Unfortunately, Radiohead Is New At This Whole Distribution Thing.

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As I mentioned a few days ago, Radiohead is selling their new album at a “name your own” price, bypassing the labels for initial distribution. I thought this was an important step for a major band to take, and though details on the download files were non-existent I paid $7 for the album. I did so because I thought Radiohead would get it right. In my own words:

“There are no details about Radiohead’s album files except a track list. Is there album art? Is it DRM-free? What encoding method? What bit rate? Beats me. For all I know I’m getting 128K WMA files with Microsoft DRM!! Of course, I’m assuming that’s not the case, and these will be high-quality DRM-free files. I trust Radiohead to do this right.“

Well, I learned my lesson. My first hint was when the email I received (above) about the album download was in ALL CAPS. I don’t mean to start a grammar or style flame but, geez, ALL CAPS? It’s 2007, people. This isn’t about style so much as the lack of it, and what that could portend for the album download, which I found out soon enough:

“THE ALBUM WILL COME AS A 48.4MB ZIP FILE CONTAINING 10 X 160KBPS DRM FREE MP3s.”

Oh for Pete’s sake! Sure, they’re DRM-free (I couldn’t imagine they wouldn’t be), but 160K? Seriously. Apple and Amazon have DRM-free music at 256K, and eMusic’s is LAME-encoded VBR 192K, which isn’t bad. But 160K? That’s weak. Very weak. I can’t think of a reason to do this except the band went cheap on bandwidth and/or server space and needed them as small as possible.

A 160K MP3 is maybe equal (though larger) to the 128K AAC files Apple sells with DRM. Obviously, lots of people find that quality “good enough” or iTunes wouldn’t be so popular. But there’s enough reason for better quality that eMusic has always provided something superior, and Apple and Amazon raised the stakes even further with their DRM-free tunes. So Radiohead just took a huge step backwards!

And it gets even worse. I received the followup email with the download code. The good news is I got great throughput and downloaded the album in less than a minute. The bad news? Well, the MP3 encoder used is “unknown”, and they didn’t use VBR so the files are larger than they need to be with less quality. It’s bad enough they used 160K, but they couldn’t even use VBR to get the most out of it? There’s no genre specified on the files. Further, there’s no album artwork. Are you kidding me? You couldn’t spring for a picture of the album cover? Finally, there’s no PDF or other kind of file with liner notes.

I think Radiohead had a great opportunity here and blew it big time. I think so because this was a well-publicized move under scrutiny by observers in and out of the industry. Radiohead was essentially setting precedent for future offerings by other acts. Like it or not, they were showing what a band could do without a label. Apparently, that’s nothing more than what was being done on Napster in ’98. I mean, this felt like a P2P download from 10 years ago. Way to turn back the clock, guys.

They were in a position to set the standard, and could have made it a great one. They should have aimed high, but instead aimed lower than a gopher’s basement. If other acts simply equal their effort it’ll result in albums many people won’t want to buy. I know I won’t. This is disappointing to me, and it wouldn’t surprise me if the labels get a chuckle out of it.

So, to the next major band to bypass the labels and sell their album themselves: Please do it better than Radiohead. Much, much better. Are you listening, Trent?

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