The great riddle facing the record industry in the digital age has been pricing. Napster and its ilk puckishly offered music for "free" in the late 1990s, and the major labels have largely clung to an average of $13 for CDs despite plummeting sales and seasons of downsizing.
Now, one of the world's most acclaimed rock bands, Radiohead, is answering that marketplace riddle with a shrug. "It's up to you," reads a message on the Web page where fans can pre-order the band's highly anticipated seventh album and pay whatever they choose, including nothing.
The British band, which has twice been nominated for a best album Grammy, will sidestep the conventional industry machinery altogether Oct. 10 by releasing the album "In Rainbow" as a digital download with no set price. The album will be available only from the band and at radiohead.com, its official site.
It may sound like a gimmicky promotion, but industry observers Monday framed it in more historical terms: Radiohead, they said, is the right band at the right time to blaze a trail of its own choosing.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, October 03, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Radiohead: An article in Section A on Tuesday about how the rock band Radiohead is selling its new album identified the title of that work as "In Rainbow." It is "In Rainbows."
"This is all anybody is talking about in the music industry today," said Bertis Downs, the longtime manager of R.E.M., the veteran alt-rock band that was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this year. "This is the sort of model that people have been talking about doing, but this is the first time an act of this stature has stepped up and done it. . . . They were a band that could go off the grid, and they did it."
Another high-profile manager said he was still trying to process the boldness of the Radiohead venture. "My head is spinning, honestly," said Kelly Curtis, who represents Seattle-based Pearl Jam. "It's very cool and very inspiring, really."
Radiohead is hardly abandoning the idea of making money.
Its website will also sell a deluxe edition of "In Rainbow" that comes with versions in three formats (CD, vinyl and download) along with eight bonus songs and a lavish hardcover book with lyrics, photos and a slipcase. That package costs 40 British pounds (about $82).
In the coming weeks, Courtyard Management, which represents the band, will reportedly negotiate with labels about a conventional release for "In Rainbow" that would put it on store shelves in 2008. Sources with the band acknowledge that the major labels may balk at the notion of releasing an album that has been available free for months. Still, previous Radiohead albums collectively sell about 300,000 copies a year, according to Nielsen SoundScan, so "In Rainbow" should still have value at the cash register.
"Only a band in Radiohead's position could pull a trick like this," is how Pitchforkmedia.com summed it up Monday. That's because the band became a free agent after its contract with music giant EMI expired with its most recent album, "Hail to the Thief" in 2003. That set the stage for a one-band revolution, even if the five members don't see it that way themselves.
"It's more of an experiment. The band is not fighting for the sake of the fight or trying to lead a revolution," said their spokesman, Steve Martin of New York publicity firm Nasty Little Man. The group declined to comment Monday.
Radiohead isn't the only artist taking bold steps to keep pace with the digital age. The firebrand R&B star Prince, for instance, has taken a maverick path by giving copies of one album away as an insert in a major British newspaper or as an extra to anyone who bought a seat on his high-grossing concert tour. Prince took considerable heat from retailers for the newspaper giveaway.
Then there's the business model of New Orleans' top rapper, Lil Wayne, who made dozens of tracks available free via the Internet to cement his stardom. Even old-school icon Bruce Springsteen seems to see the changing times. He gave away downloads of his new song, the aptly titled "Radio Nowhere."
Geoff Mayfield, the director of charts for Billboard, pointed out that Radiohead was not unique because singer-songwriter Jane Siberry offered a similar optional payment download a few years ago.
Radiohead has sold close to 9 million albums in the U.S., and three of its CDs have debuted in the top 10 on the Billboard album charts. The band has in effect made sure that won't happen with "In Rainbow" by taking its unorthodox approach.
The group has a reputation for daring, which has earned it "relationship fans," core loyalists who skew older, travel to see them play live and urgently seek out the latest release. Those fans, Mayfield said, are not the type to take the new music and leave the Radiohead "tip jar" empty.
"If that loyalty dictates consumer behavior," Mayfield said, "a good number are going to pay what's considered a fair price as opposed to 2 cents."
Several observers said all of that made this experiment far safer than it would be for a pop act that needed a major label to secure radio airplay and television exposure or an up-and-coming rock act that could not fall back on the receipts from sold-out arena shows.