We don’t know what the long-term impact of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke release, on Friday, of a new solo album through BitTorrent will be. Yet.
But release was surprising in two ways:
1. Nobody knew the release was coming. Nobody. In an era where new releases are hyped months in advance, and routinely get leaked prior to release, nobody knew this was coming. Yorke and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich sent out a letter Friday morning, September 26, and the album was out. Just like that. That didn’t used to happen in the “old” days, and it never happens now in our information saturated, hyper-connected world.
2. The album was released as BitTorrent “bundle.” The bundle is locked behind a pay gate. (It costs $6 to open the gate.) Nobody had ever released (or sold) an album this way before.
The least surprising thing at this point appears to be the music itself. Early feedback is that it is solid work, even if it doesn’t break any new ground. If you liked Yorke’s prior solo release, or Radiohead’s recent releases, you’ll probably like Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. New Thom Yorke is new Thom Yorke and if that’s what you’re into, you’ll be into this. (I’m listening as I type, trying to avoid making early judgments until the tracks sink in for a bit.)
But more interesting than the music, even for former crate-diving music junkies like myself, is this new chapter in the music business’ ongoing struggle to rebuild itself – to create something new out of the disruption.
Yorke and Godrich have done this before. In 2007 Radiohead released In Rainbows, which had a famous (or infamous) pay-what-you-want download model.
That was an attempt to let the artists get closer to their audience. To let the creators more directly reap the benefits of their creation.
The darker sides of music history have typically been populated with a lot of middle men. Producers, studios, labels, distributors, promoters, and retailers all took their cut. Artists typically end up with very little of the money. It’s a topic Yorke and others have been outspoken about.
At one point, digital was supposed to erase the need for some of those middlemen and give more control to the artists. More efficient distribution! Power to self-promote!
But that hasn’t really happened. It is vastly more efficient distribution system. But that’s allowed listeners to be more efficient, too, only buying the music they wanted. The standard unit of sale dropped from a bundle of tracks (an album, at $14 for a CD) to single tracks (99 cents on iTunes) to streams (far less, or zero if you use the free versions of a service). And the middlemen are still there, too – owners of physical record stores no longer take a cut, but that cut has just transferred to Apple. The institutions still get their piece, albeit of a smaller pie. There’s less money in the system, and the artists feel more than their fair share of the squeeze.
Artists like Yorke have been trying to route around middle men for a while. But every time they route around one, another pops up. It’s a game of Whac-A-Mole.
So what are some of the questions that come out of this?
1. Will BitTorrent become a viable alternative for distribution? BitTorrent’s history is as a facilitator for music piracy, and not all artists trust them. It’s also a clumsy way to purchase music. Artist friendly, yes, audience friendly, no. I did it today, so it’s not rocket science – but it’s complicated enough that BitTorrent had to put out a long blog post with instructions on how to download the album and export the tracks to a music player. The Guardian also felt compelled to put out a BitTorrent explainer, as did others, like Mashable. It’s an experiment, as Yorke and Godrich explained in their letter (Pitchfork has a copy of the letter as part of their coverage), but it needs work before it could become a real channel.
2. Do solutions like this only apply to big, already established artists? If this works for Yorke, it will work largely because he’s already known. Hats off to him for taking the risk and being the trail blazer. But for lesser known artists? The internet has given anybody the ability to connect with anybody, and theoretically, given anybody the means to promote themselves. The problem is that everybody does promote themselves. EVERYBODY. Noise has increase dramatically while attention is still a limited commodity. Great music still can break through just because its great – but it can also languish, lost in the noise, and never find its audience.
In a way this is like the “if you build it they will come” trap that startups get into. Creators, whether they be artists or engineers, are typically skeptical about the value of promoting and selling. But in an increasingly noisy landscape, simply being able to talk doesn’t mean being heard. Paypal found and venture capitalist Peter Thiel addressed this recently in his new book Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future – he was writing about software engineers specifically, but the divide between creators and sellers applies to artists, too:
We underestimate the importance of distribution – a catchall term for everything it takes to sell a product — because we share the same bias … salespeople and other “middlemen” supposedly get in the way, and distribution should flow magically from the creation of a good product. The Field of Dreams conceit is especially popular in Silicon Valley, where engineers are biased toward building cool stuff rather than selling it. But customers will not come just because you build it. You have to make that happen, and it’s harder than it looks.
So there’s got to be some sort of middlemen, although maybe not the middlemen we have now – maybe middlemen that will leave the creators in more control and with a bigger piece of the pie.
If the BitTorrent experiment succeeds, remember, BitTorrent will become another middleman. For this experiment, they’re taking 10% of sales, well below what Apple takes on iTunes, so they’re a thinner middleman. But still a middleman.
One that that is sure about all of this is probably that, regardless of whether the BitTorrent experiment works or not, it won’t be the last experiment along these lines. There’s too much desire among creators to create that “magical flow” directly to their audience, and new tools keep appearing all the time.
Now I’m going to go and actually pay attention to the music, though.