Trent Reznor Calls Radiohead Out on Their Online Album Distribution.

I’ve written a couple of times about my disappointment with Radiohead’s online distribution of their latest album (In Rainbows).

Initially, I thought that they were just naive and had blown a great opportunity. But I soon found out they knew exactly what they were doing, and were just as bad as the labels in their treatment of those who prefer to download albums instead of buying CDs.

It’s nice to see at least one artist in the business agrees.

While being interviewed by Australian Broadcasting, Nine Inc Nail‘s Trent Reznor had this to say:

“I think the way [Radiohead] parlayed it into a marketing gimmick has certainly been shrewd, but if you look at what they did, though, it was very much a bait and switch to get you to pay for a MySpace-quality stream as a way to promote a very traditional record sale.”

Bingo! And as the article states:

Reznor is referring to Radiohead’s release of “In Rainbows” as lossy 160kbps (max) MP3 downloads, which many would argue are sub-par when compared to DRM-free offerings from Amazon and iTunes Store (both of which offer 256kbps DRM-free music).

“There’s nothing wrong with that,” Reznor continued, “but I don’t see that as a big revolution [that] they’re kinda getting credit for.” In addition to the quality of Radiohead’s MP3s, NIN’s frontman also took issue with the band’s omission of artwork and altogether not taking care of the fans. “To me that feels insincere. It relies upon the fact that it was quote-unquote ‘first,’ and it takes the headlines with it.”

This is exactly what I was saying — right down to the lack of artwork — though Trent sums it up better in hindsight.

Meanwhile, Trent did online distribution right. Look at how he handled distribution of the NIN’s album Ghosts I-IV:

There is no way to pirate this item; faced with the inevitability of listeners stealing it, the entire album has been uploaded to The Piratebay. In addition, the first 9 tracks are available for free to sample before you take the plunge and have been uploaded to Piratebay as well. For those looking to purchase the album, it will run you $5 for a digital download in any format you wish, including FLAC, Apple Lossless, and MP3. Of course you can purchase a CD as well, alongside a deluxe $75 and now sold out $300 limited edition package.

The free Piratebay tracks are better quality than the Radiohead album people paid for. And for just a fiver you get your choice of the best digital download formats available. Yes, a traditional CD is also available (as it should be) as well as deluxe packages, but unlike Radiohead’s offering the online options won’t be going away anytime soon.

You know what makes me feel best about this? In my initial Radiohead article, when I thought they were just being naive, I concluded with this sentence:

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?

Of course Trent doesn’t read my blog, but clearly he was “listening” nonetheless. Good for you, Trent. And thank you.

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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.

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?

So Many Tech Headlines, So Little Time.

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Here’s some reading for the weekend with a few of my comments.

Bill Gates: Music genius.

The New York Times seems to think Bill knows what he’s doing re: Online Music. My favorite is this quote from Bill at the conclusion:

““People are going to listen to a lot more music because it’s going to be easy to find neat new exciting music, its going to be easy to have your music with you, in the car, when you’re running,” he said. “It seems like there ought to be a way to translate that into an opportunity.””

Easy to find? You mean like via a one-stop shopping online store with music, movies, TV shows, free podcasts, and more? Listen to it when you’re in the car or running? You mean like if you could easily burn a CD for the car, or have a player that clipped to your running outfit? Hmm, yes, Bill, you’re so visionary only you can see that that could be translated into an opportunity.

Retire, Bill. Now. Seriously, you’ve been looking awfully foolish lately.

A new Zune requires new management.

Now that the Zune 2 is here, Microsoft can get down to what they do best: Bureaucracy. They hired another exec to toss at the problem. Remember, you can never have too many managers. Heh.

The secret behind why WGA was removed from IE7.

I’m glad we have Mary Jo Foley to question this, otherwise all us gullible morons would just assume MS told the truth when the IE 7 team says it’s because of this:

““Because Microsoft takes its commitment to help protect the entire Windows ecosystem seriously, we’re updating the IE7 installation experience to make it available as broadly as possible to all Windows users””

But Mary actually wonders if maybe there is another motive. Firefox is digging into IE, and perhaps Safari could gain ground as it improves in beta. So to Hell with WGA, we just want as many people to download IE and use it. We’re all about numbers; always have been, always will be.

