Posted tagged ‘Radiohead’

When Artists Go a-Sharing…

June 14, 2009

In our recent discussions here at Enclosure, we’ve been discussing how “free rider” user-consumers – who download content without paying for it – may be making the business of selling cultural content more and more difficult, maybe unsustainable or ultimately impossible. Well, at least this is the way public discussion has been tending in the last several years.

But why blame the user? High profile artists like Radiohead and Girl Talkproducers of cultural content – have recently been offering their music online for an unspecified cost – users can choose donation-style how much they want to pay, including nothing. These artists have boldly cut the corporate middle men (or culture industry) out of the deal altogether, distributing content directly to user-consumers. This business model is most definitely not sustainable for corporate distributors (and three cheers for that!), but is it sustainable for the artists themselves? This, I think, remains to be seen; Radiohead and Girl Talk are in much the same boat as DiFranco and MacKaye, here. Though so far things look fairly affirmative.

Radiohead apparently chose to do this as part of a major sea-change for the band in 2007. Their former contract with a major label had expired, and instead of signing a new contract, they decided to go indy (see New York Times article here). They could afford the financial gamble of pay-what-you-want digital distribution because they were already a very wealthy and successful band – they made money no object in part because they didn’t need the money. But this was also a welcome gesture that they didn’t care about the money – we may say “sure, they can afford to do that,” but I suspect there’s something more highminded at work in Radiohead’s decision.

There also may have been something simply practical behind their decision. According to the NY Times article referenced above, Radiohead stood to make a good deal more profit by selling their wares directly, compared to the amount they would have made after their record label took its generous cut. What’s more, releasing the music digitally meant no lag time for producing CDs, one among several factors that often makes corporate culture distribution take longer; Radiohead could release the album themselves, the very second the final mixdown was finished. They also reduced production costs dramatically. Radiohead’s choice was as good for cold, rational-economic reasons as it was for warm, high-minded ethical reasons.

In other words, Radiohead showed that – at least under certain circumstances – going indy in the digital age could mean much more profit for artists than their major label contracts ever would have delivered. The economic reasoning is simple: cut out the middleman, and simultaneously cut out the process of manufacturing CDs. Where costs dry up, profits bloom. And here’s the kicker: they made this increased profit in spite of the fact that, according to one estimate, at least 3/5 of downloaders took the album for free. What happened to the internet “free-rider problem”?

Then, about a year ago, Girl Talk released Feed the Animals in the same pay-what-you-want, web-only format. Unlike Radiohead, though, his reasons for doing so were non-economic. His album of mash-ups was composed entirely of music sampled from other artists, and in a statement of frank copyright defiance, he made no effort to license or “clear” any of the samples. The major record companies never would have sold such a thing in any case. The compelling question about Girl Talk, according to this NY Times article, is whether this type of distribution can make Girl Talk a star and a financial success. Given his status last year one of the darlings of the underground, I think the only sensible answer in hindsight is yes.

Unlike Radiohead, who were already riding a long wave of fame thanks to almost two decades of major label promotion when they made the switch to distrubuting digital donation-based downloads, Girl Talk has never been major. If Radiohead showed that one could jump from the top of the skyscraper and fly on his own without corporate support, Girl Talk is testing whether an DIY artist (a self-contained performer,  producer and distrubutor) can get in on the ground floor, so to speak. If Girl Talk can make it economically by distributing albums on the web for free/donation/profit (and that’s really the only way to understand what he’s doing!) , maybe anyone can. Which means: maybe there is no internet free rider problem…or if there is, it would only trouble the music industry, not the artist.