Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What do you do for money honey

So far this year it seems like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are in some sort of contest to see who can eliminate the most barriers between the band and their fans.

Much has been made of Radiohead’s release of In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-wish digital download. Then came their release of “Nude” as a single, with the song’s stems available for fan remixing and sharing via the a band-backed website. Radiohead also invited fans to create videos for any of the In Rainbows tracks as part of a contest.

Similarly, Nine Inch Nails released Ghosts I-IV back in February as a direct download with a free option and, like Radiohead, Trent Reznor launched a contest for fan-created videos. About a month ago, NIN released a new album, The Slip, via the band’s website, offered at no charge (with CD and vinyl formats to follow in July). There’s also this friendly little note (at right) on the site. How much more open can you get? (You can check out the remix site here.)

Though Prince gave away CDs of his latest album, the specifics of his deal suggest he’s more focused on the financial bottom line than connecting with fans in any new and meaningful way. (And as some music writers have noted, fans were actually eagerly awaiting the Radiohead and NIN releases.) Plus Prince deserves an asterisk for his role in the “‘Creep’ at Coachella" imbroglio.

Although some have said a successful free or pay-what-you-wish distribution model requires a large and dedicated fan base, the news on the street is that the new GirlTalk album will be released along the same lines as In Rainbows. So that theory will get tested.

Then there’s the news that Metallica may be considering some form of free digital download for their next album. I’ll believe this when I see it. No one’s forgotten the band’s fan-skewering Napster debacle of 2000 and it’s interesting to see the public’s reaction to this news. It’s almost like they see Radiohead et al. as members of an elite group that Metallica doesn’t deserve to join.

Perhaps reinforcing the idea that Metallica doesn’t get it, the band recently previewed some of their new songs to select music journalists in London but when those writers posted articles about what they’d heard, the band demanded the articles be taken down. As the article states, “Metallica held a listening party for music reviewers and was surprised when some of them wrote reviews? That has to be a public relations first.”

And at the Luddite end of the spectrum, Wired reported yesterday that AC/DC is completing a deal to distribute its new album in CD-only format and exclusively at Wal-Mart locations (a similar model was employed by the Eagles in 2006).

Stepping back from all this, it’s interesting to think of the kinds of music each of these artists make and also the way they get that music to their fans. The artists who do more to challenge the limits of popular music itself also seem to do more to challenge the old music distribution model.

Or so it seems.

Perhaps it’s all about aligning with consumer behavior. Compared to AC/DC fans, surely the diehard Radiohead fan is more technology savvy, more likely to use Firefox, more likely to have a Flickr account. If that’s true, then the old distribution model is outmoded for the Radiohead fan.

Or maybe it’s some amazing alignment of both factors. Maybe AC/DC has about as much interest in offering a pay-what-you-wish digital download of their new album as the typical AC/DC fan does in tweeting, blogging, or getting the band’s music off some website.

Maybe the band and its fans are simply in perfect accord.

Wouldn’t that be sweet?

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