What’s most amazing about this, and the little secret nobody will talk about, is that it’s absolute proof — if any were needed — that WGA has never been a GA to anybody but Microsoft.

Time Warner to Universal: Oh yeah? Well, we can stick our heads up our asses even further than you!

Can you believe another label is setting up yet another online store? No, I don’t mean one that’s been successful like iTunes. And no, I don’t mean one that’s DRM-free like eMusic. And no, I don’t mean one that’s a major new force (and going to be successful) like Amazon. Instead, I mean one that has everything that makes a music store fail:

  • DRM? check
  • Microsoft WMA files? check
  • Won’t work with iPods? check
  • Only half the songs of iTunes? check
  • Build a new PC client player from scratch? check
  • PC only? check
  • Subscription service? check

Holy shit! This is absolutely unbelievable to me. How freakin’ stupid do you have to be? Where has TW been that last few years? This boggles the mind. Universal, I take back everything I said about you (I’ll just say it again later anyway), TW has got to be even dumber than you are. Amazing.

Thurrott again.

Didn’t want to spend a lot of time on this one since Thurrott is piggybacking on an article that itself is overreaching in its attempts to be “fair” about eight reasons why Windows users don’t switch to Macs. Still, Paul takes the nauseating and makes it worse.

For example, price is listed as one reason, and Thurrott drools all over it:

“Well. Actually, the truth remains: Macs are more expensive than PCs, they still are. Yes, Macs are often comparably priced to similar PCs. The problem is that PCs come in many, many more price points, and unlike with Apple, PC users are used to choosing exactly what they want and getting it. “

And yet, when it comes to MP3 players Paul says that you can only look at comparable devices. So what have we learned? As a shill, when it suits Microsoft you compare everything, when it doesn’t suit Microsoft you narrow the parameters at least until you can claim the #2 spot.

Number 5 (lies) and 6 (Windows bashing) and 8 (Mac users) in the list bother me even from the original author but Thurrott, as usual, piles on:

“This is, quite possibly, the biggest problem facing the Mac community. You may not realize how serious this is. But consider this:

Mac fanatics are like Detroit car lobbyists. They’ve spent decades doing nothing but propping up the Mothership, all for what they think is a good cause, but all they’ve really done is harmed the thing they love so much. People understand quality, and that’s why so many are swayed by Apple’s products. People also understand bullying, and that’s why so many ignore Apple’s products.”

Paul, Microsoft INVENTED bullying. Regarding lies, isn’t your leader Bill Gates quoted as saying Vista was the first OS with parental controls, and that every day the Mac OS is hacked? Every day! Didn’t Balmer claim the iPhone was the most expensive phone ever? Doesn’t Microsoft claim shipped units as sold? Didn’t the IE7 team just claim they removed WGA to “protect the entire Windows ecosystem” (see above, and do try to keep up)?

The fact that marketing people “lie” is a given everywhere. That somehow Apple has done more of this, or been more egregious about it, is such horse shit I wonder if you have to wash yourself after you type this garbage.

Microsoft’s sins are not just on paper. They’ve been dragged into more LEGITIMATE court cases (not the BS type that they and Apple have to suffer through) and have SETTLED more times than anyone cares to count. Did you read ANYTHING out of the Iowa antitrust case? And wasn’t Microsoft just busted big time by the EU?

As for bashing, go to the comp.sys.mac.advocacy usenet news group to see what your precious sainted MS community has to say and how they act, Paul. Heck, just go to Digg. As Microsoft is fond of pointing out, they outnumber the Apple supporters by 9 to 1. They make Apple “zealots” look like kids at Sunday school, and have for 20 years!

Oh, and don’t forget this FACT: The vast majority of Apple supporters have experience with Windows (as Microsoft is also fond of pointing out, most people have to use it at work). Meanwhile, what the vast majority of Microsoft zealots know about Apple and Mac OS X would fit under a gnat’s armpit.

Any blogger attempting to be “fair” and somehow equating Apple’s sins with Microsoft’s, or Apple’s supporters with Microsoft’s, is either trying way too hard to get in the “big boys'” sandbox, or has a disgustingly short memory, or is too young to be writing about it with any authority. Paul saves his “best” for last:

“while Apple’s fanatics might have been desirable or even necessary during the rebuilding years, now they’re just dead weight. Good riddance, I say.”

