So, In Rainbows comes out tonight. You might have heard or read about it.
This release will clearly be watched closely by those interested in the moribund business of music and how it just might become evolved instead of exctinct. In this particular experiment, the hypothesis under test is this: can bagel-man economics really work in the mass market? (Indeed, Levitt and Dubner are curious too.) Very, very exciting times.
But that’s not what I want to discuss at the moment. I’d like to proffer the following: This will be the most simultaneously-experienced music release in history.
Assuming their server holds up, millions (seriously, millions) of listeners—comprising diehard fans as well as the merely curious—will be experiencing In Rainbows at the same time. This shared-experience aspect to a major album release is nothing new, and I’ve bought a handful of albums on opening day (or at midnight the night before, in a couple of cases) myself. What makes this different is the scale, along three axes:
- Space. This album will be available everywhere, not just at your neighborhood $18-a-hit corner dealer.
- Time. No waiting for stores to open in your timezone; the Radioheadspace will be simultaneous around the globe.
- Cost. I buy (and therefore get to listen to) about 5% of the music I’m really interested in because I have to budget my luxuries. Even more so for college and high school students, the most ravenous consumers of popular music. They will all be able to afford this album.
I get the impression that, more than anything, bands are looking to connect more directly with their (current and future) fans, and to do so, they are seeking ways to become label-independent. There may or may not be a financial motive; it’s impossible to say whether, absent a middleman, artists will see more or less revenue from album sales, especially if you’re just holding out the donation box. But because the real money is in touring, and only fans go to shows, any investment—even a loss-leader, such as simply giving an album away (e.g., Prince)—in eventual ticket sales is a smart one.
But here I am getting back into economics (a favorite armchair science of many). I think the real reason to open a new socket to listeners—and the reason this cheap-as-free download phenomenon (see also: news from NIN) isn’t just a gimmick or a fad—is that they will start listening again.
All at once, in this case.