Home Radiohead Has Its Cake and Eats It Too… Maybe

Radiohead Has Its Cake and Eats It Too… Maybe

In October, Radiohead released their new album, In Rainbows, as an online download with a name-your-own pricing scheme — you only paid if you wanted to, and only as much as you thought the album was worth. Our unscientific poll showed that a majority of ReadWriteWeb readers thought that downloadable albums were worth between $5-14 — though we framed the question such that we can’t make any determinations about how many people would actually be willing to pay that much.

And we really don’t know how many people purchased In Rainbows online. comScore said just 38% of downloaders paid for the CD, most below $4, while Radiohead disputes those numbers — but won’t release any of their own. Writing in October, Richard MacManus predicted that it would be the physical CD that would be the true money maker for the band. It looks like he was right.

“According to our poll US$5-9 is the most popular price range that people are willing to pay for the digital download version. That pricing will be virtually all profit to Radiohead, so the download version will make some money for the band,” he wrote. “However the eventual single CD release will reach a much wider audience, so the physical CD will end up being the pot of gold at the end of In Rainbows.”

The latest UK album charts have In Rainbowssitting pretty at #1. Because the Internet download version is no longer available, it is clear that Radiohead’s main goal for the gimmick was to promote the planned CD release of their album. It would appear they were successful in that regard, but appearances can be deceiving. To be fair, it is way too early to tell what effect the In Rainbows online promotion had on the band’s CD sales, so what follows is purely hypothetical.

It was certainly not hard for Richard to predict that a CD release for Radiohead would be a “pot of gold.” The band’s last 4 albums have reached #1 in the UK, and none of the bands albums have thus far failed to go platinum there. Even in the US, where the band’s popularity has cooled since the late 90s, a gold record is nearly guaranteed for Radiohead. So Internet promotion or no, a hot selling CD was in the cards for Thom Yorke and company.

What we don’t know yet, is how In Rainbows CD sales will compare with the band’s past albums. Could it be that by offering essentially a prerelease of the album online, the band cannibalized future CD sales? Did the eventual cancellation of the download promotion and release of a traditional CD alienate early-adopters and cause them not to want to buy the album? Or did instead the Internet release merely attract casual fans who would not likely have purchase the CD anyway? These are all interesting questions, but it is still to early to form any definitive conclusions from Radiohead’s experiment.

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The ReadWrite Editorial policy involves closely monitoring the tech industry for major developments, new product launches, AI breakthroughs, video game releases and other newsworthy events. Editors assign relevant stories to staff writers or freelance contributors with expertise in each particular topic area. Before publication, articles go through a rigorous round of editing for accuracy, clarity, and to ensure adherence to ReadWrite's style guidelines.

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