Screw you, Paul. I love the way you bash people in a post that includes a lecture on bashing people. Jerk. Your livelihood is crumbling around you. The only dead weight is on the back of your old ideas about technology and the supporting business models. It’s to those ideas you should be bidding “good riddance”.

Radiohead’s stance must be honored; Jobs is an ass who doesn’t care.

I like the Rough Type site, but in this piece I think Carr is way off the mark.

Basically he says that since Radiohead won’t allow singles to be sold (only albums) they can’t be on iTunes. This is true, and it’s a choice made by them and Jobs. Jobs wants singles (rightfully so, album buyers like me are a dying breed; people want singles).

I haven’t seen Radiohead badmouth Apple or iTunes about this, and I haven’t seen Jobs or Apple badmouth Radiohead, so what’s the big deal? Agree to disagree, and all that. They both have stances and stick to them. Seems OK to me.At first Carr even seems to agree with this:

“You can applaud Radiohead’s lonely stance, or you can, as Crunchgear recently did, dismiss the band as “a bunch of crybabies.” … And you have to admit that Radiohead’s motivation in protecting what it sees as the integrity of its works is no different from Jobs’s motivation in protecting what he sees as the integrity of his products.”

Exactly. A sound statement and, as I said, agree to disagree. Crunchgear is wrong. But then Carr says this:

“Jobs’s lack of concern for the desire of Radiohead, and other artists, to control how people experience their creations undermines his attack on the people who would alter the iPhone to serve their own purposes.”

WTF? How the heck did we get from Radiohead and Jobs both protecting the integrity of their works/products to Jobs suddenly having no concern for Radiohead and other artists? And, oh yeah, Carr throws in the iPhone from left field ’cause it’s all the rage these days.

That’s nuts and, frankly, the one paragraph simply does not logically lead to the other.

I like Radiohead and have no issue with them not wanting to sell singles. I don’t agree with it because I believe it’s outdated thinking. And the fact is no artist can ever tell me how to enjoy their art. Ever. But I appreciate both sides stuck to what they believe, and really don’t see how either can be “wrong”. But Carr apparently believes one must be “wrong”, and that it’s Jobs. Nonsense.

As for throwing in the iPhone, well, why not? Apparently every blogger was contractually obligated to post a scathing “we want third-party apps” and/or “Apple is evil and mean to developers” piece on the iPhone this week.

Well, except me, I’m non-union. 🙂

Radiohead And Their New Album: Do Not Try This At Home.

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So Radiohead is eschewing the labels for their new album, and they’re distributing it themselves as well. An interesting move they should be able to pull off (curious if issues will occur on 10/10 when everybody tries to download it).

As a Radiohead fan I’ve pre-ordered the album. The idea that you can just pay what you want is intriguing. They can do this because they’re popular, and are also selling a box set for over $80 US that will net them a tidy profit. I expect most people will kick in some money on the download album anyway. For the curious, I’m paying roughly $7 (depending on exchange rate); I believe nine or ten dollars for an online album is too much.

Anyway, I’m not posting to mention my music choices, but rather to comment about some that apparently feel this is how other bands should push their music. For example, MacUser’s Derik DeLong writes:

“I can see bands selling their music DRM free on their own websites becoming a really compelling new business model.”

Um, no. If there are any bands sitting at home considering what Radiohead is doing, unless your name is The Beatles, or Led Zeppelin, or something similar, don’t.

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.

But do I want to negotiate a separate web site, and would I trust, most bands? For bands I’ve only heard a small sample of, how much “risk” do I take? More importantly, how many slow (and ugly) web sites am I willing to navigate and enter address and credit card information? Not many. Your average garage or bar band is not Radiohead.

I think it’s great if a band wants to cut the labels loose, but that’s a separate issue. You can make your own album these days, but when it comes to distribution — unless you’re giving it away — please use eMusic, iTunes, AmazonMP3, or some other easy, secure, cross-platform merchant. Even as much a music lover as I am, there are only so many sites I’m providing sensitive information to in my quest for tunes. If every band wants to have their own, many of them are going to get overlooked.

Don’t people consider logistics and usability before they talk about “compelling” new business models? It may be great for Radiohead, but for acts like Bishop Allen or The Cinematics, I may never have bought their stuff if it wasn’t on sites like eMusic, iTunes, or Amazon.