Radiohead Demonstrate the Value of Relationships
The Radiohead experiment demonstrates that the future of the music industry is forgetting about fans as customers of labels and instead recognizing them as people who want to have social relationships with bands. I’m not talking about pathological obsession. I’m talking about what happens when bands maintain a blog, which in effect says “we want to you to know what’s going on with us,” when they provide comment spaces and forums for fans to talk to them and then respond. I’m talking about MySpace friends links, answers to emails, free downloads, mailing list missives. These things move people from thinking about music in economic terms toward thinking of it in social terms. That brings with it a different system of trust and obligation from the one that governs economic relationships, though money may still be exchanged.
Economists seem to be shocked that more than a million people have paid an average of somewhere around 4 pounds to download the Radiohead album. “It’s not rational!” Why pay for what you can get for free? Is it some “touchy-feely” “warm glow?” An editorial in the New York Times over the weekend read:
One could argue that rationality isn’t everything. Radiohead fans might just be altruistic beings who out of the goodness of their hearts would like to give some money to a spectacularly successful and probably stinking rich rock band. But somehow, that doesn’t work as an explanation.
Or does it? Some economists suspect that what is going on is that people get a kick from the act of giving the band money for the album rather than taking it for free. It could take many forms, like pleasure at being able to bypass the record labels, which many see as only slightly worse than the military-industrial complex. It could come from the notion that the $8 helps keep Radiohead in business. Or it could make fans feel that they are helping create a new art form — or a new economy. People who study philanthropy call it the “warm glow” that comes from doing something that we, and others, believe to be good.
[...]Today, music lovers are left but two options: pay list price for an album, or perform what a fan might call a free download and a record company would call theft. Radiohead’s experiment suggests a third way out: let fans pay what they want and give them lots of touchy-feely reasons to want to give as much money as they can.
It’s important not to be dismissive of “touchy-feely reasons,” pit them against rationality, or think of them as weaknesses to be exploited for financial gain. Before people were customers embroiled in economic entertainment systems, we were humans whose rewards all came from our relationships with other people. This is true of listeners and bands. This is true of each of us in our own individual development, and in the historical development of relationships between audiences and entertainers. Music moves people. Its effect is highly personal and often highly social. When the band shows its listeners respect and treats them as they want to be treated, people want to give back because they have learned through a lifetime of social experience that in any functional relationship you have to give as well as take.
I’ll be in Vancouver all week so forgive light and maybe not even any posting.