Music: Radiohead & Saul Williams: problem children of the music industry?

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Granted, it’s a bit late to be weighing in on this, but now that I finally have a platform for doing so, it’s goin’ down!

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about Radiohead’s latest album, “In Rainbows”; or more specifically, how they distributed it. For FREE.

…if you wanted it to be. They let fans pay whatever they wanted for a download of the whole album. Saul Williams had a similar approach with his latest, “The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!”, allowing fans to download a low-quality version for free, or pay $5 for a higher-quality download.

I really, really hope this model takes off. It was one thing for a huge artist like Radiohead to do it; the band has taken gambles like this before and seen them pay off wonderfully. But a smaller artist like Saul? The full numbers aren’t in yet, but nearly 29,000 people have elected to pay $5 for his record so far.

That comes out to almost $145,000 in Saul’s pocket. After subtracting promotional and production costs, it might not come out to much. But when you consider that artists usually make pennies per record when they’re distributed through a major label, $145,000 isn’t anything to sneeze at.

This kind of independence isn’t anything new to the “underground” musical community. Unsigned bands have always had cheap-or-free recordings available, in an effort to get their music out to as many people as possible. The explosion of Myspace and file-sharing programs have only aided in this effort.

But this is huge! This is industry-redefining huge! Imagine, if you will, the larger artists of our day spurning their record labels and striking out on their own. With a big name, do you really need the financial backing of a huge, faceless corporation?

Granted, the artists in question do need a large record label to establish their name in the first place. Distribution and promotion are not cheap. And that is the one problem that plagues this new pay-what-you-want model: if you aren’t already a big artist, will people still bother to pay for your records if you can’t afford to promote them the way large labels do?

All that being said, the pay-what-you-want scheme still has a lot of obvious benefits, as opposed to signing a record contract. There are no legal bindings to keep recording for the record label…no creative interference, as is often the case with signing with a major label…the list goes on and on. The iTunes music store has offered a variation on this for quite some time, and I know of at least a few smaller bands that do pretty well with iTunes.

I realize I sound bitter in regards to record labels, but only because I am sick of the way they treat artists. And you should be too. I could write pages about how badly they tend to screw people over, but a little record producer by the name of Steve Albini said it much better than I could. You can read his treatise here.

If one of your favorite artists independently releases his or her music online, buy it there instead of at the record store. Show the industry who’s boss.

Mike Fuksman

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One Response to “Music: Radiohead & Saul Williams: problem children of the music industry?”

  1. John Says:

    The Red Paintings (an indie band from Australia) have taken a somewhat different approach to the label-free route for their new album, as well. So far it appears to be working out quite well for them.

    “Brisbane, Australia art-rockers The Red Paintings take a page out of the Radiohead/Saul Williams book and record their debut full length album without a record label of any sort…”

    This article has the details. It’s worth a read.
    http://digg.com/music/Indie_band_raises_40k_to_record_their_album_BY_DONATION

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