Radiohead just announced that they will be self-releasing their latest LP, The King of Limbs, via their website this Saturday, just as they famously released In Rainbows. But it was the successful self-release of In Rainbows that showed it was entirely possible to release music, and operate a band, without any record deal at all, and as such I don’t think the news of this album’s self-release really comes as much of a surprise.
After the band’s record deal with EMI was completed in 2003 with Hail to the Thief, Radiohead groundbreakingly decided to self-release In Rainbows via their website, as a “pay what you want” download. And despite the option to pay nothing (except for a negligible processing fee in this case), the band reportedly made $10 million in less than a week of it being online. But most importantly, none of that money goes to record companies, advertisers, distributors or any middle-men whatsoever. It all went straight to the band.
This time around, Radiohead are self-releasing The King of Limbs for £6, which roughly equates to $9.70. Yes, that’s definitely far from free, but I think there’s little doubt many will be willing to pay that much for the album. It may not generate as much buzz as a “pay what you want” system, but the first time was to prove a point— that, as Thom Yorke put it, record companies are a “decaying business model”. This time they mean business.
£6 is almost half the price that you’d expect to pay for the album were it released on a label, or via an online store such as iTunes. But of that £10 or so you’d expect to spend, typically only about 25% will actually make it back to the band, the rest will go to the record company, the online store and other numerous middle-men. So, as well as drastically undercutting the competition, by self-releasing their work Radiohead are potentially making more than double the profit they would have otherwise.
Add to this the fact the band now also have full creative and legal control over their music, at a time when declining record sales mean the big record companies are hedging their bets, and trying to ensure profit by effectively homogenising their releases; and you could easily begin to wonder why anyone signs for record deals anymore.
One could argue that the record companies provide professional promotion, something that isn’t really that important to Radiohead at this point in their career, but definitely is to a less-renowned band or artist. However, what is the main source that you, the reader, use to find the majority of your music? I’d bet eight out of ten of you would answer the internet; most probably on blogs such as this, or social networking services such as Facebook and MySpace. I’d also bet you too have a blog, Facebook or MySpace page— did you need to hire a professional to create that for you?
One could also argue that a traditional record deal will provide professional studios and equipment. But to be honest, these days anyone can save a bit of money and buy Pro-Tools, which is exactly what the recording studios would use themselves. You could even do it for free and download it illegally; which brings me to my next point.
Yorke’s statement that the record industry is decaying can be backed up by any number of sales figures. As an example, the sales of CDs in the US have dropped from $13.2 billion in 2000, to $5.5 billion in 2008, and they continue to fall sharply. There’s no doubt this is due to the rise of the internet, and in particular illegal file sharing. As physical profits fell, online music piracy increased dramatically, and by now up to 95% of downloads are illegal.
The recording industry had many opportunities to embrace the new technology, and use it to their advantage (indeed, right at the beginning Napster offered the major record companies a deal to use the service as a legal online store). But instead they chose to fight it with costly, and largely useless legal battles against file sharing companies. When that turned out to not have the desired effect, they started suing individuals as well, but this just ended up giving many another reason to boycott the industry and continue illegally sharing music. Although the big record companies have recently been making some legitimate efforts modernise, the damage has been done.
Artists now have easy, cost-effective alternatives to the services that big record industries offered as part of record deal, and the fact is that signing to a record deal just isn’t nearly as lucrative or important as it used to be. However, I’m not saying this is the death of the physical album. Although the trend of digital releases is doubtless just going to increase, there is always a market for a hard copy. The King of Limbs will be released in physical form later on in the year, just as In Rainbows ended up being. I’m just saying that it is nowhere near lucrative enough to support the big record companies anymore, and that their struggle to stay afloat in the business is quite possibly just doing damage.
As Radiohead proved with In Rainbows, the record industry is pretty much superfluous by now. The music industry as a whole has barely suffered from file sharing and the decrease in album sales, despite what some high-profile artists such as Lily Allen would have you believe. A majority of artists have simply turned to live performance as their main source of income. And realising that people will download their work regardless, many artists are these days releasing free material online, such as singles, remixes and promotional mixes. But still very few have made the leap to being fully self-released and record label free. Hopefully a successful release of The King of Limbs can convince them of the benefits of doing so, just as the successful release of In Rainbows showed it could be done.