16 October 2007

Karma Police

As nearly everyone has no doubt heard by now, Radiohead has released its new album In Rainbows exclusively (for now) through its website. For a group of Radiohead’s commercial and critical stature, this would be news enough, but of course there’s more: The band is allowing customers to set their own price for the album, meaning that, aside from a minuscule credit card processing fee, it’s possible to download the album for free. Legally.

I preordered In Rainbows and downloaded the album when it became available the morning of October 10. I chose to pay around $10, which according to most economists, would place me somewhere between Forrest Gump and a brain-damaged squirrel on the intelligence scale, since I voluntarily paid for something that the seller was offering more-or-less for free. But as the legions of Pop Tones readers are no doubt already aware, I don’t think like an economist. Neither do a lot of other Radiohead fans, apparently. According to one British survey, the average price paid for the first million downloads (yes, the album went “platinum” in less than a week) was around $8, and only one-third of customers chose to pay nothing.

Nevertheless, I was buying something with my money, and I’m not talking about the ten songs on the album. I was buying into a new distribution model, one that has the potential to fundamentally change the way music is bought and sold. Radiohead may or may not care how much money they make from this experiment (although I predict they’ll wind up doing quite well), but if the offering is a financial success for the band—or rather, if it’s perceived as a financial success—more artists will be encouraged to emulate Radiohead by cutting out the middlemen and selling music directly to the public. (The band plans to release a conventional CD version of the album next year, but no hard date or distribution details have yet been announced.)

Why is this a good thing? For one thing, it should ultimately lead to artists earning more for their work, as well as lower prices for customers. But it's also a matter of justice: the music business is finally getting what it deserves. With the possible exception of the airlines, it’s difficult to think of another industry that has shown such callousness and hostility toward its own customers, overcharging them ridiculously for CDs and now randomly suing people who’ve chosen to rebel against this price regime through illegal downloading. Earlier this month a judge in Minnesota—apparently now ground zero for all manner of legal idiocy—awarded the industry $222,000 in a lawsuit against a woman who had allegedly downloaded 24 songs. If this seems like a reasonable decision to you, here’s a thought experiment: 24 tracks, multiplied by the 99-cent rate charged by Apple’s iTunes store for legal downloads, comes to $23.76 worth of “stolen” merchandise. If someone were convicted of shoplifting $23.76 worth of merchandise from a discount store, would you consider a $222,000 fine to be an appropriate punishment? Unless you can honestly answer “yes” to this question, you now have some sense of the warm feeling I get every time I read a news story about how much money the music industry is losing because of illegal downloading. It’s satisfying to see the public exacting some revenge on the industry, and doing so in the only terms it understands.

Of course the labels are fond of responding to complaints about their high prices and recent litigiousness by saying they’re merely protecting the interests of their artists—an argument that would carry a lot more moral weight were it not for the fact that most artists with major-label record deals make only about a dollar for every CD sold, and many end up in the hole once promotional costs are recouped. For a lot of these musicians, $8 an album might not sound so bad.