Missing the Point? Thoughts on Radiohead Album Downloads Being Called a Failure

There's another bit of news in the past few days (maybe weeks) from the band that has stirred up everything in the music industry: Radiohead. After being heralded for their innovative technique of getting their music into the hands of the listeners... by letting people choose the price of the download... some sources are now reporting that the venture was a failure because an estimated 62% of people who downloaded the album chose to pay nothing for it. The band however states that those figures are inaccurate and furthermore don't reflect the true success of the project in the first place.

There was a bit of media uproar about these album estimates, inaccuracy and everything, as I read stories about this in at least four major music publications and a number of smaller ones. Some people called these numbers a sign of failure while others called them "impressive". To be honest I think a lot of people are simply missing the point about this project and the band's statement actually supports that fact, but at the same time it reveals something interesting about the state of the industry and society as a whole.

Lets address the data inaccuracies and the faults I see in calling this venture a failure from this data alone. First, there is sample size and the fact that it was an outside company that made the estimates. Any person who has some grasp of marketing can tell you that data can tell very different stories depending on the sample size used. When the album was first release, I read some claims that stated an even higher percentage paid under retail value, but their sample size was only a few thousand people. Is that representative of the entire population of people who downloaded the album? Something tells me it's not. Second, there's also the fact that the album was only available from the band's website. The estimates were made by an outside company... what do they know. Overall, I think things do point to some inaccuracies in the data and no one should be drawing any conclusions just yet.

We should also consider what the band's real intentions for this album were before considering whether it has achieved it's goal. With an artistic band like Radiohead who took great risks of alienating their audience when pursuing new creative directions, I find it hard to believe that they were really releasing this album just to make money. I may be jaded because I'm a fan of the band, but still. Instead, I think the main goal was just to get their music to their fans so that they can enjoy it and the financial gain was just a secondary motivation. In that way, they've been a resounding success as support for the album has been huge so far.

Personally, I think some people are missing the point as to what a band is all about. Sure it's a job etc, but it's primarily about making music not money, or at least it should be. The success of a any marketing or business model for a band should primarily be how well it gets the music out to the audience. Yes, there are financial concerns as the band still has to eat and should be paid for their product, but that shouldn't be it's primary measure of success.

If you really want to look at it from purely a financial perspective though, lets assume that the data is accurate and that the band really was only looking for a pay check. I still don't think you can call this effort a failure. The total earnings from the remaining 38% of downloads were still well over a million dollars with high numbers over a couple of million dollars (I've seen as high as 5 million). You add in the fact that the majority of that actually goes to the band as opposed to when contracted through a record label and there's no doubt that they easily made a pretty good chunk of change... AND that doesn't include revenue from the $80 disk box set or money that will come in when the album is actually released to music store shelves. All of that seems pretty successful financially to me and many media outlets have picked up on that, while others seem a little to quick to condemn this technique for no reason.

I always thought that a good majority of a band's income comes from touring, with only really big name artists with high priced contract agreements earn millions of dollars from album sales. If you gage success by drumming up interest to see the band in concert, I think you can also call this effort a success, but we won't know for sure until the numbers from their tour come in. I can't imagine a great album available for free actually reducing concert attendance though. I could be wrong about bands making their money from touring, but because of merchandise costs and ticket sales being so high, I would think there would still be an overall increase in tour revenue even if the album was released for free.

In the end, I think whether or not this venture has truly been successful from a financial perspective. I think we can say that it has been a rousing success in stirring up the music industry and demonstrating that change is coming. I think only a few major concert announcements have garnered more media attention than this album release and other topics relating to it. I've seen multiple stories in just about every major music publication around. This is really telling us something about the music industry and it is that, as so many have predicted, change is coming. Some people are all for Radiohead's efforts seeming to indicate that they're welcoming the change, hoping it will succeed and usher in a new business model for bands. Others seem all for condemning it, almost wishing it would fail, perhaps in an effort to prove that we need to revamp the old "record label" model to really have bands be successful... like they're a little scared of the change that is coming maybe?

I think whether Radiohead's approach to album sales is really successful will be determined by what future bands choose to do. How will the band's that are forming right now choose to distribute their music... that will really tell the tale.

Oh well... I'm sure there will be plenty of coverage for this story as more and more data comes in, which means we'll all have plenty of time to think about it (or rant about it as this post was more of a rant) later.

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