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.

Making the Morality Play of Pricing Visible

UK-based music industry news subscription service, Record of the Day, is running a survey asking people buying the Radiohead record how much they paid and why. You can read MANY sample answers. I have too much to say about their data to say anything and still get done what needs to be done this week, so I’ll just post a few to give you a feel for how rich and value laden the the audience’s economic relationship to music is. Radiohead have opened a broad public discussion of this whole morality play. All those tacit values we have about our relationship to music, to artists, our rights and obligations, our value to them, how some people just don’t think about this stuff while others obsess on it, and the many logistical issues at stake are laid bare:

£0.00 (United Kingdom)

I’m not even sure I like Radiohead, I found OK Computer really hard going. So I’m taking a (free) punt and seeing what it’s like, either I’ll become a new fan or continue on my way.

£15.00 (United Kingdom)

Paid this amount not only for the music but also for the chance to participate in the experience of consumer spending power being kindly given a boost by Radiohead’s new business model. That to me was worth more than the music alone. As all the pundits keep saying, musicians will make money from live events because of this move – well, this felt like participating in a live event. The fact we were allowed to choose gave the experience more value – as the exercise meant the value of money became, for a moment in time, subjective.

£5.00 (United Kingdom)

I think it’s a very smart move – Radiohead have taken a huge moral high ground but have also given their fans the opportunity to do the same.

£40.00 (United Kingdom)

boxset. great idea. moving the industry forward. i hope music fans are honest.

£0.01 (United Kingdom)

It was quite a half-hearted offer from Radiohead – they should have actually GIVEN the album away, instead of offering a pay-what-you-like deal which makes a ton of money for credit card processing companies.

£0.00 (Canada)

I’ll listen to it first. If I like it, I’ll buy it when it’s formally released in three months or so. That’s what I do with most releases that catch my attention. I also write about music, so the artists get some honest feedback that, assuming the “product” is good, will further help sales and distribution.

£1.50 (United Kingdom)

Tried to pay £1.55 to make it an even £2.00 with the card fees, but their website only charged me £1. I’ve paid enough for all their gigs to deserve their music for free!

£5.60 (United States)

I actually meant to pay less, but I accidentally converted Dollars into Euros and not Pounds like I should have. Basically, I meant to pay $8 American. My bad. Oh well. I’m just glad to be able to finally hear the album.

Kudos to Record of the Day for making this information public instead of hoarding it for themselves! And extra kudos to them for the “Sign up here to get the results via email” link on the side.

The Future of Human Communication and Technology Research

In a month or so, at the National Communication Association meeting, I will be participating on a panel called Conversations with Leading Scholars: The Past, Present and Future Research on Human Communication and Technology. The other “leading scholars” are Susan Barnes, Nosh Contractor, Janet Fulk, Michele Jackson, Malcolm Parks, Scott Poole, Ron Rice, Craig Scott and Joe Walther. Fine company indeed. In preparation, we were asked to prepare short statements on the topic to be included in the Human Communication and Technology Division newsletter. It’s always a treat to get to write a little manifesto, and I think it’s relevant for how you think about communication technology whether you are an academic or not, so I thought I’d post mine here:

The Past, Present and Future of Human Communication and Technology Research

Nancy K Baym
Associate Professor of Communication Studies
University of Kansas

Scholars of human communication and technology have a past far deeper than many of its contemporary practitioners realize. In recent years, the origins of what we in NCA do under this moniker have often been located around the mid-1970s when Short, Williams and Christie proposed Social Presence Theory. Far deeper origins are to be found, however, when one realizes that technology need not mean computing nor be digital. We have other precedents, and other technologies. Human communication and technology begins with the invention of writing, it includes pigeon training, ink, woodblocks, 16th century books, and 17th and 18th century pamphlets. It includes photography, audio recording, radio waves, moving pictures, the telegraph, television, and countless other technologies, more of which have been forgotten than remembered. There are long traditions of scholarship into these other once-new technologies.

These media, and the scholarly traditions surrounding their study, are particularly forgotten in the conduct of Internet Research, a domain too often plagued by the notion that everything is new. Much is indeed new, but our focus on “new media” should not blind us to which things we ascribe to particular technologies are better attributed to novelty and the ways in which cultures project their concerns onto technology (see, for instance, Sturken, Thomas & Ball-Rokeach, 2004). One of our tasks is to distinguish what is new from what is recycled. Most communication technologies throughout history have raised issues about the quality of interaction, the nature of community, the status of relationships, authentic identity, trust safety, and privacy. One research priority for our future is thus to recognize our past. We need to link our theory, framing, research inquiries and findings to the history on which the production, reception, adaption and everyday use of technologies rests.

We must acknowledge the “everyday” nature of much human communication and technology, as has become the (welcome) trend in the last few years (see Wellman and Haythornthwaite, 2002). Within a continued focus on the mundane, we should examine how people simultaneously integrate multiple media into their daily communicative experience. In treating the internet and related technologies as new, we have tended to view them as isolated phenomena. Though the term “cyberspace” seems at last to have fallen from use, some still imagine what happens online as a world apart from everyday life, as though what happens in one online environment stays within its own borders. If today’s new media tell us anything, they tell us that boundaries are made to be transcended.

