularly run between $11.99 and $15.99, perhaps less if it's being used as a 'loss leader.' So what were we to expect when we cut out the middle man of brick-and-mortar, cut out the physical packaging, and stripped things back to just the music? Not the level we've ended up at, that's for sure. ITunes announced earlier in the summer that they were rolling back 'album' prices on some (not all) albums to $5.99 to $6.99.

So when someone says they're paying Radiohead 'only' five-dollars for the new album, it's a statement that comes from the accepted narrative that music ought to cost some serious fliff. EMusic has long run with a pricing plan that averages out to something around 27 cents per track. That's, on average, $3 - $4 an album. That seems closer to being correct - but I don't want to accept any commercial entity's perception of what is a fair price for work that an artist did. Why shouldn't the artist decide? Or better yet, as Radiohead has done, why not let the audience decide?

Commercial music (which is, essentially, what we're talking about here - what bands don't start up with the idea of making a living?) is a strange bird in the art world. If we try to make comparisons between bands and visual artists, for instance, it wouldn't fly. For one, you're not going to find anyone dropping $50 for a ticket to watch Andrew Wyeth paint a painting. Though that would be neat. You will find people dropping $50 to see Springsteen play, and in an art that is inherently performance and commercially based, that's an important distinction. Where Wyeth's finished painting is the be-all of his artistic statement, music's statement doesn't stop at the mastering of the CD - it extends to the concert hall.

There are a lot of issues here that I'll have to re-visit for future articles, but key to this whole discussion is this: there is no one, correct way to deal with digital music. Radiohead has shown one example of a way to do it; Ash recently announced that they were done recording albums and that digital singles were the way of the future for them. The audience will ultimately decide what works and what doesn't. But in the meantime - I'm going to go download me some new Radiohead. What's that? What am I going to pay for it?

I'll pay what it's worth. To me. And that's a great feeling.

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3 Comments:

  • At 9:27 PM, October 06, 2007, Blogger Johnny said…

    Good stuff. Does the fact that Radiohead has used traditional commercial channels to reach this level, where they have this luxury, kinda qualify any attempt to say that this would work for artists on a wider scale (I'm thinking of groups who are just starting out)-- is it more than just a great gesture from a popular band?

     
  • At 10:38 PM, October 07, 2007, Anonymous S. said…

    I know we already talked about this, but I kind of wanted to throw that comment out here, too (though belatedly). Although I frequently engage in this line of reasoning myself, I think it's pretty bizarre how people have started to "decide" whether and how much they're going to pay for an album based on whether the artist already has "plenty of money." I know I'd be pretty pissed if at raise time, my boss was like "Well, you know, you've been doing a really great job, but let's face it, you already have plenty of money."

     
  • At 11:56 PM, October 07, 2007, Blogger J. Neas said…

    Johnny - your point is something I've definitely thought about. This practice of giving away music (or selling it relatively cheaply) is something that small bands have been doing for some time. It's a way of getting your music out there, since then word-of-mouth can take over. What is notable about this, I think, is that a major band, who can easily dictate that listeners pay abhorrent prices for a record, is refusing to do so. That's why I think this could be a relatively big event in the long-run.

    S. - Agreed. An excellent point.

     

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