Dinosaurs will die

Forget about your house of cards … the infrastructure will collapse—voltage spikes.

Is it the new Radiohead album—or is it the innovative business plan that’s making my toes tap a happy dance? As I write this morning, I’m listening to a media-player mix of In Rainbows along with Radiohead’s 2003 CD Hail to the Thief and 1997’s OK Computer.Though I haven’t fully digested the British alt-rockers latest, I might agree it “delivers an emotional punch that proves all other rock stars owe us an apology,” as Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield put it.

The album is worth every pence of the five British pounds (about $10) I decided to pay for it. Yes, I paid. And paying is optional. Radiohead, after dumping its record label EMI, lets people download its new album for whatever price we decide to pay—$10, a nickel or nada.

More than half of the album downloaders chose the latter option, to pay nothing for the songs. An Associated Press story headline last week perhaps let nervous record company execs quiver with relief: “Most Fans Paid $0 for Radiohead Album.”

Whew. Close shave. Artists must not fuck with tradition.

Because really—what would happen if all musicians cancelled their record deals and decided to go it alone? Who would navigate the cash-strewn space between artist and fan? Without scooping the lion’s share of profits from each CD sold, record companies could go the way of the Tyrannosaurus.

What then? Would art disappear if artists don’t “get paid” by record companies for their work? Will people pay for art not molded into marketable mindmush by corporate artistry and repertoire divisions?

Tough news for the record industry—critics like the Radiohead album. And the musicians have already made millions on In Rainbows—by any measure.

An estimated 1.2 million people visited Radiohead’s download site in October. Say 200,000 were window shoppers and “only” a million downloads happened. Of these, 62 percent paid nothing. Another 38 percent voluntarily kicked in an average of $6, according to the ComScore Inc. study cited by the Associated Press. If 380,000 paid an average of $6, that’s $2.28 million. That’s just for downloads of digital files.

An untold number of fans opted to order an $80 “discbox” set—with additional songs on vinyl and CDs, original artwork and lyrics. If a half million of these are sold, not unlikely, and if the band turns a 50 percent profit, that’s $20 million.

Finally, the band will have a traditional CD release next year.

Sure, Radiohead will have to pay studio and production expenses and whatever it costs to maintain a busy e-commerce web site. But that won’t dent the band’s millions.

In recent decades, big label record deals have rewarded artists with about 50 cents to $2 profit per CD. (Record companies make $5 or $6. Compensation for taking risks on bands that never make it big, I hear.) Of their profit, artists must pay back advances, shell out for promo and travel and fund a reserve account to cover unsold records sent to stores. It’s not unheard of for an artist to be broke—even after a certified gold record (500,000 copies sold).

Added benefit to Radiohead’s experiment: The band will own its own tunes—not EMI. It will decide how its work will be used in the future—not a major label.

Artists in control of their art? Answering to no one? And making money?

No wonder this latest album sounds perhaps more joyful than Radiohead’s past records. As Matthew Fiander at PopMatters writes, “On In Rainbows, Radiohead has burst out of the [strait] jacket and is running wild down the street, all extended sleeves and flying buckles.”

Let the extinction begin.