Friday, October 12, 2007

Musical Hezbollah - Radiohead's 'House Of Cards'

Revolutions often take a long time to really get rolling, and sometimes longer to prevail. More often, they get squashed and leave nothing more than a greasy spot behind on concrete. Like Jim Morrison boiled it down in his song Five to One, "they've got the guns, but we got the numbers." True. But those guns are always a real big problem.

Back in the early '90s, a music industry veteran and I were jawing about how computer technology was sure to doom the recording labels. All you had to do was park songs by every band from every where on servers, sell them for 25 cents a piece, let people download them, and give the band 2/3rds of the money. Simple. You'd kill the industry's inequities, its control over artists. No doubt it's fortunate that we didn't run off and start up a company based on that idea, as we would've (at minimum) spent a lot of time dodging dive-bombing lawyers and corporate cruise missiles. As the industry in question has convincingly demonstrated, amongst other things by suing senior citizens whose grandkids downloaded a movie while visiting the house on Thanksgiving, or slamming college kids into jail for peer-to-peer file-shares over their school's computers, it just doesn't. Want. To be. Killed.

The labels also refuse to change their business model, which tells me how much of a killing the people who run record labels must've grown accustomed to, must still be making. (If bands have a smash hit with their first album, they don't make any money.) Apparently by preference, they're bleeding like wounded Godzillas in black-and-white movies, tottering around smoking landscapes, breathing fire and lashing out with huge tails to crush people under buildings and toy cars, roaring the inarticulate rages of terrible lizards. For 15 years, with news of the RIAA going after thousands of defenseless music lovers and quite literally ruining their lives, I've been yelling, "Die, you dumb-ass dinosaurs, die!" And's happening.

The popular Brit band Radiohead announced this month that they're leaving their label, as in, they're not going to have one. They just put up their new album, In Rainbows, on Here's how it works: you go there, download it in MP3 format, and pay them what you feel like they deserve. Seems like they trust their fans more than they do their business managers. Hmm. Managers can still dismiss the move as crazy, because Radiohead, being a band, is a bunch of pie-eyed anarchists, who even published the virulently anti-American political album Hail to the Thief in 2004. In Rainbows sold 1.2 million copies on the first day of its release, and that might be a little worrisome, but they're thinking it's sure to slow down, and anyway, pay-as-you-wish (PAYW) is a laughable, unpredictable business model. Not serious.

Then Nine Inch Nails announced on Monday it was going with the PAYW model. Then Oasis. Then Jamiroquai. And yesterday, Madonna left her label to take a $120 million contract with a concert promoter, Live Nation, for a three-record deal. Live Nation has never distributed a record before. There are those who say this isn't the death knell of the record labels, that bands still need to be fronted lots of money for equipment, tours, and promotion, and that labels do add a lot of value. These are all status quo positions, and ignore that music is entering a Web 3.0 phase, wherein tools + users + audiences + promotion are all relationships under the direct control of the artists, and they're all web-mediated.

If it's not the death knell of record labels, then they're going to have to immediately remove their heads from their gluteal cleavage and wrap them around a multiverse which looks increasingly chaotic. For music, top-notch production costs a fraction of what it used to, a band's MySpace page adds a lot of promotional value for zero cost, and there's now room for many different price and distribution models. A Rolling Stone writer can get an interview by sending an email. The likely common denominator is that bands will have to build audiences by playing in front of people, feeding performances back onto the web, and relying on word of mouth. How frightening!

By the way, In Rainbows is going to be Album of the Year. And one of my favorite bands, stuck down in the skinny part of statistical distribution's Long Tail, the appropriately titled Slender Means, is playing at the Tractor Tavern tomorrow night in Ballard.

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