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.

Comments (4) to “Radiohead Demonstrate the Value of Relationships”

  1. 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.

    Oh my god, EXACTLY. I can’t tell you how many times I have wished that there was a web site where bands could name their favorite charities, and people like me, who download music to try it out and sometimes keep it and sometimes don’t, could actually give something back financially. I know I’ve donated to several charities for that reason, usually if I have ended up downloading a whole album (I prefer to pay for music, but sometimes I just want to try something out) and it always makes me feel better. It’s not that fans don’t want to support the artists. It’s often that we just don’t have the money or that we don’t want to support the record companies and the whole fuckover that is the music business.

    I mean, I was thinking about this the other day, and if I’d been able to download music as a kid, it still would have been worth it to the bands eventually, even if I had paid nothing. Because I had NO discretionary spending money as a kid, but the bands I really loved when I was in that 13-22 age range? I still love them, and I buy their new stuff, and replace their albums when music formats change, etc. And it was just sort of luck, at that point, whether someone I knew would give me a mix tape with something I liked on it – I didn’t have the wherewithal to expand my musical taste much at all. And since musical taste “sets” pretty hard during the age period where discretionary spending is (at least, as I recall it – kids these days! *waves cane*) most unavailable, giving fans the opportunity to pay it forward/back later is genius.

    BTW, I paid $10 for 50 Foot Wave’s “pay what you like” album months ago – an old boyfriend gave me a tape of one of the lead singer’s former bands for the holidays when I was 18 , and I’ve followed her in almost all her musical incarnations since, to the tune of hundreds of dollars. That’s what I’m talking about.

    Then again, my ethical structures are not always other people’s ethical structures.

  2. If I know a band, like a band, and am a follower of a band, I’ll pay for their new release, even at insanely high label rates. If you give me the option to pay less or pay nothing and donate, you’ll still get my money. The artist probably gets a larger share this way anyway.

  3. The web is saturated with articles and blogs about the death of the music industry & what Madonna, Radiohead and the like in collusion with web 2.0 digital models and P2P sites are doing to the industry … “killing it”?
    But this IS the new industry … a place where the majority of content is created and consumed for free, where the creativity embodied on your musical content IS the value attributed to it.
    True creativity will become a form of money; so you may download my music for free, but that creativity still has value – value enough for me to extract a service from you or your peers in exchange. A system where money becomes less important than trade.
    A place where the merit in music conquers all. Or at least in the years to come it will.

    It is my absolute belief that “where music leads all else will follow” .. that is the breakdown of the commercial music industry to elements of trade, file sharing, swapping & purchase will one day encompass our whole online commercial structure.
    Merit and creative truth will rule, meaningless content (read “pop”) will simply become ignored meaninglessness, and it will struggle for any traction.

    The sharing and spread across digital platforms of all online services and products will occur, with value being judged by merit. This will occur whether we are talking about a music track, a new product or a simple day to day service.
    Advertisers will no longer be able to saturate our TV screens with useless products and thinly veiled lies about necessity – purchase value & immediacy will be decided by the purchaser.

    ok, …. deeper : the human mind is a spark of the almighty consciousness of the creator, imagination and creativity are the doors from which this consciousness emerges.
    As human minds develop further and become more fully tuned to the nature of spirit, by stopping thought, abandoning knowledge & trusting intuition, creativity also becomes more fully tuned to this truth. That is, music / knowledge / content / product is freed from the shackles of blind commercialism, prejudice or banality will simply cut through and gain traction by the simple fact of its creative merit.
    The deeper the self realization of a person and his/her creativity, the more he/she influences the whole universe by subtle creative vibrations.

    Silence is the potent carrier of the present tense. Every sound or action comes from silence & dies back into the ocean of silence.
    You choose by your actions how you may disrupt this silence – choose wisely.

    Death to the music industry, long live the industry of creativity.

  4. Radiohead’s response is the natural conclusion to the end of their relationship with EMI/ Capitol. Radiohead might be one of the biggest bands in the world, but that isn’t the point, the key here is that they also have one of the most loyal fanbases in the world. Radiohead were always cue aware of and resisted the old model’s ingrained tendency to over hype and over market music to create fans with very little engagement in their work. The net result is that they have a fanbase bursting with loyalty.

    Radiohead fans have journeyed with them through their 6 albums with EMI – a progression that has repeatedly seen them take creative and commercial risks. This has laid the foundation for the In Rainbows campaign. Radiohead don’t need to attract new fans but moreover gauge the loyalty of and connect with the fans that are already out there. This strategy gives them the perfect opportunity to do this. Freed from the EMI deal, they are able to put their music out there and see what state their fanbase is in. Once they are through this campaign release they will have the perfect litmus test of the current state of play in their audience. They will also have built a direct connection that will provide the foundation for all their future activities free of any third party intermediary.

    A new band does not have that luxury however has the same problem… how to gauge the loyalty of their fans and connect with them directly so that they can build a career based on a direct connection with their fanbase. This has to be done gig by gig, fan by fan, where the fan is driven to a central destination where it knows that they are dealing with the artist directly and that that loyalty is consistently inspired, recognised and rewarded.

    What we are highlighting and seeing here is that there is a BIG difference between a casual listener and a fan. Anyone in the new music business is actually in the fan business, how to engage the listener who has a million other distractions a click away, to go on a journey with them, engage with them, BUY into them. Without that buy-in there is nothing to sell. Old marketing doesn’t work because old marketing relied on the listener having very few other distractions – big dollars meant you could buy attention. With that attention scattered over a million different stimuli, the old marketing techniques no longer have real traction.

    The new music business is about selling a community, a club, an inner sanctum. If no-one wants to be inside that then you haven’t got a business. Radiohead understand this, this is about them working out who’s in and who’s out… the interesting part will come later once they’ve worked out what kind of fan you are, then they can start to reward and play with that loyalty. This is just the first step towards that picture…