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Why didn't In Rainbows open the music industry floogates?

This is an exclusive early post from my Juggernaut Brew blog which every day this week asks a big question of the music industry…

Back in 2007, Radiohead exited its record deal with EMI and promptly self-released their new album In Rainbows as a ‘pay what you want’ download. This I know did not escape your attention.

The genius of the strategy was multi-layered. The move generated such a huge wave of PR that the record hardly needed a marketing budget. And ironically, the band themselves avoided the need to do the usual round of publicity appearances and interviews – an established system the band loathed. It made them look forward thinking and brave. I’m even convinced that the distribution strategy for In Rainbows had an impact on the critical reception of the album itself which garnered four & five star reviews across the board and was number one on many critical lists for that year (it was a good record but was it a great one?).

Best of all, the release of In Rainbows demonstrated Radiohead’s complete understanding of today’s music market, efficiently skewering both ends of the polarised demand for music: digital - the get it now, get it cheap (or free) no frills option; while the high-end £40 box-set satisfied the insatiable appetite for quality stuff that still exists amongst die-hard fans and music collectors.

I know you’ve reflected on all of that as well. But how about this – why didn’t Radiohead’s phenomenally successful strategy with In Rainbows catch on with other established bands?

How come the vast majority of major releases by established artists are non-innovative, conventional, publicity-machine driven affairs involving the usual parade of press, radio and TV mainstream slots, maybe with the odd free download, social networking or viral video strategy thrown in for appearance’s sake?

It’s even unfair when you think about it. U2 hardly needs a leg-up, but the band still occupied most of the BBCs publically-funded promo slots when they launched their last record. Ironically, that record sold disappointingly. Maybe there’s a lesson there? Maybe a more innovative, devil may care approach would have stoked up more interest in the record.

I know that you think you know what the explanation is. That U2 and so many other major bands with a global footprint – Coldplay, Kings of Leon etc. – are on major labels, so the release method has to be by the book, playing by numbers. Partially true I guess – when the machine starts to crank up, who is going to stop it?

But there’s no reason why the label and the band couldn’t come up with something genuinely different. The Coldplay ‘Viva campaign’ was impressive at least – and brave too when you consider the revolutionary costume styling – risqué I would call that! But it was still pretty main-stream and probably cost EMI a fortune to execute.

And here is one critical point – artist management often want to know how much the label is going to spend on promotion – perhaps before the actual strategy itself is discussed. This isn’t exactly a dream incentive system for what’s required in music – low cost, innovative marketing. But hey ho, that’s human nature.

The tipping point then – whereby bands can explore valid go-to-market strategies beyond the press, radio, TV and tour treadmill – is yet to arrive. I guess two things need to happen to tip the current record marketing establishment:

  1. More established bands do an ‘In Rainbows’ (why wouldn’t they, either without, or with, their labels?). Coldplay for one seems to be chomping at the bit for the chance to do something that can put them in that kind of light. Next time perhaps.
  2. A platform emerges that somehow democratises promotion – giving many more artists – especially new ones – fairer access to (the equivalent of) mainstream promo slots. Any one of Slice The Pie, Reverb Nation et al. Are attempting to do just that. The problem is that many don’t get beyond early adopter niches, or reach young but ultimately low-purchase audiences.

One significant step – announced last week – was the CBS and initiative that facilitates to programme a number of CBS’s HD radio slots in large US cities. Here for the first time we might get some genuinely interesting eclectic daytime radio in the US. This deal was obviously enabled by CBS’s outright ownership of but that shouldn’t be a necessity. With Spotify, We7, Yahoo, AOL, Myspace and others (Twitter if we must), we surely have now mass market platforms to rival the old guard media.

Surprising then how many established artists are not taking these platforms seriously. Is it a lack of belief, a lack of interest? Or is it that the old media platforms are better connected to music buying audiences rather than simply music listening or music-social audiences.

What we really need is more collaborative initiatives between new & old media - that focus on new artists not those we know already. These initiatives need to be new aggregator brands for music – doing what Top Of The Pops or MTV Unplugged did back in the halcyon days.

Why aren’t there more music brands like this today? That’s another question.

Reader Comments (9)

excellent post. what about Nine Inch Nails who followed up after Radiohead with the same idea. bands are stuck in lengthy album producing contracts. there are numerous acts that are using social media to promote themselves, however, Radiohead had an already built brand making it slightly easier to pull off.

September 21 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Mernagh

I think there are two separate games afoot here. It is one thing for a band with significant existing traction, like Radiohead or Nine Inch Nails, to release material outside of the normal dog and pony show marketing but it is much harder for bands without much traction to make an impact this way. I would assume that U2 (and others) haven't bothered because there is little need. They can make money releasing any old tat the old way so they do.

Democratisation creates dilution of attention. If there are thousands of bands to listen too how do I choose? That's the attraction of the existing marketing model. Services like and MOG can help folks find music they might love but the services are young and crude at the moment. It will be fascinating to see what happens with the CBS/ radio experiment though.

The solution must lie in eliminating the dichotomy of an easy functional but mindless world and one that offers massive choice but is almost impossible to navigate.

