Dec 022007
Authors: Ryan Nowell

With the RIAA prosecuting file sharers, raiding the businesses of artist-approved mix-tape DJs and sending threatening letters to radio stations that play leaked albums, the music industry is clearly rattled.

The fangs are out and the biz is ready to defend its cut, even if that means adopting counter-intuitive business practices that keeps listeners from hearing new music.

They are a business, after all, and having people hear the music is secondary to having them pay for it. But the digital medium that’s been having its way with the industry for the past decade may just be getting warmed up.

The last few years have seen an explosion of artists that have hopped straight to the big leagues thanks to MySpace and the blog-o-sphere. Lily Allen, Clap Your Hands Say Yeah and the Arctic Monkeys are just a few such artists.

While it demonstrates the net’s potential for DIY marketing, it’s an example that still ends in a recording contract with a bloated corporate entity. Leave it to commercial rock’s reigning anti-commercialists to stick the dismount.

Radiohead’s last album finished out their lengthy contract with EMI, and apparently the corporate music scene left a bad taste in their mouths, because their latest, In Rainbows, was just self-released on the band’s Web site. The bigger deal: it’s going for the low-low asking price of whatever you feel like paying. Just type in any amount on the checkout screen and that’s how much you’ll be charged. And yes, zero is an option.

This would seem like a recipe for disaster, but London’s The Times recently surveyed 3000 purchasers and the results averaged out to $8 an album. About half of what a new CD would be, but since that money goes directly to the band (and costs for a digital release are marginal), it works out to almost three times what they would’ve made on every album sold had it been released through a major label.

Actual physical releases, including a pricy box set, are due out in a couple months, and many in the industry are already speculating that it’s the most successful album of the past few years.

This sets a few precedents, not the least of which is release, distribution and profit from music with complete autonomy from the industry. New releases from major artists inevitably get leaked on the net, make the rounds on all the torrent sites, and are well digested by the time they’re officially released.

By leaking their own album and giving us the option of paying for it, Radiohead has created a pricing structure that deals with reality, and not only favors, but gives a lot of credit to, the people the music business frequently screws worst – the fans.

Of course, there are a few issues that prevent this from being an exemplary business model.

Namely, it’s Radiohead. They can work without the industry because they don’t need it.

While this pricing scheme is something easily carried off by one of the biggest bands in the world, letting people pay what they think its worth doesn’t seem like such a good idea when Johnny What’s-his-name and the Never-heard-of-thems want to drop their next LP.

Comparatively obscure, industrial-tinged hip-hop artist Saul Williams is trying this with his new album, mostly at the urging of his producer, megastar and industry detractor Trent Reznor. The success of Williams’ album could have huge implications, answering whether or not this model is viable for smaller artists.

The significance here is that many musicians are as eager to sidestep the industry as the consumers are, and very soon there may be a viable way for both them to do it.

It’s ironic that major labels are expending so much effort to keep people from hearing their music, but then, they’re an ironic apparatus. They’re a vast army of middlemen constantly sapping off of the people they’re meant to mediate – the musicians and the audience.

Having mistreated both, it’s only a matter of time before the fat gets trimmed.

Ryan Nowell is a junior English major. His column appears Mondays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to

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