Helen Popkin
updated 10/11/2007 6:42:21 AM ET 2007-10-11T10:42:21

OK, everyone. Take a deep breath. It’s happened. As announced Sept. 30 on Radiohead’s official Web site, its seventh Radio LP “In Rainbows,” dropped on Oct. 10. You can download the 10-song collection (with no copy protection!) from the site via the frighteningly new and revolutionary digital pricing plan that allows customers to choose their own price. And yet, the sun managed to rise, the birds are still singing, and those of us with day jobs and no dentist appointment still had to go to work this morning.

Oh yeah … for around $82, you can also pre-order a big-old box set version with lots of extras which you can hold in your hand when it’s released sometime next year. But what’s freaking out the four major music labels left on planet, is this suggested donation bit. Heralded as the new world order, this bold move is  seen by many as a major deviation and — dare we say — blow — to the already ailing record industry.

But the big news with Radiohead's “In Rainbows” may be that there’s actually no new story at all. Unless, of course, you’re one of many hardcore Radiohead fans out-of-their-heads elated because this LP-centric outfit finally followed up 2003’s “Hail to the Thief.” In the long haul (or The Long Tail), Radiohead’s experiment may turn out to be just that — an experiment.

If the pay-as-you-please economic model succeeds, that success will be specific to Radiohead — dependent on its legion of long-haul fans of a certain age who appreciate Radiohead LPs as they’re designed to be, a single entity, not a single song. It’s like Grateful Dead economy, with its concert-trailing Deadheads and “miracles” works only for the Grateful Dead … and maybe Phish.

Meanwhile, it’s worth mentioning that Radiohead didn’t start this revolution. Early dissenters included Trent Reznor, Beck and Barenaked Ladies (BNL). BLN gave away content and drove fans to shows — though by the time the band left its major label it wasn’t selling many records anyway.

Reznor did some creative marketing with Nine Inch Nail’s 2005 LP “With Teeth,” leaking music files via MySpace and strategically-distributed thumb drives. Early on, Reznor recognized that people aren't necessarily paying for the music even when they're buying the CDs. His fans are paying for the coolness, so he found ways to monetize that.

Prince, never a model of rational thought and probably is richer than God anyway, gave away his 2007 LP “Planet Earth” in a British newspaper last July. It was a move that seriously annoyed Sony BMG, who then refused to distribute the CD in England. But Prince did it because he wanted the music to be out there. It was a good publicity stunt for him and we'll see what he does with his revived celebrity vis-à-vis concerts and future albums.

So now here’s Radio, giving you the opportunity to pay what you like. Welcome to the Museum of Guitarless Albums, donations are appreciated. Again, Radiohead probably isn't hurting for scratch. Even if those guys weren't well off, they're treated like indie gods by those around them, so you know, they're doing OK for themselves.

Still, the question for these maverick musicians is: How do you make money off your labors if you give away the fruit for free? For us poor rubes opening our wallets, it’s: Why are we paying the middle man so much?

For musicians, the first question is a fallacy. No one ever sold a piece of music more than once. Music is reproducible the moment you hear it via humming or memory. What you're selling is convenience, fidelity, a good show, etc. Same goes for movies. I recently tried out Bit Torrent and now my computer has herpes. Thanks, Internet!

Plus, it takes for-ding-dang-ever to download anything. The obvious solution is to spend a few bucks and buy the movie on DVD or On Demand and tape it. Torrent is good for finding things that are hard to come by, but most people are here for the convenience.

So, the new approach for these musicians is not to sell the music, but use it. Use it to drive ticket sales. Use it to interest people in purchasing the less-easily-copied album art. Use it to help their creative process. Use it to get back on the musical radar.

Now, let’s talk about us, the mere miserable consumers. Labels get bent out of shape because they know how to monetize the delivery of the medium. They're less inclined to think about other ways of "leveraging" music. And frankly, screw those guys. Labels make rootkit holes in our computers, while these musicians don’t do copy prevention. I don’t know about you, but this makes me much more inclined to buy whatever else said musicians are using the music to market.

In fact, who isn’t more inclined to buy music from musicians who leave Sony, just for the value of sticking it to Sony? And not to get all maudlin about freedom of music and all that hippy crap, but seriously. When has the best paid artist been the most interesting or most talented? OK, you've got Eminem. But who else?

Finally, no one’s asking whether entertainers actually deserve all that bling. It's not like they're curing cancer or teaching our children for cryin’ out loud.  They're the lucky beneficiaries of a wrinkle of the mega-economy.

Musicians create things that people like, but they can market those things on a huge scale without a lot of hassle. These days, they get to where they are precisely because with a little bit of equipment their product is easy to reproduce (it's easier to recreate a CD than a loaf of bread, for instance). Now that the means of reproduction are in the hands of the many, perhaps stars will get paid a bit more in line with what they're worth.

That is, whatever we're willing to pay to get more.

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