2024-05-24 08:00:56
New In Rainbows Numbers Offer Lessons for Music Industry market data/music/theory

| Listening Post from Wired.com

Radiohead’s “pay what you want” distribution gamble paid-off despite — or perhaps because of — rampant file sharing, according to new analysis from Will Page, chief economist at the MCPS-PRS Alliance, a British rights organization, and Eric Garland, CEO of Big Champagne.

Radiohead’s notorious release strategy for In Rainbows, which allowed fans to download it for an optional price with a valid e-mail address, was considered to have been a failure by some because the album became wildly popular on file sharing networks almost immediately upon its release.

But Garland and Page’s, “In Rainbows, On Torrents” report, slated to be released on the MCPS-PRS website on Friday, indicates that Radiohead’s strategy was a success nonetheless, contributing to the album topping the charts in both the UK and United States and a wildly successful worldwide tour. When it comes to judging whether an album is a success these days, the old metrics just don’t cut it.

The report found that torrent users traded 400,000 copies of In Rainbows on its October 10 release date, and that it was shared a staggering 2.3 million times by November 3 (chart courtesy of BigChampagne). By comparison, albums by Gnarls Barkley, Panic at the Disco and Portishead released around the same time using conventional means were shared less, the most-frequently shared being Panic at the Disco’s album, which was downloaded 157,000 in a week — nearly three times lower than In Rainbows’ peak day of trading).

Many within the music industry (including U2 manager Paul McGuinness) will no doubt view these 2.3 million downloads as sales Radiohead lost by giving the album away in a readily-sharable format. And either way, they represent email addresses that Radiohead failed to add into its fan database.

Will_page_2 Garland and Page admit that server problems on Radiohead’s site almost certainly drove some users to torrent trackers, as did the fact that Radiohead had “signaled” to fans that the album was free. But their most interesting finding about why fans chose to download the album via torrent rather than from InRainbows.com is their hypothesis that users adhere to music acquisition venues regardless of other factors.

“The venue hypothesis suggests that even when the price approaches zero, all other things being equal, people are more likely to act habitually (say, using The Pirate Bay) than to break their habit (say, visiting www.InRainbows.com),” reads one section of the report. In other words, people tend to develop habits around the acquisition of music; once they find something that works, they tend to keep using it. As the paper mentions, “The Pirate Bay is a powerful brand with a sterling reputation in the minds of millions of young music fans.”

The hard lesson to the music business here is that it must license venues for music acquisition that fans prefer to file sharing networks or otherwise make the toleration of file sharing part of their business plans. If even Radiohead’s freely available album was torrented 2.3 million times in the first three and a half weeks, how can more traditional offerings successfully clamp-down on file sharing? They can’t, pure and simple.

In addition, official offerings like InRainbows.com need not be considered to be in competition with file sharing networks, as hard as that may be for longtime music insiders to comprehend.

“Frequently, music industry professionals suggest that an increase in legitimate sales must necessarily coincide with a commensurate reduction in piracy, as if this were a fact,” says the report. “Yet, the company BigChampagne has made no such consistent observation in nearly a decade of analyzing these data. Rather, it finds that piracy rates follow awareness and interest… The biggest selling albums and songs are nearly always the most widely pirated, regardless of all the ‘anti-piracy’ tactics employed by music companies. Or, to sum up by paraphrasing an earlier argument, ‘popular music is popular everywhere it’s popular.'”

Exactly. All of this torrenting of In Rainbows contributed to the album making such a big impression on a listening public that’s bombarded with an ever-increasing amount of information. Without its album being so widely traded, would Radiohead’s album have shot to the top of the charts? Would their worldwide tour be such a smashing success?

Eric_garland_2 Not necessarily, says the report, and we agree. Applying economic principles to digital music, Garland and Page found that “the challenge of achieving popularity (or attention) when the old rules of scarcity and excludability don’t apply (to information goods) the way they used to, changes the monetization game completely.” And Radiohead clearly won that game, regardless of how many times its album was traded online.

Garland and Page came to the undeniable conclusion that the music industry needs to stop thinking of shared files as lost sales, and start treating them as an aspect of reality upon which they can build part of their businesses.

As for Radiohead, they can rest easy knowing that while their strategy will now come under increased scrutiny by enemies of file sharing within the industry, that by “losing” the battle for the email addresses of those who downloaded their album via bit torrent, they actually won the overall war for the public’s attention — no easy feat, these days.

The report is now available here.

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