Radiohead - In Rainbows
Radiohead – In Rainbows

Over the last 3 weeks, several major artists have parted ways with record labels and their traditional business and marketing strategies in favor of leveraging new-fangled Internet mechanisms for distribution and promotion.

Radiohead announced a week or two back that they would offer their new album “In Rainbows” for digital download, and let their fans pick the price they wanted to pay for it. This is a revolutionary (and maybe crazy) idea, and we’ll need to wait to see how it turns out. As one commenter put it, this “cuts straight to the moral dilemma of downloading,” but it also puts the question squarely on the fans: how much is this music worth to you?

For me, it’s less of a moral dilemma than a simple question. I don’t quibble with the argument that stealing music is wrong, but I do take issue with the cost of music, DRM-strapped files, and the fact that some record label is taking ninety cents on the dollar for every CD that goes out the door. The behavior of these major corporations doesn’t change the basic laws or ethics around illegal file sharing, but it is refreshing to see artists taking the music industry out of the equation. I downloaded Radiohead’s album today, and my price point was about 5 euros (about $7). I would pay about $10 for the CD or vinyl. That’s the standard Dischord price and I think it’s fair.

The album, by the way, is worth every penny I paid. Go get it. Besides the music, I’m thrilled that the money goes directly to Radiohead and whomever they have worked with to get this album out. This is what it should feel like to interact with your music and favorite artists. It feels good, empowering and personal.

Shortly after Radiohead’s announcement, Nine Inch Nails announced that the band will no longer have a relationship with a record label, and will heretofore be considered “free agents.” I don’t know what that means, and frankly I don’t care, but it’s another chip in the foundation of an already weak music empire. Funk rockers Jamiroquai and the crap Brit-pop outfit Oasis have made similar announcements.

Yesterday came the kicker from the godmother of pop, Madonna, that she too would forgo the support of the major music industry. Madonna’s business savvy has always been part of her brilliance as an artist, so the fact that she has made this decision suggests that the tide has turned conclusively against the labels.

Their options are slimming — if they can’t convince artists big artists like Madonna to stay on, they will lose their major revenue stream, which means they won’t have as much capitol to invest in up-and-comers. Conversely, if these young acts only view the major labels as a stepping stone to independence, rather than the other way around, the label’s expectation that they can milk an artist for 3 or 4 albums before putting them out to pasture will be gone. In short, their revenue model went bust.

The landscape is wide open, and fans and artists are winning. Digital downloads, Internet promotion, viral marketing, crowd-sourced videos, mash-ups. This has been on the horizon for a long time, but it’s by no means a stretch to say that the future of music is now.