It's official: Radiohead's experiment worked, kind of

The band's new CD debuts at No. 1 on the charts, despite the choose-your-own-price online sales model.


Farhad Manjoo
January 10, 2008 4:29AM (UTC)

For months we've been in the dark about Radiohead's grand experiment, in which the saucy rock band quit its record label and sold its new album by itself. The group allowed people to choose whatever price they wanted to pay for digital tracks of "In Rainbow," but it's declined to say how much it raised from that venture.

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Last week, Radiohead released a CD version of "In Rainbows," and now have the first real measure of the experiment's success: The group sold 122,000 CDs in a week, enough to land the No. 1 spot in the Billboard charts.

Are these figures good or bad? Well, they're not too grand if you consider that the band's last album, 2003's "Hail to the Thief," sold 300,000 copies during its first week of sales. Most bands would consider such a sharp drop a disappointment.

But they are pretty good if you consider this. "Hail to the Thief" was famously leaked to the Internet, meaning that millions of people got it for free, with the band getting nothing in return. Sure, the truest fans purchased the CD, too -- but many who didn't consider it worth $15 probably decided to stay with the free one instead.

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"In Rainbows" was also, of course, available on the Internet before it came to a CD shop near you, but this time people had the option of paying for it (or getting it for free). If they didn't think it was worth $15, they could pay $5, or $2, or $1 -- all of which, for the band, is better than the album going away for free.

It stands to reason that many people did not buy the CD this week because they'd already purchased a download, and that's surely part of the reason why "In Rainbows" did worse than "Hail." (Though there are other reasons, most importantly that people simply don't buy as many CDs as they used to; it's not 2003 anymore.)

But it's also true that the band made a lot of money on "Rainbows" downloads, money that it wouldn't have made if it had sold the album in a more conventional way (the sort of money that it didn't make on "Hail").

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The big question is whether it made enough -- did it make out better this way, selling online and in stores, rather than in stores alone?

We don't know. Radiohead's still not saying. What we do know, though, is that if you're a mega-rock band, putting your music on the Web isn't going to completely kill your CD sales. You can still get to the No. 1 position on the Billboards while, at the same time, collecting download revenue.

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And this way, too, you get your music out to more people, which helps you sell concert tickets, which is where you make most of your dough. Radiohead has just announced a North American tour of 22 cities. Dates TBA.


Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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