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Radiohead: Strike Two

Back in October 2007 when Radiohead announced they would allow fans to choose what they wanted to pay for a download of their new album In Rainbows it made headlines across the globe and sparked huge debate within the music industry. Many said that the band were encouraging the culture of piracy and the increased commoditization of music as a devalued digital product, rather than as artistic work with associated intellectual property rights. Radiohead’s Thom Yorke claimed it was a logical response to the “decaying (music) business model” and the growing trend of albums getting leaked online before they got a retail release; “every record for the last four—including my solo record—has been leaked. So the idea was like, we’ll leak it, then”. This unorthodox album release was a statement from a highly respected and hugely popular group that the record industry had a problem and only radical new approaches were going to change things. Fast forward four years and the idea of letting fans name their price for an album  is commonplace and responsible for the success of companies like Bandcamp.

This morning Radiohead announced they are to release their latest album The King of Limbs in a similarly untraditional fashion. Forgoing the usual stage-managed pre-release publicity they simply posted a message on their Facebook page saying “thank you for waiting” with a link to the album website which allows pre-orders now for their new offering which will be available in just four days time on Saturday 19th February. But the band are not adopting the pay-what-you-like approach for this new release; instead a digital download of the album is priced at £6stg for an .mp3 file and £9 for the higher quality .wav format. More notable is the release of the physical version of The King of Limbs as, what the band are calling, the “worlds first Newspaper Album”. The significance of the word ‘newspaper’ is yet to be explained, but this is essentially a music & merch bundle including vinyl, posters, artwork, CD and digital download at the much higher price of £30 (£33 for .wav version).

So, from a music marketing perspective what does the approach from Radiohead for The King of Limbs mean? Given that they are not allowing fans to name-their-price is this an admission that that model is unsustainable? According to data from music industry newsletter Record of the Day one third of fans paid nothing for In Rainbows, while the average price paid was £3.88. That’s significantly lower than the £6 fee the band are charging for TKOL. But remember that the album also went into both the UK and US number 1 position upon physical release. Added to that were vinyl sales and sales of the In Rainbows boxset which shifted 100,000 units at a much higher price point.

With the release of TKOL Radiohead aren’t taking a backwards step, rather they are building on what they learnt from the experimental approach they adopted for In Rainbows. They learnt then that there is still a market for downloads, but that digital music cannot demand the same price as physical products. They also learnt that premium merchandise bundles will sell to their fanbase, and since they are not signed to a major label, they can release merchandise independently, keeping more of the creative control and more of the profits within the band. They are encouraging fans to purchase directly from them by giving away signed vinyls at random. And they are cannily making best use of pre-order sales, delaying shipment of the physical items in the ‘newspaper’ release until 9th May so that they will have time to judge demand and pre-pay for printing and pressing costs.

A lot has changed in the music industry since 2007. In many ways Radiohead precipitated those changes by acknowledging to the wider world what was well-known but rarely spoken - that the old rules no longer applied and something had to give. Kudos to the band for continuing to search out what works for them.