Radiohead, Saul Williams and the Inevitable Rise and Liberation of the Music Industry

Illustration for article titled Radiohead, Saul Williams and the Inevitable Rise and Liberation of the Music Industry

Click to viewWhile Radiohead basked in adulation for dipping its toe into the digital future with the pay-what-you-will In Rainbows pre-release, it wasn't the first major act to toy with the internet model, and certainly wasn't making a genuine move toward disruption. Had it truly boldly gone where a few have gone before, it potentially stood to lose boatloads of revenues the traditional distribution model guarantees an A-list act. On the other hand, Saul Williams, someone with a lot less to lose, took a dive into the deep end with his release of the Trent-Reznor-produced Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust.

Pearl Jam and The Doors have been offering direct DRM-free MP3 downloads of material for a while now in a mix-and-match format, though not with the highest ease of use factor; Prince just gave his last album away (though not digitally); and Public Enemy's giving away How You Sell Soul To A Soulless People Who Sold Their Soul for free on P2P networks, albeit loaded with ads. And loathe as I am to credit Phish for anything, they directly sold MP3s way back in the Stone Age of 1999.


Ultimately Radiohead was only wading around the kiddie pool wearing floaties, those being its plans to distribute the album on vanilla CDs next year, possibly through one of the Big Four in North America, ensuring their experiment held little possibility of sinking them (or their cash haul).

The release was brilliant: Fanboys latched onto the $80 superfan package, casual or sympathetic fans threw a couple bucks its way for middling but DRM-free MP3s, and the band cleaned up on positive press, only to have another shot to do it again in a couple months with a regular release riding a wave of hype.


Saul Williams proves to be an interesting test case for independent digital distribution: He's not a household name, but he is forcefully backed by someone who is. In truth, without Trent's involvement, it's doubtful many people would be writing about this at all. Regardless, the release strategy is bolder and closer to what people want out of digital distribution: no DRM, easy access, solid bitrates whether you paid or not, and choices (FLAC or MP3, free or flat, reasonable fee). And while there could be a CD release of Niggy Tardust, given Trent's stance on the major labels, it's highly doubtful it'll be through one of the Big Four.


It's been asked what's up with the hate for physical media and trumpeting of digital releases. I don't hate CDs. I buy a ton of them. The issue is choice. People can buy an album on CD, buy it DRM'd to hell and of mediocre bitrate from a number of online stores or grab it for free in whatever quality they want without DRM from an equally large number of quasi-(il)legal outlets. Trent Reznor and Saul Williams are simply recognizing that piracy is a legitimate, or at least a real consumer choice, and they are cutting out the middlemen—both the labels and the pirates.

What I'm arguing is that the future of the music industry is in offering up music in as many avenues as possible, as easily and cheaply as possible. It's not so much advice as it is inevitability—it's just where things are going. The hard reality is that people place a different value on that content now than they did before—it's absurd to me to pay for news, for instance, despite being in the industry—and no matter how many people the industry sues, that won't change.


To me, five bucks is reasonable for a digital copy of an album at a good bitrate, ten for a real CD. But it might be three bucks and six for the guy next to me on the bus. Or nothing at all, but he'll drop thirty bucks go to a concert. Maybe he just spreads the word to someone who will. The music industry fits in here by offering reasonable choices and formats to accommodate all of those situations—at prices people will pay (or not) in each of them—of which there are, actually, more of than ever.

Radiohead didn't go far enough because they didn't really believe in their online release as a genuine choice. (Witness the quote from their management, "If we didn't believe that when people hear the music they will want to buy the CD, then we wouldn't do what we are doing.") On the flip side, Trent told people to steal his music because CD prices are too high, and will probably release his next album in much the same way Saul did.


Radiohead gives samples away to try to keep people from stealing it. Saul is giving his album away so they don't have to. In that way, Radiohead's step forward is an almost equal one back, while Saul's is one that's firmly forward, even if he ends up stumbling along the way.

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I buy CDs sometimes.

I buy CDs when it's absolutely impossible to find the song I'm looking

for on Frostwire or Gnutella.

Then I resell them on eBay. Which s usually where I bought them.

I also buy vinyl on eBay (I have a USB turntable).

I don't want CDs. It's not just 'I don't want CDs cluttering up my

living space' it's that I don't even own a CD player except in my car.

And the stereo in my car has a USB port for my iPod.

I listen to music on my iPod or on my computer. I have some killer

Altec Lansing speakers that make my little Mac Mini sound like a

thousand dollar stereo system. Or my iPod, actually, since nothing

stops me plugging them directly into the iPod itself. I can DJ a whole

party right from my iPod, and if I want to be fancier about it and mix

songs over one another I can just overlay ones with the same BPM in

GarageBand on my MacBook.

