Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Today's question: Why didn't In Rainbows open the music industry floodgates?

Back in 2007, Radiohead exited its record deal with EMI and promptly self-released their new album In Rainbows as a ‘pay what you want’ download. This I know did not escape your attention.

The genius of the strategy was multi-layered. The move generated such a huge wave of PR that the record hardly needed a marketing budget. And ironically, the band themselves avoided the need to do the usual round of publicity appearances and interviews – an established system the band loathed. It made them look forward thinking and brave.

Best of all, the release of In Rainbows demonstrated Radiohead’s complete understanding of today’s music market, efficiently skewering both ends of the polarised demand for music: digital - the get it now, get it cheap (or free) no frills option; while the high-end £40 box-set satisfied the insatiable appetite for quality stuff that still exists amongst die-hard fans and music collectors.

I know you’ve reflected on all of that as well. But how about this – why didn’t Radiohead’s phenomenally successful strategy with In Rainbows catch on with other established bands?
How come the vast majority of major releases by established artists are non-innovative, conventional, publicity-machine driven affairs involving the usual parade of press, radio and TV mainstream slots, maybe with the odd free download, social networking or viral video strategy thrown-in for appearance’s sake.

For example, the world's biggest band U2. U2 hardly needs a leg-up, but the band still blitzed the BBC - the mainstream of mainstream - when it launched their last record. Although the band did exclusive streaming deals prior to release (Spotify in the UK) it was still a conventional release. Ironically, that record sold disappointingly. Maybe a more innovative, devil may care approach might have stoked up more interest? Who knows.

It might look obvious what the explanation is. That U2 and so many other major bands with a global footprint – Coldplay, Kings of Leon etc. – are on major labels, so the release method has to be by numbers. When the machine cranks up, who will try & stop it?

But there’s no reason why the label and the band couldn’t come up with something genuinely different. Coldplay is on EMI, but the ‘Viva campaign’ was impressive at least – and brave too when you consider the revolutionary costume styling – risqué even! But it was still conventional, big budget stuff.

The tipping point then – whereby bands can explore valid go-to-market strategies beyond the press, radio, TV and tour treadmill – is yet to arrive. I guess two things need to happen to tip the current record marketing establishment:
  1. More established bands do an ‘In Rainbows’ (either without, or with, their labels). Coldplay for one seems to be chomping at the bit for the chance to do something that can put them in that kind of light. Next time perhaps.
  2. A platform emerges that somehow democratises promotion – giving many more artists – especially new ones – fairer access to (the equivalent of) mainstream promo slots. Any one of Slice The Pie, Reverb Nation et al. Are attempting to do just that. The problem is that many don’t get beyond early adopter niches, or reach young but ultimately low-purchase audiences.

One small but significant step – announced last week – was the CBS and Last.fm initiative that facilitates Last.fm to programme a number of CBS’s HD radio slots in large US cities. That could lead to some genuinely interesting eclectic daytime radio in the US. This deal was obviously enabled by CBS’s outright ownership of Last.fm but that shouldn’t be a necessity. With Spotify, We7, Yahoo, AOL, Myspace and others (Twitter if we must), we surely have now mass market platforms to rival the old guard media.

Surprising then, how many established artists are not taking these platforms seriously. Is it a lack of belief, a lack of interest? Or is it that the old media platforms are better connected to music buying audiences rather than simply music listening or music-social audiences?

What we really need is more collaborative initiatives between new & old media - that focus on new artists not those we know already. These initiatives need to be new aggregator brands for music – doing what Top Of The Pops or MTV Unplugged did back in the halcyon days.

Why aren’t there more music brands like this today? That’s another question.


Keith Jopling said...

Whoops! with apologies to the last seven commentors, which were all valid and good - I just went and hit REJECT instead of PUBLISH. So sorry! If you wan to re-submit you are more than welcome, but hey, I did read them so thanks.

Anonymous said...

you present a very ill informed view of what's going on, Keith.

To answer your question about In Rainbows. The main reason it didn't work was because over 2.4 million freeloaders decided to download the album illegally. So the arguments that "the music industry is corrupt" or "artists don't get any money from the sale price" were blown out of the water. Not only was there no BIG evil record label involved (the money went directly to the artists)..and NO DRM...fans could even choose their own price!!!

If the 2.4 million freeloaders chose to chip in 2 or 3 quid (less than the price of a pint of beer) instead of downloading it illegally, they could have transformed the music industry overnight.

EVERY record label and band would LOVE to launch EVERY album in the same way In Rainbows was launched.

The fact of the matter is that 90% of the music industry is made up of small to medium enterprises (small record labels trying to get by) and 1% of the artist community are household names. So the other freeloader arguments, such as "the music industry is corrupt" or "bono, puff diddy, coldplay already have too much money" simply don't wash.

Mike Allen said...

The answer is various, depending on circumstance, but here are some of them;
1. Lack of courage to step out of the major label comfort zone. it's not the work of a moment to take on all the global responsiblities of a major label.
2. Being mid-contract and therefore not yet free to go.
3. Concern about losing the old-media routes to a mass market (Radiohead having been in the very fortunate position not to have to rely on old media).

Justin said...

In regards to large, established artists, the reason is simple - record labels know that if everyone did it, revenue would fall dramatically. I'll choose to pay $5 for an album the first time, but by the fourth or fifth, your getting pennies.