Byrne, Reznor and Yorke on retail downloads

After recently reading some articles and interviews on Wired featuring Talking Heads’ David Byrne, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and NIN front man Trent Reznor, I got thinking again about mp3s, and how best (if at all) to sell them directly. Looking at how Radiohead and Saul Williams have priced their downloads, can we glean any more clues yet as how best to price music downloads alongside CDs?

Yorke stressed that Radiohead’s pay-what-you-will release campaign for In Rainbows was right for their band at that particular moment, and was not suggested as some sort of industry-wide panacea. They had just fulfilled their contractual obligations with EMI, using their new-found freedom to record their latest album in their own studio (with their own money, rather than EMI’s) and fancied trying out a fun little experiment. This, as way of a bonus, happened to subsequently create feverish media coverage and debate the like of which would be difficult to buy at any cost. Well done Radiohead.

While I’m sure it’s not a solution in itself, and was probably more of a marketing tactic borne out of curiosity to find out how much customers would actually pay for an mp3 release given the choice, it hopefully starts the ball rolling towards an eventual pricing equilibrium within retail downloads. Then hopefully we might see downloads coexist peacefully alongside CDs and other music formats, all of which reasonably priced accordingly. It is funny how we’re so ready to proclaim the death of one music format at first glance of the next – why is it so difficult to fathom a coexistence rather than linear supersedence? Especially when there are still clear pros and cons with each format; one could think of a Venn diagram when considering the strengths of mp3s, CDs and vinyl.

Now, the debates have raged and settled, the media coverage turning towards Radiohead’s latest and more conventional deal to release In Rainbows through XL Recordings. The band has taken a little criticism for removing the album’s download option, though an understandable action given the signing over of the material to XL (and of course, the experiment has run its course, yielded its results and profit, the media interest abating). Further criticism levelled at the band accused the release of In Rainbows as ‘devaluing music’, a criticism countered by Yorke, arguing that the music industry as a whole is to blame for devaluing music, suggesting we’ve been paying over the odds for our music for far too long, resulting in widespread pirating (indeed the profit margins made on the sale of CDs over the past couple of decades will be difficult to beat - even with mp3s!). While this brings to mind memories of spending an eye-watering amount of pocket money for an album perhaps fifteen years ago as a teenager, I certainly made sure I got my money’s worth by playing these overpriced treasures endlessly (though I wouldn’t want to buy or release a twelve quid-plus CD these days; it’s simply too expensive, and consumers now know this). On the other end of the scale and on the other end of the equation as a producer, I’d rather not release a download album for under £3, which brings me on to the next article, reading about Trent Reznor’s adventures pricing the latest Saul Williams album.

In a slight variation of the same recipe, Reznor and Williams decided to offer the download of Williams latest LP in two main flavours: a free 192kbps mp3 version and a five dollar version presenting an additional choice of higher quality downloads, namely 320kbps mp3 and yummy lossless FLAC. Three months after its initial release, Reznor released the sales/download statistics for the release, apparently disheartened. The results showed just under twenty percent of those who downloaded the album paid for it, almost equalling the sales of William’s last album two years ago, in just three months. Reznor appears to view this as failure, or at least underwhelming, which is surprising to me. A purchase made for every one in five listeners strikes me as a remarkably good hit ratio, especially for a product offered for free, no strings attached. Plus, those odds look better assuming the buyers first downloaded the release for free before proceeding with a purchase for higher fidelity versions, surely (though it isn’t clear whether the figures account for this). We have to factor in the hype surrounding the release (still a novelty), plus having Reznor’s name attached to the project mustn’t hurt (I primarily listened because of this, as an admirer or Reznor’s production), but even so, without any form of traditional promotion, the record has done relatively well. But how could it have done better?

Assuming objectively for a moment that the release is strong - and I don’t mean to imply it isn’t - garnering positive blog and forum reviews (being the primary form of word-of-mouth attention it would garner), then why wouldn’t more people pay the five bucks for a pristine FLAC copy? Five dollars equates to about £2.50 - a steal as far as I’m concerned, again leaving out the admittedly difficult factor of subjective judgement. I’d happily pay up to four quid for a good download album (double that for a CD).

Personally, I think the encoding quality of the free download is too high, and not to make too much an assumption, but 192kbps is surely more than adequate for listening on an iPod, so why would we need anything more if we can have that for free? (Here is a sobering article on perceived mp3 sound quality at different bit rates). What would be a more fitting encoding quality? 96kbps or 128kbps, so you can clearly hear the encoding artefacts to remind you what you’re missing? What about 160kbps, as settled on by Radiohead? For reasons I’ll explain in a moment, I felt 160kbps wasn’t high enough a quality for Radiohead’s release, but for Williams’ pay scheme, that should be more than enough to give you a taster of the full-quality versions offered for less than you’d spend on a Pret a Manger sandwich or a Starbucks Vente.

Whereas 192kbps was probably too generous a quality for Saul Williams and the five-dollar album, 160kbps was too low for Radiohead’s offering, with the band taking pre-orders without disclosing the quality of the encoding. I assumed, like many others I expect, that the album would be offered at a decent VBR encoding at the very least, especially as there was initially no talk of a CD release (other than the £40 box set), hence the subsequent ‘revolution’ hyperbole (such comments now seem rather flippant in light of Radiohead’s traditional CD release, prompting disgruntled fan comments here and here). I paid three pounds for the download, a sum I deem pretty fair when you don’t know what you’re getting.

In any event, we paid Radiohead handsomely to leak their own album on their own terms, before the CD was manufactured and had a chance to slip out of their hands - certainly a shrewd ploy by the Oxford boys. Netting more money from this download than all their previous retail downloads combined, in the space of just three months, and to then reassume a traditional outlet for the album (jumping straight to the top of the CD album charts) isn’t bad going when the rest of the industry appears to be crumbling.

As you’ve probably surmised already, we can’t really prescribe a single solution to this download pricing conundrum, as there are too many variables. We want to make it as easy as possible for listeners to become engrossed and involved with our music, given all the distractions and competition from ever-increasing media alternatives, musical or otherwise. So we should offer as much of our releases as we can for free, at a suitably mid-to-low quality level that will allow enough enjoyment and familiarisation with the music, but not deter potential buyers from wanting the high quality versions. The price of the high quality versions shouldn't impinge on the price of a CD, nor should they be priced too low to undersell the artist's time and effort in producing the music in the first place.

Anyway, as Reznor says, Saul Williams is now on more iPods than ever before thanks to this unique, if imperfect retail model, allowing the album to be heard by 150 thousand listeners without spending money on marketing. Plus of course, Williams may yet reap the rewards of offering the album for free further down the line in the form of gig attendance, CD sales and licensing opportunities.

Admittedly, these methods won’t do much to help the no-names like myself, but they do illustrate the importance of making your music available for comment; no-one will talk about something they can’t hear. Asking someone to pay for anything they can’t evaluate beforehand with little to no track record won’t get emerging artists very far, and in this respect press reviews will only get you so far. It may take a little longer than the instant recoup the impatient record industry insists upon, but if your music is worth hearing, I'd like to think you’ll get what you give, ultimately. Or is that a little too naïve of me?

© 2002–2023 Christopher Leary
Header image: Understory cover art, by Guy Warley.