Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Radiohead must be kicking themselves, reckon U2

You or I might have thought that by any measure, Radiohead's In Rainbows experiment was a bit of a success - demonstrating that some people will pay for something they perceive as having value, even if they don't have to; selling a large number of physical CDs; zooming to number one; generating a massive surge in free publicity.

We're wrong, though. It "backfired" to some extent. So reckons Paul McGuiness, manager of U2 and increasingly one of the most conservative voices in the music industry. How so, Paul?

The majority of fans who downloaded In Rainbows ignored the band's website and acquired it illegally by other means, Paul McGuinness told BBC 6 Music.

"Sixty to 70% of the people who downloaded the record stole it anyway, even though it was available for free."

Can you steal something that's being made available for nothing anyway? This alone shows how caught up in the 1980s McGuiness' thinking is - while Radiohead took a relaxed attitude to the album, and effectively separated out the concept of 'owning' a recording and rewarding the artists, McGuinness is convinced that people sharing a record are "stealing" it simply because the files aren't coming from the official website. But if Radiohead had been bothered about that, they'd have slapped DRM on, wouldn't they?

It's also far from clear where this "sixty to seventy per cent stole it anyway" figure comes from. It's possible McGuinness has some secret figures he's quoting; it's possible he simply plucked a figure out the air. Or, it's possible he's got confused and is thinking of the 62% figure of people who downloaded the record without paying from the official site. But that wouldn't be stealing, because they were allowed to.

But let's assume that he's actually not got his statistics mangled, and take them at face value. Even if 70% of people who downloaded the album got it off bittorrent, how does this make the experiment one which "backfired"? Even if In Rainbows had had a U2-approved proper release, with a cardboard cut-out of Thom Yorke in every HMV and a tie-up with iTunes, wouldn't the record still have wound up on the torrents? Wouldn't a large number of people still obtained it without Radiohead getting a penny?

Of course, McGuinness is keen for everyone to think that the experiment was a terrible disaster for all concerned - because he's got a vested interest in the status quo. That's the latin sense of status quo; we wouldn't want to suggest that Paul McGuinness makes his money managing a band who are still coasting on one good idea they had a few decades ago:
"We will obviously work with whatever technology is available to make the release of the new record as interesting as possible," he added.

"[But] for U2, physical sales are still an enormous part of our business and we still sell a lot of actual CDs."

He seems to have missed the whole 'physical sales of In Rainbows going to number one' part of the experiment, doesn't he?


Anonymous said...

well people are still coming to terms to this 'new musical landscape' i suppose. our experience - we sent out CDs/mp3s to reviewers and before we knew it, it was on Russian and Italian filesharing sites - some charging money some sharing for free. I'll have to ask Radiohead on how best to 'monetize' ourselves.

Spence said...

What it all amounts to though is 'bugger, wish I'd thought of that first'.

Anonymous said...

I have a hypothetical for Paul McGuiness, which admittedly is only vaguely related to this. (I'm not a U2 fan so it's purely hypothetical) Say that I have decided that I'm so obsessed with Bono and his charity work that I want to illegally download his album and send the money I would've spent on the album to one of the many charitable foundations Bono has, over the years, promoted. Where would he stand on that? I mean what's more important to Bono. Starving kids in Africa or the bottom line? Would McGuiness be willing to say that his band care more about the money than the causes they promote? I could argue that all I see here is a Dutch band who have more than enough wealth to keep them in comfort for the rest of their lives and don't need my money as much as others. Or, to take a song lyric completely out of context, would he tell me to "thank god it's them instead of you." Needless to say I'm puzzled by the muddled ethics of this band.

M.C. Glammer said...

U2 wish they'd written 'Down Down.'

Chris Brown said...

And presumably he hasn't noticed that Coldplay have had little difficulty selling downloads of the single they gave away for free either.

In a way it seems like an advantage for Radiohead if some people downloaded it free from somewhere else. At least they'd have saved bandwidth.

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