When best-selling British rock outfit Radiohead unexpectedly announced their new record this week, part of the shock was an immediate release date – but also that it would not be free this time.
In October 2007, the band had announced they would be offering “In Rainbows” as a pay-what-you-want digital download – prompting newspaper headlines, fans’ cheers and record industry concerns.
Yet on Monday, the band revealed that their eighth full-length album “The King of Limbs” would be released on thekingoflimbs.com Saturday as a $9 MP3 or $14 WAV digital download.
The original strategy proved successful, as “In Rainbows” made more money than their previous full-length “Hail to the Thief” before even being physically released on Jan. 1. It also topped the Billboard 200 chart.
For all the heated publicity surrounding its release, “In Rainbows” stands out as one of Radiohead’s most subdued records with its soothing strings and entrancing drumbeats.
The album is no longer available for download on inrainbows.com, but the pay-what-you-want model has continued to flourish in music, and elsewhere, even after Radiohead abandoned it.
The Oracle looks at four other bands, musicians and labels that have used the model.
Nine Inch Nails
Trenton Reznor of Nine Inch Nails called Radiohead’s model a marketing ploy, but disliked how most users didn’t pay anything for hip-hop artist Saul Williams’ similar pay-what-you-want album – so he tweaked the format for the release of 2008’s “Ghosts I-IV.”
The first nine tracks, or “album,” of the four-album, all-instrumental collection is available through a free download on ghosts.nin.com, while $5 buys all 36 songs and a 40-page PDF booklet.
Some tracks contain only tinkling piano and subtle drone that wouldn’t be out of place on a film score, while others’ noisy guitar sounds like they could be instrumentals to a “Closer”-esque single.
The record reached No. 18 on the Billboard 200, and Reznor would continue working with collaborator Atticus Ross on the soundtrack for “The Social Network.”
Donald Glover may be best known as a standup comedian and as Troy from the NBC sitcom “Community,” but he also releases free rap mix tapes, remixes and albums under the moniker of Childish Gambino.
Glover’s style has garnered comparisons to Lil Wayne’s free-association flow, while also attracting a following outside the genre by frequently rapping over instrumentals from indie groups, such as Girls and Animal Collective.
His 2010 album “Culdesac” – available by free download on culdesac-album.com – talks about growing up socially awkward and finding confidence from Tina Fey as a “30 Rock” staff writer, in between boasts.
Yet working as a comedic celebrity hasn’t stopped Glover from releasing new tracks. He released his most recent song “Freaks and Geeks” online last Friday.
Quote Unquote Records
Radiohead certainly wasn’t the first band to offer free digital downloads – Quote Unquote Records has released more than 40 pay-what-you-want albums since 2006.
Founded by Bomb the Music Industry! mastermind Jeff Rosenstock, the Brooklyn donation-based record label started in 2006 and suggests a $5 donation per album.
The online label mainly releases punk records, but has branched out into genres including Laura Stevenson and the Cans’ female-fronted folk and Roar’s Phil Spector-esque psychedelic pop.
Rosenstock said Quote Unquote Records received a lot of attention following Radiohead’s record release, yet it predates “In Rainbows” and still continues to distribute albums online.
Hyper-literate Seattle quartet Harvey Danger is most famous for their 1998 hit “Flagpole Sitta,” yet the band left behind a legacy that includes one of the earliest examples of pay-what-you-want sales.
For their third record “Little By Little,” released in 2005, the band put the whole album on harveydanger.com/downloads along with a mission statement of sorts.
The album dispenses some of the smart-aleck wit displayed on “Flagpole Sitta,” but holds several piano-driven pop gems like “Wine, Women and Song” and “Little Round Mirrors.”
Harvey Danger has also distributed “Dead Sea Scrolls,” a collection of B-side rarities and live recordings sold on the band’s final tour dates before their 2009 breakup, under the same model.