When Radiohead released In Rainbows earlier this month it was big news. Not just because one of the world’s most highly respected bands had launched a new download-only LP but because they gave us the chance to choose how much to pay for it – it was a big deal.
I wondered at the time whether it’d set a precedent for other bands to follow and it seems the idea has caught on already. The Charlatans followed almost immediately with a free record via alternative radio station Xfm, and a couple of weeks ago Trent Reznor from American industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails wrote on NIN.com that they would no longer be releasing music in the traditional way, instead choosing to ‘have a direct relationship with the audience as I see fit and appropriate.’ We can only assume he means an In Rainbows-style launch.
Now American rapper, singer, activist and poet, Saul Williams, has taken the idea one step further. His latest album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! (which was produced by Reznor) will be released digitally from his website in two forms. The first requires a contribution of at least $5, for which you get a choice of file qualities: 192kbps MP3, 320kbps MP3 or gigantic lossless FLAC files. Alternatively you can have it for free at 192kbps.
It addresses one of the big issues that was raised after In Rainbows was released – sound quality. Radiohead’s MP3s were set at a fairly low 160kbps, which caused a bit of grumbling from people like myself. Considering it came with no artwork or indeed any physical product of any kind, I’d feel pretty cheated if I’d paid any more than about £5 for the album to then find it wasn’t even encoded at the same quality as a lowly standard iTunes track.
As you can see, so far it’s the more successful or the more lefty artists that are doing it – I can’t see a major label cash cow like Kasabian or the Kaiser Chiefs suddenly tearing up their contracts and going it alone – but it is spreading. Two household names, Oasis and Jamiroquai, are both out of contract and said to be considering flexible pricing and Cliff Richard has just announced that his latest LP will be priced depending on how many people pre-order it – the larger the number, the lower the price. Apparently it’ll only go as low as £4 but surely that’ll require an army of eager Cliff fans with web connections. Given the, shall we say, grey nature of your typical Cliff devotee, I just can’t see it myself.
What do you think will happen to the way we pay for music? Let me know below or post in our forums.