Moreover — and I think this is something the article overlooked —

many of us don't want to buy *albums*. We want *songs*.

I listen to goth and industrial mostly (that's simplified — really,

my favourite genre is Futurepop, followed by Gothic Rock, followed by

Industrial Rock, followed by 80s pop, followed by select Industrial

Metal which does NOT include Trent Reznor).

This is the reason that, while I have used it a few times, BitTorrent

doesn't show up in the list of ways I generally get stuff. It's over

the top. It's not just albums—sometimes it's whole discographies. I

don't want albums. I don't want discographies. I want songs.

For instance, I wanted a copy of God is God by Juno reactor. I

couldn't find it on Frostwire (which is like Limewire without trying

to get you to give them money). I couldn't find it on Gnutella. I

decided to look for it on [] and foudn a torrent that

contained it. Then I ended up waiting half a day to get *everything

Juno reactor ever did*. So yay, now I have five mixes of God is God,

seven mixes of Pistolero (which I already had), and about seven days

of annoying trance crap to hunt down in my downloads and discard

(actually I kept it but not because I like it... because you can take

any given trance track by Juno Reactor, any non-danceable song with

the same or a multiple of the BPM, and overlay them to make a club mix

with zero effort). Oh yay. Now to buy a hard drive upgrade.

Most of us who download from P2P want individual songs, and this is

the main reason a lot of the recording industry can't handle things

now. It doesn't fit their marketing approach. Cynical as it may sound,

I truly believe the music industry has NEVER been interested in

selling good albums. They've been interested in getting people to pay

$12-$80 for a CD because they want that *one* hit track and have to

buy the chaff to get to the wheat.

And now with downloading software, we can.

I'll buy off iTunes, especially now that I can play it on anything I

like (it's not hard to strip DRM even when it exists—it's audio.

Remember how we used to pirate tapes by dubbing them? If you can

listen, you can record. The other end of the line can always be

another computer, after all. Or you can just import your song as an

instrument in GarageBand played just the once and export an MP3 of

your 'composition'). But the main reason I'll buy off iTunes is that I

can get that one track rather than an album.

There are very few albums worth buying as a whole, and removing Pink

Floyd from the mix cuts it down by half.

The last real CD I bought was Love's Secret Domain by Coil. I couldn't

find a copy. Searching for 'Coil' is fruitless — it gets plenty of

Lacuna Coil, Icon of Coil and This Mortal Coil, but no Coil. (To all

bands out there: if you don't want your works pirated, your best bet

is to name your band and all your songs things that are useless in a

search. The Futurepop German band 'And One' did this by accident.

Luckily their song names—things like 'Panzermensch' and

'Deutschmachine' and 'Military Fashion Show'—are searchable.)

I bought it off eBay, of course, since it's been out of print for 10

years or so. I ripped it. I listened to it. Then I put the title track

on my iPod and relegated the rest of the songs to a 'dammit I paid for

these' category which I'll probably never play again. I'll get around

to putting the CD back up on eBay soon enough.

Last time before that, I wanted a copy of 'Blue Velvet' by Spit, so I

bought 'You Would if You Loved Me' — directly from the artist's

website. He sent me a free T-shirt and poster along with the package.

I ripped Blue Velvet, put the CD on a shelf somewhere, and forgot

about it. I wear the shirt sometimes. Vinnie Spit is really quite a

nice guy, especially for a perverted porno buttrocker dirtbag. I was


I wanted a copy of 'Rubber Glove Seduction' by PTP (a Ministry

side-project). I got that off iTunes, ignoring the rest of Side Trax

because I didn't want the album, just the song.

I feel I'm a pretty standard representation of what the average

consumer is thinking, and why P2P and iTunes have done well

(BitTorrrent would be out of business in a day if they charged even a

mere penny per attempt to download, it's so damned annoying and slow).

As to when we'd ever want a full album... when it's The Wall or The

Final Cut or Operation Mindcrime—something where the album *is*

pretty much one long song with variations. So we're back to wanting


And so sick of paying for the filler crap the musicians want to 'flesh

out' an album with that we just right-out refuse to. Even bands I like

most of have songs I don't want. There are VNV Nation songs that suck.

There are Seabound tracks that put me to sleep when I don't want to

sleep. Rotersand and :wumpscut: are mostly filler crap that I refer to

as 'background club music' (i.e. the stuff you hope the DJ spins while

you're out smoking a clove). And this is my preferred genre!

Plus, the recording industry owes us for all the filler we already

paid for on every tape we bought back in the 80s.