Test-driving the Radiohead download
It may revolutionize the music industry, but it ought to be a bit more user-friendly, reports Fortune's John Simons.
(Fortune) -- To hear some tell it, a revolution began last night as most in the U.S. drifted off to sleep. At midnight Eastern Standard Time, the British "post-rock" group Radiohead released its newest album "In Rainbows" directly to fans over a Web site of its own creation. The price? Whatever fans decide they'd like to pay - which also includes taking it for free.
It's the biggest example to date of a group at the height of its fame circumventing traditional record labels to deliver a major recording to consumers. In the weeks leading up to the band's first release since 2003's "Hail to the Thief", much has been written about Radiohead's do-it-yourself effort. Indeed, this sort of direct-to-consumer selling is a trend that my FORTUNE colleague Devin Leonard identified more than a year ago. It's a smart move - in concept. Rather than garnering the paltry portion of CD sales musicians receive after the record companies take their cut, Radiohead is assured of a much larger slice of profits from each digital version of "In Rainbows". Each of Radiohead's six previous studio albums were released under the group's contract with recording industry giant EMI/Capitol. Radiohead's contract expired with the company in 2003.
In actual practice, Radiohead's sales effort comes off with mixed results, which are sure to puzzle and miff some diehard fans. For starters, the Web site Radiohead built just for the release is a bit amateurish. The design is simple enough, but lacks an intuitive navigational feel. The site, for instance, requests credit card payments in British Pounds, but visitors are guided to a separate site to do their own foreign currency conversion. Fans can choose to either purchase a download or have a CD shipped in December, the same time the band has said it will ship the release to stores for a traditional unveiling.
Adding to the confusion is the understandable fact that the "In Rainbows" website was incredibly slow this morning at 11:30AM EST, when I shelled out $16 for the album. It took a full five minutes to load the site even before I began the transaction. I can't help thinking that someone at a record company (or a really savvy Internet player like Google (Charts, Fortune 500)) would've been able to estimate the amount of traffic a Radiohead release would generate, and reserve an appropriate amount of bandwidth to accommodate it.
Another slight misstep: the downloadable version of "In Rainbows" comes compressed at 160 kbps, which produces a lower quality sound than many of the band's audiophile fans would like. Still, the album's sound quality is fine for listening on a portable digital device, and its compression is several notches higher than the standard digital song (compressed at 128 kbps) purchased at Apple's (Charts, Fortune 500) iTunes Music Store.
In the coming weeks, the record industry - artists and labels alike - will undoubtedly be eyeing Radiohead's sales numbers. There are many questions to be answered. How many units will it sell? Who paid for the release, and how much did they pay on average? How many people copped it for free? And what are the profit margins?
With all the talk about Radiohead's innovative business maneuver, it's easy to overlook the music itself. The album won't disappoint fans of their most recent music (that is, everything released after 1997's "OK Computer"). The group is still intent on challenging the boundaries of rock with fuzzy layered guitar riffs, electronic beats, and lead singer, Thom Yorke's pain-cry crooning. Easy-listening it isn't, but it's bound to please any rock fan who isn't a major record label executive.