Radiohead ends experiment, heads for traditional distribution. Was it a success?

radiohead 300Radiohead’s grand “In Rainbows” experiment ended this week. Whether it has been a success, only Radiohead and its management knows. Everybody else can argue about it.

But one thing is for certain: Radiohead put in motion, as The New York Times notes, “the most audacious experiment in years.”

Radiohead is no longer selling the album as a download from the Web site

“It’s been the most positive thing we’ve done,” Radiohead’s frontman Thom Yorke said. “We hope you shared the experience with others.”

The move from bytes to bits was not unexpected. Radiohead is transitioning from the pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth experiment to a more traditional sales model as the release of the physical “In Rainbows” disc is due Dec. 31 in the U.K. and Jan. 1 in the U.S.

London-based XL Recordings will release the disc in the U.K., while ATO Records Group will distribute in the U.S. The recording will be on the Radiohead-branded TBD Records imprint. No word on pricing yet.

Additionally, reminds us that Radiohead is still in talks with the iTunes Music Store to sell its music digitally. The band’s six recordings on the EMI label are a stark omission from the third-largest music retailer in the U.S., as Radiohead has insisted that their albums remain complete and not unbundled for single-song sales favored by iTunes.

In his first major interview since the release of “In Rainbows”, Yorke told the NYT, “It feels good. It was a way of letting everybody judge for themselves.”

The grand experiment set off a firestorm of debate over a variety of topics: the state of the music industry, free vs. paid content, alternative distribution models, the economics of music, bits vs. bytes, the future of independent artists, artist control over their music and distribution, the eventual end of copy-protected (or DRM) music, whether it was successful or not (comScore says no, Radiohead disagrees), and so on.

Other artists followed Radiohead’s lead, notably Nine Inch Nails. The NYT believes that 2007 had two tipping points for music — the superstar free agent and the migration of music to the Internet.

Radiohead sits in the middle of both.

last100 is edited by Steve O'Hear. Aside from founding last100, Steve is co-founder and CEO of Beepl and a freelance journalist who has written for numerous publications, including TechCrunch, The Guardian, ZDNet, ReadWriteWeb and Macworld, and also wrote and directed the Silicon Valley documentary, In Search of the Valley. See his full profile and disclosure of his industry affiliations.

4 Responses to “Radiohead ends experiment, heads for traditional distribution. Was it a success?”

  1. Andrew says:

    Sorry to cloud the issue with a remark about music, but: In Rainbows is a rather good album.
    As to whether the online, DRM-free, pay-what-you-want release has been a “success,” I think that the Radiohead was trying to achieve several things, including, in no particular order:
    – get the completed album out to fans as fast as possible. Very definite success on this count.
    – make money. Success on this count depends on profit from all sources: the download, the CD, next year’s tour, merchandise,… Right now, we don’t know. We don’t even know whether the download will hurt or help sales of the CD.

  2. Matt D. says:

    It’s going to be really interesting to see how their album sales go when the album is released in stores around the new year. I don’t have any evidence to back this up, but I predict that the 2 months of online experiment are barely going to hurt sales. I think a lot of Radiohead will be willing to pay $15 for the CD even if they have already downloaded the full album.

  3. Daniel Langendorf says:

    Andrew: You’re not clouding the issue. I think In Rainbows is my favorite album of the year. And I agree, “success” will be determined by many things. I think they’ve been already successful. By the way, have you heard the second disc? And the Webcast, Thumbs Down? The Webcast hasn’t been talked about, but it’s great.

    Matt D., I was thinking the same thing! I downloaded it illegally at first because the Radiohead In Rainbows commerce site sucked at first. When I finally got through, I bought the music, paying what I’d get it for at a Best Buy-like store. And with the physical release coming, I guess I will get that, too.

  4. Andrew says:

    I’ve seen some parts of the webcast. I particularly like the Smiths cover.
    They played (as in played the record, not covered) the opening track from my favorite album of the year, The Shepherd’s Dog by Iron & Wine.
    I haven’t heard the second In Rainbows disc… must do that soon.

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