Back in 2007, there were many in the music industry that thought they were watching an immediate revolution in the music business when Radiohead released a new album, In Rainbows , online with the now famous “pay-what-you-want” model. The band had found a way to release a record truly independently, and it was successful.
Around that time, many artists tried the same thing, to varying degrees of success. Still, the most important thing wasn’t so much that the “pay-what-you-want” method worked, it was that a non-traditional method of distributing music to fans sans record label could be successful.
Nearly six years later, it seems the non-traditional market has somewhat cooled in the music industry, and it has been a while since anyone has tried anything new. Even Radiohead singer Thom Yorke seemed very unconvinced of the internet’s power as a music medium in a recent interview.
“[The big internet companies] have to keep commodifying things to keep the share price up, but in doing so they have made all content, including music and newspapers, worthless, in order to make their billions,” he said. “And this is what we want? I still think it will be undermined in some way. It doesn't make sense to me... The commodification of human relationships through social networks. Amazing!”
To be fair, Yorke has never been one to shy away from over-dramatizing things, but is he right in that the internet distribution models that seemed so promising in the industry just a few years ago -- particularly for independent artists -- aren’t actually an answer to anything?
In 2008, Trent Reznor tried what was then being called the “Radiohead model” with a project he financed by Saul Williams. However, he found that only 18 percent of those that downloaded music actually decided to pay for it. It may be telling that Reznor’s latest album project -- Welcome oblivion by How to Destroy Angels -- is once again tied to a major label, recently released on Columbia Records.
Well, that depends how you look at it. One thing to keep in mind is that streaming music services were pretty much a non-player when In Rainbows was released, so having albums on services like Pandora, Rdio and Spotify today can be seen as non-traditional, relatively speaking.
Another thing to keep in mind that was often overlooked in the furor surrounding Radiohead in 2007 is that the band was one of the biggest bands in the world, so marketing wasn’t much of an issue when the album was released. To put it a different way, many people were going to buy a new Radiohead album regardless of how it was released.
Reznor summed up the marketing problem for most bands at an event last year, and why it is sometimes helpful to have a major label on board.
“No one else can write the songs I can write," he said, "But there's other people that can do some of that (marketing) stuff.”
What it comes down to is that navigating the current digital music industry is a tough landscape that is still being charted, particularly when it comes to independent artists getting their music heard. What works one year doesn’t work the next.
It’s hard to imagine one model taking over and becoming the standard, which would mean that independent artists must continue to search for new ways to get their music heard.