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Radiohead's move to save CD sales

Radiohead_in_rainbows Maybe Radiohead isn't out to revolutionize the music business after all.

The band made headlines earlier this month by putting its new album, "In Rainbows," up for sale on its website in two versions: an $82 box set due in December, and a name-your-price download due Wednesday. Many observers, myself included, saw this as a bracing expression of faith by Radiohead in its fans' willingness to pay for music (albeit at no real risk to its members' ability to put food on their tables, given their ability to sell out arena-sized concert venues). But this may have been the wrong conclusion. About 12 hours before the downloadable "In Rainbows" became available, the band sent an e-mail to those who pre-ordered it, letting them know the files would be 160 Kbps MP3s. That's not CD quality, and fans quickly cried foul.

Band member Jonny Greenwood told Rolling Stone's Rock&RollDaily blog that it was a deliberate choice to sacrifice sound quality:

"We just wanted to make it a bit better than iTunes, which it is, so that’s kind of good enough, really. It’s never going to be CD quality, because that’s what CD does."

In other words, if you want the Radiohead sound in all its glory, buy the CD. So what was Radiohead doing with its little pricing experiment? Greenwood told Rolling Stone and Gothamist that the band was trying to provoke people to think about the value of music. If that was the goal, it should have offered songs encoded losslessly (say, 320 Kbps MP3s). Instead, the band seems to have based its offer on one of three assumptions, two of which are hard to defend:

  • People download just to try out albums before buying them on CD. That might have been true five years ago, but it certainly isn't the case now. Millions of music fans buy CDs for no reason other than to convert them to files on their computers that they can burn onto mix discs or load onto portable players. For them, the download is the album.
  • Consumers can't be trusted to pay for MP3s and should therefore be given a reason to buy the CD, too. Granted, loads of people probably downloaded "In Rainbows" for the minimum price of 1 pence (plus 45 pence handling, which translates into a bit less than $1). That's what about a third of those who ordered the downloadable version did, according to a survey of 3,000 buyers by the Times of London. But they survey also found that the average price paid was a little more than $8, or a few nickels less than the band's previous albums sell for on Amazon.com (as 256 Kbps MP3s, ahem). And with no label siphoning off the proceeds, Radiohead should keep almost all of that $8, which is far more than it makes off of each sale at Amazon.com.
  • People simply don't care that much about sound quality.

I hate to sound churlish, given that the difference between a 160 Kbps MP3 and a CD isn't apparent on cheap computer speakers or headphones. It's much more noticeable when you try to play the tracks on a living room stereo, but really, who does that anymore? We just sit at our computers all day, or in our cars, where the road noise makes everything sound low-fi. Still, when I think of Greenwood's comments, as well as Radiohead's failure to disclose the bitrate used until after it took orders, I can't help remembering what Bluto Blutarsky said to Kent Dorfman after wrecking his parents' car: "You *&!@ed up! You trusted us!"

Incidentally, it's a great album. 160 Kbps or not, I couldn't stop listening to it last night ... on my kitchen computer.

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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