The Radiohead Experiment

If you’re wondering what Radiohead’s total haul was, it was possibly about $2.7 million from downloads. Which has to scare the shit out of the music industry and present a considerable wakeup call for recording artists. Because Radiohead collected every penny here. And given that Radiohead’s last album, Hail to the Thief, sold an initial 300,000 (and apparently went platinum), let’s be generous and say that Radiohead collected 35% of the revenue — or $350,000 of the one million+ copies sold for Thief. That’s a considerable difference that not only demonstrates the possibilities of what artists can collect, but clearly shows that the middle-men are about to cast asunder from the vicious cycle. (And you may recall how Courtney Love computed that a band member gets $45,000 to live on, because royalties are often offset by recoupable expenses, even if a record goes platinum.)

Point being: The Internet, in one fell swoop, has changed the landscape with this experiment. And whether other arts — such as filmmaking or writing — can perform similarly is a question that any business-savvy artist should be seriously pondering right now. I wouldn’t dare suggest that the workers entirely control the means of production, but Radiohead’s experiment is an encouraging sign for any independent artist. Ignore the digital medium at your own peril.


  1. Do you fear the online glut of independent artists? Because their wares are so readily accessible, do you think they’ll all cancel each other out with too many choices for the average music fan? Radiohead’s experiment is indeed eye-opening but they came to it as established artists who’d played the system and built a following before launching this idea. Will an unknown indie artist fair as well? Or will they be just as lost in the fray as they were before the digital music age?

    I’m sure there’ll be a book out on it soon. Still, it’s an interesting concept.

  2. I believe your estimate of Radiohead’s take on their last album is way off. Royalties on sales of CDs amount to about 5% of the sale price. In other words, that 99-cent song on iTunes delivers one nickel to the artist.

  3. I agree with Brian. Still, someone has to open the way. It will be fitting for the RIAA to get their faces kicked by the people they brought to prominence. Poetic justice. I think the system will work the solutions out on its own. No need to be overly optimistic or pessimistic. And if it doesn’t, there are still those absurdly costly cds to go back to *ouch*.


  4. Stephen King was arguably the first to attempt this, when he offered his novella “The Plant” for $1 an installment (which was up to readers to pay). It was huge news at the time, especially since King only charged $1 and allegedly netted over $1,000,000 in straight profit, but it hasn’t exactly changed the publishing landscape. (the same thing happened when “Riding the Bullet” was supposed to usher in the era of e-books, which years later is a mere drop in the bucket in terms of revenue)

    Granted music is much more accessible digitally than straight prose, but King and Radiohead are both top draws in their medium with rabid fan bases, and it does remain to be seen whether this experiment can work if the artists doesn’t have a ready-made “platform.”

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