September 21 | Unregistered CommenterRuben Kenig

Regarding: "....And here is one critical point – artist management often want to know how much the label is going to spend on promotion – perhaps before the actual strategy itself is discussed. This isn’t exactly a dream incentive system for what’s required in music – low cost, innovative marketing. But hey ho, that’s human nature...."

It's not only human nature. It's also about the manager making decisions based on how much he will take a percentage of. As long as managers are not paid fixed sums of money, they will continue to run after the major labels, ask for marketing plans which in the end have little to do with reality, blame the labels when everything went wrong etc. That's not always in their clients' best interests, but the manager will use a lot of energy in trying to convince them that it's smart.

Managers can easily influence the climate in the independent part of the music industry, by making deals with companies like PIAS, Edel, Naïve etc, and maybe get actual longterm commitment and dedication instead of potentially being ignored and later dropped by the majors. Instead, they keep on feeding the majors' market shares.

September 21 | Unregistered CommenterKL

Love the post. I found my self asking many of these same questions after Radioheads bold move received so much success. I'll skip to the point though. I see the problem that less established bands have with the radiohead model, but I don't think we can push all the blame on the marketing approach. Pre-file sharing era, something like 10% of the artist in the industry funded the entire industry. The majors essentially relied on the success of their major artists to keep going and to generate their business model. This led to crazy insane contracts which required an artist to throw away all the rights to their music in order to get a label deal and reach the 'prime media slots' that you mentioned (also led the to loss of creative control, but thats another argument in its entirety). Without trying to state the obvious, this model counted on approximately 90% of bands failing (by the major label definition) and not recouping (failing by the bands definition).

We now find ourselves in the midst of realizing we were doing it wrong and the general eruption of criticism towards all new ideas until we find one that works (fingers crossed). It was never easy for a band to make it. For some reason there's the idea that a band is only successful when they receive mainstream popularity and that this process can be as accelerated as it was in the major label era. I just don't think that's true anymore.

The internet has allowed for the reconnection of the artists to the fans and its now more important than ever to have a fan base established at home. Bands need to realize that their fans dictate how big they are going to be. Not the fact they are on a label. Cut the bullshit and just listen. Yes, In Rainbows was successful for its edgy, never heard of release style, but I believe it was ultimately successful because for once it respected the fans in a way that hasn't been seen in years (they chose the value, not the label or even the band). I guess my overall point is to get off the old media definition of success. Your music should support itself based upon the fandom it has inspired and gathered. You can't force that anymore.

September 21 | Unregistered CommenterJake

A side note on HD Radio in the USA, since you cited the deal to have Last.FM programming introduced onto CBS-owned HD Radio channels.

It is difficult or impossible to overstate how dead HD Radio is in the USA. I gather that digital radio in the UK has achieved some success, but over here in the USA HD Radio iis a non-starter. I only know one person who has ever expressed interest, and I know zero who have the capability to receive HD Radio stations. Outside of the radio industry and the firm selling the HD Radio chips, nobody cares. You might as well be talking about Elcassettes.

I'd wager that there are more Americans who have hacked their way into Europe-only Spotify than there are listening to HD Radio. :-)

But this is a digression. Thanks for a good post overall.

September 21 | Unregistered Commenterwallow-T

Why hasn't the In-Rainbows style release reached critical mass and lead to a full democratization of the music industry? The answer is contained in the post itself; the author rightly points out that it is Promo and "prime-time-media-slots" that matter, not just the mode of distribution. If your tree falls in the forest and no one blogs about it, it doesn't make a sound.

The real question behind the question is why systems of PROMOTION haven't had their "in Rainbows" moment. Why haven't blogs overthrown record labels? The answer to that is not an easy one to swallow: any system of "promotion" is inherently going to experience backlash against any attempts to "democratize" it. By this I mean that while certain things "naturally" become more democratic when you add technology (music production, for example, has gotten easier and more people are putting out higher quality stuff), other things are naturally meritocratic (or at least, nondemocratic).

A promotion organization is going to want to work with artists who succeed. Once an artist breaks through, their brand is infinitely more valuable. But more important than that is that consumers WANT their familiar brands to be made available to them easily. Consumers would flee from a retailer that made them sort through piles of unknown music to find the newest Coldplay CD. It would be democratic to put them on the same level as lesser-known bands, but its bad business. Consumers don't want the system to be so democratized.

You can democratize supply, but you can't democratize demand.

Its the artists, not the consumers that are craving a more equal playing field in music. Very sad, but very true.

September 21 | Unregistered CommenterJustin

Love the post! If you havent already, definitely check out a revolutionary music site that taps into the exact "In Rainbows" idea that you discuss. The artist/band has full control over the accessibility of the download, from offering high quality (the site does NOT except mp3s) downloads for free, or setting a minimum price (could be zero, could be $.99). Give it a try - and I have seen some artists/bands move over to platforms like this, which coincide with a PayPal account. Enjoy!

September 21 | Unregistered Commenter@BushwoodBand

Billy Coogan from Smashing Pumpkins just announced he's doing something different with his next release - the recordings are going to be given away free, but there will be collectors edition EPs released for uber-fans.

September 21 | Unregistered CommenterJulian Moore

Just wanted to say that Juggernaut Brew is probably one of my favorite sites on the music business. Remain awesome at all times...thank you.

September 24 | Unregistered CommenterJustin Boland

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