The music industry really is turning completely bonkers. First, Radiohead sell an entire album for whatever people fancy paying, from UK£0.00 to UK£99.99 (US$200). Then it turned out that fifteen people actually paid UK£99.99 to download the aforementioned In Rainbows (though it is safe to assume that a lot more paid zilch). Now Radiohead are separately selling bits of one song, with each bit selling for a decidedly fixed price. And the song, called Nude, is one they already sold on the very same In Rainbows. The proper parlance is “stems” rather than bits, though given you buy them as downloads from iTunes, then maybe bits is right after all. The band even calls them “bits” on the website. There are five bits on sale: bass, voice, guitar, strings/fx and drums. The idea is that fans, or more probably wannabe Mark Ronsons, can remix the track, upload their version to Radiohead’s dedicated site, and people can vote for which they like most. This being internet voting, people can also cut and paste a widget to their own website, Facebook or MySpace page that will let their friends merrily click away and add to their votes.
Writing the first half of this blog was easy enough. The first half is just the facts. Here comes the tricky second half: the commentary. What are we supposed to make of this? Is it the democratization of music, or super-slick commercial exploitation? Radiohead held out for a long time before allowing their music to be sold on Apple’s iTunes, but now they are selling one song for the price of five. Each stem costs the same as a typical single, meaning that Radiohead can expect to make five times what they usually make from selling a single. I say five times, but that could be six times because the individual stems may be bought as a bundle with the integrated song, making six tracks in total. Given the price per track remains the standard US$0.99 (UK£0.49) on one side of the Atlantic, and is UK£0.79 (US$1.60) on the other, it is hardly like they are striking a blow for fair treatment of customers either. The promotion also insists that lots of different software can be used to remix the tracks, but the customer is very deliberately pushed towards using Apple’s GarageBand software. With a deal like that, you could almost imagine that Radiohead have become Apple’s house band. Of course, the widget on people’s webpages, the publicity in the traditional media resulting from the novelty of the offer, and the publicity that stems from friends recommending their own remixes to other friends, will all help to boost sales of the single… But this is still a song that people could have got for free if they downloaded the album and decided to pay nothing. For that reason, maybe it is too harsh to judge this as utterly cynical by Radiohead. However, this is certainly not an act of charity or intended to bring music to the masses. That much is made very clear by this message, which was certainly not in the fine print:
(If you wish to commercially exploit [the stems] you’d need permission from us. You don’t have any legal ownership of this music simply by cutting it up or whatever.)
Hmmm. Radiohead also say they “will listen to the best remixes” which must be an impossible promise to keep unless they intend to listen to all of them or they know which are best before listening to them. Maybe the impossibility of that promise sums up what is going on here. There appears to be some thought processes behind this innovation, but nobody can be sure what they are or if they ever reached a conclusion. If you thought Radiohead had an agenda for the future of music, you may be sorely disappointed. There are some piecemeal ideas, but like the song, they could benefit from being rearranged.