Now that no one is talking Radiohead any more, I figured it would be a good time to look back on the wild two weeks during which Radiohead announced and released In Rainbows directly to the people. This multi-part series will cover the following subjects:

In Rainbows Redux Part 1:
Pre-release buzz, piracy, pricing, and bit rates.
In Rainbows Redux Part 2: Radiohead morning, management missteps, and reading the early numbers.
In Rainbows Redux Part 3: Conclusions
In Rainbows Redux Part 4: In Rainbows Reviewed

And on the First Day, Radiohead Created Buzz, And it Was Good

Radiohead were up to something. First, there were the cryptic messages that began to appear on their website starting on September 22nd. On the surface, they seemed to be nothing more than crude drawings of smiling and frowning boxes with sticks for arms. However, members of the Radiohead fansite, Radiohead At Ease, were able to decipher the messages. Song titles appeared. Were they to be included on a new album? Then, the words “MARCH WAX,” were decoded in another set of drawings. That surely meant Radiohead’s would be releasing new vinyl, or generally speaking, new music in March, right?

On Thursday, September 27th Pitchfork reported on a website, that had a timer ticking down to Saturday. Radiohead’s management denied any link to this site, and by the next day it was declared a fraud. Was it?

At 12:00 AM on Monday October 1st (local time for England, Sunday night, here in the states), Radiohead announced their new album, In Rainbows would be released in 10 days, and even more surprising, the price was up to you. By noon the next day, Radiohead’s servers had slowed to a crawl (my order didn’t get placed until 8 PM, despite numerous attempts) and the internet was abuzz.

On Piracy and Pricing

The reality of today’s music market is that everything leaks weeks, sometimes months in advance of release dates. If free music is what you want, then you can pretty much acquire every new release of note without buying any of it. This may be great for some fans, or pirates (what you want to call them is up to you) but it really isn’t a sustainable model. Recording music, whether in a basement, or a studio still requires money, and there is still the time and labor of the musicians involved.

The most common rationale for music piracy is the oft cited statistic that musicians make more money from touring than they do from recorded music. That’s all fine and good if you’re Madonna or The Rolling Stones, or if you’re a band willing to spend 150-200 days a year on the road. What about the musicians who are unable to live on the road, due to family or financial reasons, or the bands and the small labels, whose only goal is to make enough money to record another album?

In response to the flood of free, various ideas have been floated around by corporations and record labels, including ad supported download services and various subscription models. Neither of these approaches have yet to get much traction.

One of the most obvious approaches a band, or a label, can take to combat piracy is to shorten lead times. In the industry, “Lead time,” refers to the traditional three month period between the time an album pressed and ready to go, and the time it is actually released. In theory, it’s supposed to give enough time for old media to hear and review a cd, get the cd to targeted radio stations, give the big box retailers enough time to put your disc in their Sunday ad, and finally, provide enough time to generate buzz. It’s also three months during which an album is bound to leak.

Radiohead’s choose your own price tag for In Rainbows tackled this problem head on. In Rainbows was sent to no one before it’s October 10th release date. The morning of Monday, October 1st, I received an email from the publicity firm NLM, that no review copies would be provided for any member of the media. If I, or anyone else, wanted a copy for review, go to Radiohead’s website, and order one. After all, you can name your own price, and if you want a free copy to review, you could place your order for no price. I’m as big a fan of promos in the mailbox as anyone, but I still found this to be a brilliant move on the band’s part. And what about that lead time? Not only did Radiohead monetize the inevitable record leak, but they also managed to create more buzz in 10 days than they would have ever created had they followed the traditional three month lead.

Ultimately, I chose to pay the equivalent of $6.50 for my copy of In Rainbows. Free was never an option. Sure, I could have paid nothing, but I am not a fan of free music for everyone. Rather, I consider myself a supporter of reasonably priced DRM free downloads for everybody. So, when I was given the opportunity to think about how much a new album by Radiohead was really worth, I took my options seriously. Included in my price were three factors. First, I wanted to reward the band for their time and labor they devote to composing music. I’ve purchased all of their previous full length releases and have enjoyed them all (some more than Amnesiac, of course). Secondly, I wanted to give the band some money for embracing technology, rather than fighting it (as many of the major labels still do). Finally, I considered what was a fair price for a new album. I have the 100 download eMusic plan which allows me to acquire most albums for between $3 and $4. I rarely use iTunes, due to its proprietary file format, as well as its price compared to eMusic. However, I have been downloading some albums from Amazon where the price is generally less than that of Apple. So, I took the mid point between eMusic’s $3-4 and Amazon’s $8.99. $6.50 is a price I feel comfortable paying for a set of mp3 files.

The New York Times’ Eduardo Porter looked at the phenomena of why people like me felt compelled to pay for something they could have had for free in an editorial published last weekend. His conclusion, was that people were engaging in a behavior still not quite understood by sociologists and economists, namely tipping.

One could argue that rationality isn’t everything. Radiohead fans might just be altruistic beings who out of the goodness of their hearts would like to give some money to a spectacularly successful and probably stinking rich rock band. But somehow, that doesn’t work as an explanation.

Or does it? Some economists suspect that what is going on is that people get a kick from the act of giving the band money for the album rather than taking it for free. It could take many forms, like pleasure at being able to bypass the record labels, which many see as only slightly worse than the military-industrial complex. It could come from the notion that the $8 helps keep Radiohead in business. Or it could make fans feel that they are helping create a new art form — or a new economy. People who study philanthropy call it the “warm glow” that comes from doing something that we, and others, believe to be good.

And do you know what? It did feel good to know that the money I was providing for In Rainbows was going directly to Radiohead.

And on the Ninth Day, The Internet People Were In an Uproar

Radiohead’s In Rainbows experiment wasn’t without its missteps. The first buzzkill came via an email sent to those who ordered In Rainbows on October 9th offering details behind the download. The 10 mp3s for In Rainbows would be encoded at 160 kpbs. Without getting into too much detail, 160 places the quality of these mp3s in the mid-range. Internet people on messageboards expressed outrage. Their pirated music was always encoded at 192 or higher.

How much do these kilobytes matter? It’s hard to say. Experts on the subject contend that most listeners cannot hear any perceptible difference between mp3s encoded at 192 and those encoded at higher bit rates. In Rainbows was slightly below that level. Personally, I can hear the difference between 128 and higher bit rates. Yet, should this bit rate be a show stopper?

There are other things that can make digital music sound crisper besides bit rates, and if you’re serious about sound, then you should have already done these things. If you’re listening on an mp3 player, upgrade your ear buds. Go for the mid range buds and you’ll hear marked improvement, or if your willing to splurge, I can attest that once you overcome the sticker shock of high end ear buds from someone like Bose, the improvement in sound quality will be even greater. Similarly, if your pc or laptop is the center of your home sound system, upgrade your sound card. A recent purchase of mine was the xMod by Creative. It’s an external sound card that advertises the ability to uncompress compressed sound back to cd quality. I’m not sure it works as well as it claims, however, I do find it significantly improved the sound of my digital music library.

If I had paid more than $10 for In Rainbows, perhaps I would have been a little upset. Still, it struck me a little bit odd that people would be complaining even before they had a chance to hear the finished product. Perhaps, it shouldn’t have surprised me. Although many believe this type of complaining is unique to the internet age, it really has been around as long as humans have existed. Let me share a little know fact to illustrate my point. Soon after early man had discovered fire and moved fire into his early man cave, one member of early man’s tribe was too hot, and the other was too cold. See, as humans we’ve complained as long as we’ve lived.

Continue to Part 2: Radiohead morning, management missteps, and reading the early numbers.