Online realms are no longer contained within their own boundaries (if they ever were). What appear to be single online groups often turn out to be multimodal. Group members connect with one another in multiple online spots, affording themselves of the use of multiple media – social network sites for making their identity and social connections visible, YouTube for video sharing, Flickr for sharing pictures, blogs for instantaneous updates, web sites for amassing collective intelligence, and so on. Our many studies of single web boards, newsgroups, chat rooms, social network sites and so on have given us a strong understanding of much that happens within these contexts, but we know next to nothing about how individuals and groups link these contexts to one another as they traverse the internet and meet the same individuals across multiple domains.

Most people connected online are also connected offline. Online and offline are not different entities to be contrasted. What happens via new technology is completely interwoven with what happens face-to-face and via other media – the telephone, the television, films, music, radio, print. Even behaviors that only appear online are put there by embodied people acting in geographic locations embedded in face-to-face social relationships and multimedia environments that shape the meaning and consequences of those online practices.

Our interactions with one another are increasingly multimodal. We conduct our relationships face-to-face, over the phone (both landline and mobile), and online through modes as diverse as email, instant messaging, social network friending, personal messages, comments, shared participation in discussion forums and online games, and the sharing of digital photos, music and videos. Research is increasingly demonstrating that the closer the relationship, the more modes people use to communicate with one another. Furthermore, these media are becoming one another, so that people are increasingly accessing the internet via mobile phones and using computers to conduct telephone calls. We cannot bank our research future on the technological forms. Instead we need to interrogate the underlying dynamics through which technology use is patterned across media, relationships, and communicative purposes and with what effects for how we understand and conduct our relations, our communities and ourselves.

Multimodality also cuts across once-familiar boundaries separating mass from interpersonal communication, as well as within mass communication media themselves. I might watch some episodes of a television show on my iPod and others on a television screen with friends or family beside me. I might catch missed episodes on YouTube, perhaps using an iPhone. I might read about it in a magazine, discuss it in an online forum, blog about it and define myself in part by listing it as a favorite on my social network profiles. The show’s producers, writers, actors and their interns may read the online discourse and feed it back into the show itself. They may accept my friend request on MySpace. In no time there’s likely to be a movie, a book, a billboard, a t-shirt, and, of course, plentiful fan-fiction, YouTube mashups and, increasingly, official spin off books and stories.

Finally, we need to think about how to transcend academic boundaries, while recognizing what we have to offer that is distinctive. There is little that we study under “human communication and technology” that is not also being studied by those in Sociology, Women’s Studies, Political Science, English, Law, Business, Psychology, Linguistics and many other fields in this and many other nations. We need to draw on that work. We need to speak to scholars in other traditions. We must avoid insularity.

At the same time, we need a heightened self-awareness about communication, and what it means to study technology from where we stand rather than where others stand. David Nye (e.g. Nye, 1997), an American Studies professor, argued that the narratives 19th Century Americans told about electricity and railroads were a means of constructing what it meant to be American. We should consider how the narratives we tell about technology through our research construct our own identities as communication scholars. Who do we wish to be, and how can we tell stories that help us attain our potential?


Nye, D. (1997). Narratives and Spaces: Technology and the Construction of American Culture. New York: Columbia University.

Short, J., Williams, E. and Christie, B. (1976) The Social Psychology of Telecommunications. Chichester: Wiley.

Sturken, M., Thomas, D. & Ball-Rokeach, S. (Eds.) (2004). Technological Visions: The Hopes and Fears that Shape New Technologies. Philadephia: Temple University.

Wellman, B. & Haythornthwaite, C. (Eds.) (2002). The Internet in Everyday Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Fans as Givers

Following up on my post about charitable fans, here’s a nice article by Merlin Missy posted at Firefox news explaining the natural connections between fandom and altruistic acts toward others:

The truth is, we do have lives. We have jobs and classes and families and pets as well as our fandom-related hobbies. What’s more, because fandom acts as a large, loosely-knit community, we can spread information and gather help with just a quick post or email, and when that particular power is turned towards helping others, we bring out something else the get-a-lifers don’t see: fandom’s unlimited capacity for giving.It’s a natural fit, logically-speaking. Fandom is an entirely volunteer-driven concept. Fanfiction, fanart, fanvids, websites, metatextual discussions and costuming (just to name a few pastimes) are labors of love, performed for the joy of the thing and the people who celebrate them with us. True, people make the jump from fan to professional; there’s not a fanfic writer out there who wouldn’t love to be Peter David or Naomi Novik, if just for a day. For every book published of professional critiques on Joss Whedon’s work, there are at least two hundred fans sitting back from their keyboards shouting, “You missed the crustacean imagery, you moron!” and posting their own essays simply because they want to say something.

Before there was Radiohead…

Though it’s been pointed out that they are not doing something new, they’re just the biggest band to do it yet, Radiohead are still getting all the free press one could ever want with their take-it-for-free-if-you-want-it album release strategy.

I say, it’s always good to remember history, especially given the tendency to think that The Internet Changes Everything (TM). With that in mind, I present Lustfaust, a late-70s experimental (West) Berlin band, who, 30 years ago, placed ads in mainstream music magazines that said:

Send a blank tape & postage and we’ll give you album free. Construct your own cover.

On the site where they’ve collected these ads, they write:

Lustfaust relied on maintaining a dialogue with their fans. Print was an important part of this process with both Falke Tranen and the music press being tools used to enable their pioneering of the tape trading networks.

What? Giving music away to fans for free, telling them to share it, and encouraging user generated content wasn’t invented yesterday? Who knew!