Two and a half years after its release, Radiohead’s In Rainbows is still getting lobbed around the music business like a hand grenade. To everybody from Megan McArdle to Ian Astbury, Radiohead’s decision to sell their seventh album using pay-what-you-want pricing was one of the worst decisions a band could make, and also one of the final nails being hammered into the recording industry’s coffin.
But when that grenade came whizzing at Simon and Julia Indelicate, the heads of UK band the Indelicates, they decided to catch it.
The band chose to sell their most recent album, Songs for Swinging Lovers, on a pay-what-you-want basis through Corporate Records, a label they created. And if the sales figures thus far are any indication, that grenade might be too old. Or a dud. Or both. I spoke with them over e-mail about the whole experience, and here’s what happened:
WAMM: First give everyone a quick summary of your music industry experiences prior to forming this band (i.e. previous bands, record deals, touring, licensing, etc)
Simon Indelicate: After forming in 2005, we put one of our earliest demos (a song called “Waiting for Pete Doherty to Die” which is nowhere near as flippant as the title) online for free download and it very quickly went modestly viral – being downloaded from our site hundreds of thousands of times. We played pretty much a London gig a week for a year, and toured Germany and the UK.
We spent a lot of time being told that “industry” were coming to see us play and encountered the prevailing attitude that these mysterious figures were the only important members of any audience. Eventually, we were approached by the A&R man of a smallish indie label based in London and Austria who offered us, initially, a two single deal. We released a single on vinyl and CD and, though not profitable, it did well enough for them to offer a £10,000 advance for an album with an option on the second. They paid for the recording and it came out in 2008.
Throughout the whole process, while the record company were decent, friendly and not especially incompentent we had the inescapable sense that, advance and recording costs aside, they were adding nothing to the business of making and selling our music. Money was wasted on pointless ads, unnecessary design checkers and failed print PR campaigns and we never felt that we sold a record by any traditional method – we sold albums to people who we were in contact with directly over the internet and were discovered over a network of unorchestrated bloggers, tweeters and word-of-mouth spreaders.
In a two album deal – the company has no obligation to release a second album, but you have to record one for them if they decide they want it. As such, when it came to the second half of 2008, we were left in limbo when the record company started umming and ahhing over whether to exercise their option. Sales had constantly declined and, in a new environment where ‘no-advance’ deals had become the norm they clearly couldn’t afford to meet the second advance that was promised in the contract. They vaguely offered a new contract based on a zero advance – but were never clear.
As a result, we were left for 6 months in a position where we were unable to record anything new ourselves because we were technically still under contract, unable to release anything on the internet, unable to sign a new deal and generally just paralysed. Eventually, painful though it was, we wrote to ask that they drop us, and they obliged. They have since wound up all record company business – and given us back our rights which was extremely nice of them.
So how come you decided to use Corporate for this album as opposed to another label or a platform like Bandcamp or Guguchu?
We built Corporate Records ourselves and it would have been a bit counter-productive to use someone else’s! But we did build the thing specifically to do what we wanted as a band and we don’t think any of the other sites offers quite the same service. We believe that the economics of music now dictates a model based on abundance rather than scarcity – we wanted a site that would allow us to release lots of music very quickly and that would allow us to be very particular about the precise details for each release. Corporate lets you be very specific about your release and doesn’t try to charge you per release – just takes a small percentage of sales.
Also, while there are many nicely designed, web start-up style sites out there, the last thing we’d want is something that looks like it was built by shiny positive web 2.0 people – this is supposed to be rock and roll, not social networking. Corporate Records is a deliberate challenge to the music industry – especially in light of its aggressive lobbying for draconian and stupid anti-piracy laws – and it has an attitude and logo to match.
I think most similar sites are constrained by their dependence on investors and are unable to veer to far from the friendly, uber-professional design aesthetic, the kooky inoffensiveness and marketing speak that they require. Additionally, the size and reputation of a platform aren’t really factors when you sell online – the key thing is getting people to click the link to the download page, not relying on passing traffic browsing the front pages of online music shops.
But conventional wisdom states that the pay-what-you-want model is the province of big, established bands only. What made you decide to use that model?
Because [our former] record company was tied in to distribution deals, for the longest time we only had imported vinyl copies of our first album to sell at gigs. The number of people who didn’t own record players but who bought that format from us because they felt they wanted to reward us in some way was mind-blowing. I don’t believe that people are naturally unwilling to pay musicians they wish to support and I think pay-what-you-like requires that people know that artists are offering their work themselves on that basis, so that they feel that the act of paying makes a specific difference. Even more so, I think it’s important that people who want to important they have to enter a zero in the payment field and press send – it just changes the balance of downloading and associates the acquisition of music with an effect on the people who produced it. I think that’s enough – it’s a positive way to deal with the problem.
I think the enormous success of the album has vindicated the model. Thousands of people have chosen to pay. If anything, the fact that people know that, unlike Radiohead, we actually need the money and won’t be fine if they choose not to pay us has helped.
A couple weeks ago, Ian Astbury of The Cult called Radiohead’s decision to sell In Rainbows this way “stupid” and “irresponsible.” I’d guess you disagree with his opinion?
I have no sympathy with his views at all. I’ve regularly heard the spurious argument that giving music away devalues it and all I hear is a basic failure to understand the simple economics of the situation.
The record industry was profitable because it controlled a number of scarce resources: that is, it was able to afford the high costs involved in recording, manufacturing, distributing and promoting music. The Internet has reduced these costs to almost nothing – recording gets closer to free every day, manufacturing an Mp3 is free, distributing an Mp3 costs almost nothing, online promotion only costs time (print ads and reviews have startlingly low ‘conversion rate’). In other words, far from selling a scarce resource, the record industry is now trying to sell something abundant. The only sources of scarcity they have left are hype and fame. Anyone who wants to listen to music of equal quality – and isn’t bothered that much how famous the bloke who made it is – can do so legally and immediately for nothing. It is absolutely a buyers market and it is for buyers to determine how much they value 45 minutes of music based on their relationship to those who produced it. Radiohead didn’t devalue music – they offered music at the value that the market had set. We did the same.
There’s nothing irresponsible about responding to reality in a way that makes the truth clear to people at the expense of a rotten, obsolete system that only ever exploited musicians anyway. He should watch who he calls stupid in future.