Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Rainbow Disconnection

The End of the Rainbow

SteveK examines the aftermath of the Radiohead ‘In Rainbows’ experiment

So, for a couple of months it looked like Radiohead was about to lead the vanguard charge against the way music is distributed to listeners, as well as deal a direct hit across the bow of the music industry, with the pay-as-you-please download distribution of their latest album, ‘In Rainbows’. Yes, there was the issue of the poor quality of the MP3 (160 KBPS compression rate as opposed to more standard 320 KBPS), but surely such a little thing could be forgiven at the start of a new music revolution.

The record charts couldn’t track the phenomenon of the downloadable-only album, which was promoted almost exclusively online, by the word-of-mouth enthusiasm of the fans and online music critics alike, with YouTube playing host to the music videos that the band did put out. Record executives were scrambling, music promoters were updating their resumes, file-sharing enthusiasts were cheering and independent artists and musicians were looking ahead with hope to a potential new era in music.

So much for all the hype.

As of the 10th of December, the downloadable (and Digital Rights Management-free) version of ‘In Rainbows’ is no longer available, at least through official channels; no doubt it’s still out there on countless file-swapping networks worldwide.

Instead you can get either the “discbox” version of the CD for £40.00 (approximately $80.00 US/CDN) which comes with the album as-downloaded, along with a 12 inch vinyl record of the same, an “enhanced” CD with additional songs, accompanying picture booklet and lyrics, or on January 1st of 2008 you will be able to buy a regular CD version of ‘In Rainbows’ from just about every major record retailer in North America.

And although the band maintains that they had originally released the album as a pay-as-you-please downloadable in order to “…Make people stop for a few seconds and think about what music is worth…” their management maintains that this was done solely to boost sales of the “real” album, whether the “discbox” or CD that will be in stores in three short weeks. Needless to say, the quality of the songs on both “hard copy” versions of ‘In Rainbows’ will be much higher

The band has fairly well betrayed anyone and everyone who believed that the downloadable ‘In Rainbows’ would usher in a new era of music distribution, one in which there would be no record label middleman between the artist and their fans.

Instead, in a move as cynical and as commercial as the fabricated feuds between supposedly rival pop stars, we’ve discovered that Radiohead did all this merely as an elaborate publicity stunt to generate buzz in advance of the physical CD release. We should have known better; we should have seen it for what it was but we didn’t. We all wanted to believe that a music revolution was coming.

Radiohead should be ashamed of themselves for being so callous, and for profiting from those who paid good money to download very poor quality recordings. It is my sincerest hope that the fans will stay away from buying the CD, and thus voting with their pocketbooks, send a message to the band about being loyal to and honest with their fans.

I suspect, however, that the fans are far more forgiving, and that this CD will not only sell, but will indeed revolutionize the way music is distributed, by selling well enough for the concept of a low-price low-quality pre-release promo download to become a standard music industry marketing ploy to squeeze even more money out of fans, listeners and music lovers.

We got our revolution, it seems; just not the one we’d been hoping for.