Dear Radiohead: How Does It Feel To Out-Label The Labels?

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I’ve written about Radiohead’s latest album twice. First, like many people I thought distributing it themselves was a great move, and even bought the album, though I felt only a popular band like a Radiohead could pull this off.

After a few days, some of the luster came off as it became known the band was going to use a major label to distribute its CD. Oh well, it didn’t change the fact that the band was handling online distribution themselves, and that this could set a precedent for other acts to follow.

But disappointment set in when the download became available. It was low quality, with no artwork, liner notes, etc. I wrote about it, claiming that Radiohead had blown a golden opportunity to demonstrate how this could be done right. I assumed they didn’t take the opportunity simply because they were lazy, cheap, or ignorant.

Now, I believe they were deceiving us from the beginning, and in a manner the labels would be proud of. For anyone who thought all the greed, stupidity, contempt for consumers, and old ways of thinking in the music industry were limited to just the label execs, this is a major eye-opener.

So what’s the story? First, let’s consider Radiohead’s “excuse” for supplying low-quality files of their album in the first place. According to an article in the L.A. Times:

“Band member Jonny Greenwood told Rolling Stone’s Rock&RollDaily blog that it was a deliberate choice to sacrifice sound quality: “We just wanted to make it a bit better than iTunes, which it is, so that’s kind of good enough, really. It’s never going to be CD quality, because that’s what CD does.””

Music on iTunes is 128K AAC; Radiohead supplied 160K MP3. The former is easily as good as the latter and, because it’s much smaller, superior. Heck, the band didn’t even try to maximize the potential of 160K via VBR encoding.

As for a file never being “CD quality”, I have one word for you: lossless. There are plenty of high-quality options between what was provided and a CD. They made no attempt to use any of them. On my non-portable stereo, the difference between low- and high-quality files is frequently apparent. Using sound quality as an excuse is pretty weak anyway; it certainly doesn’t explain the lack of artwork or liner notes. It’s doubtful that ultimate sound quality was behind this decision, there must be something else…

Now, let’s also consider that the band has pretty much written off the whole music download thing as a “trial” people use until they buy the CD. Huh? How freakin’ tightly do you have to shut your eyes not to see that this is all wrong? The L.A. Times article nails it:

“[Radiohead assumed] People download just to try out albums before buying them on CD. That might have been true five years ago, but it certainly isn’t the case now. Millions of music fans buy CDs for no reason other than to convert them to files on their computers that they can burn onto mix discs or load onto portable players. For them, the download is the album.”

So, with sound quality as a dubious excuse, and with Radiohead’s belief that the CD rules all — a belief confirmed by them not selling individual songs, only albums — what exactly were they up to with the album download?

Now we know. It was “bait and switch” all along. As “bait”, offer an album online and appear to be sticking it to the labels. Provide no details in the hope that many people would trust that they’d do it right. Take whatever money they can get (average payment was $8), and then provide an absolute minimal version of the album, which leads to the “switch”…

Offer a CD later with not only better sound quality, artwork, and liner notes, but also “bonus” tracks! Yep, the scuttlebutt is that those who downloaded the album not only got low quality, but didn’t even get the whole album!

It’s Radiohead’s business if they want to provide “bonus” tracks, but the fact that it was yet another detail not revealed about the download makes it deceptive. It appears the labels’ legacy of greed and contempt for the user has rubbed off on older acts. The labels’ ignorance of how people currently consume music seems to have rubbed off on them as well. They believe people will buy a download, then gladly buy it again as a CD. Wow. These guys could sit down to dinner with the label heads and have nothing to argue about!

What bothers me most is that Radiohead was praised at the announcement of the online album distribution, but in many cases is still getting such praise. Too many writers are like Information Week’s Alexander Wolfe, and not staying current. They pick up the original story and run it using the angle that the labels will be harmed, an angle obviously untrue since Radiohead’s in bed with their label. All this publicity will be a huge boon to CD sales, a fact you can bet is no coincidence.

I don’t mind that Radiohead is wrong and stuck in a time warp; they can wallow in their ignorance of online digital music for the rest of their lives for all I care. However, I do mind getting duped, and it’s hard to look at this in any other way. They didn’t promise anything, but there was most certainly an implication. Over a million people downloaded the album, and it wasn’t because they thought it was “In Rainbows Light”. Radiohead knew this, why else avoid stating such details up front?

Let’s face it, if a label had done this — instead of a popular band — there would be howls of protest and claims that it was a scam. We get played for suckers while Radiohead pockets the cash for supplying a minimal product that you’ll have to buy again if you want the “real thing”. This might have come right from the labels’ own play book.

Congratulations, guys. You deceived your customers in a manner that would make even Universal Music proud. There’s no way the labels could squirm out from under this with any amount of spin, but unfortunately you might be able to.

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2 thoughts on “Dear Radiohead: How Does It Feel To Out-Label The Labels?

  1. This is very disappointing to read. There is so much potential in what they were doing. Yet, maybe knowing that this is a workable model is enough, and maybe it will be done more effectively down the line. I wonder what the numbers would have looked like if they’d offered everything upfront? I suspect they wouldn’t be too different.

    Cheers for the post, Tom.

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