The future of music: gigs and t-shirts

Apologies for taking so long to get round to writing this post. That pesky life business getting in the way as usual.

In the previous posts in this series I have been waxing lyrical about copyright law and the mistakes the entertainment industry has made in adapting to a world with the internet. Over the past couple of years, people in the music industry have — belatedly — begun to tackle the issue properly.

Radiohead made big news last year with their latest album, In Rainbows. What hit the headlines was their novel pricing structure. You could choose the price you wanted to pay for it, between zero and £100.

This idea wasn’t all so novel though. Radiohead are by no means the first band to release their music for free, or to take the ‘honesty box’ approach to pricing. They certainly won’t be the last.

Prince did a similar thing this year as well when he gave away his latest album free with copies of the Mail on Sunday. This led to the odd sight of branches of HMV installing a dumpbin of the paper for one day only.

It’s worth thinking about exactly what Radiohead did by implementing a choose-your-own-price method. The record industry often likes to talk about how much it has “lost” as a result of piracy. But the numbers they use are misleading.

As Tim Worstall pointed out on his (now tabloid) blog many months ago, demand curves slope downwards. So the record industry don’t lose anything like as much as (number of illegal downloads) × (RRP of a CD) as a result of the download revolution.

The old model meant that people could basically either choose to buy a CD at its RRP or pass on it completely. So if you were only willing to pay £11.98 for a CD that was priced £11.99, you wouldn’t buy it. That is fine — that is how the market works.

But when filesharing became more common, people could choose to buy a CD at its RRP or download it for free. Those were the only options available. So if you were still willing to pay £11.98 for that CD, you would not pay £11.99 — you’d just download it for free. From £11.98 and lower, record companies were losing profits. They didn’t know how to deal with this, so used the ham-fisted techniques I described in the previous post instead of coming up with a new business model like they should have done.

The In Rainbows method tackled the problem head-on. Under Radiohead’s system, if you were willing to pay £11.98, you could choose to pay £11.98. What’s more, if people were willing to pay, say, £80 for the album, they could choose to pay that as well.

Chances are that most wouldn’t. You could legally download it for free, so lots of people will have done this without feeling any sense of guilt. Radiohead aren’t releasing any figures, so we can’t tell. But reading between the lines of the interviews Radiohead have given, they seem quite happy with how the experiment has worked out and most estimates suggest that Radiohead have made more money using the honesty box approach than they would have done with the old way — mostly because all of the middlemen have gone.

The middlemen are a big problem. They seem to be particularly so at EMI. Recently EMI was taken over by a private equity firm, Terra Firma. They appear to be particularly clueless. In the space of a few months they have managed to piss off three of the biggest acts on their roster — Radiohead, Paul McCartney and now Robbie Williams.

Here is some insight from Paul McCartney:

“I’d started saying to them: ‘Look, we could write a thing and have it released the next week.’ And they would say: ‘You can’t do that these days.’ So I would say: ‘Well, how much time do you need?’ And they’d say six months. I said: ‘Why do you need that long?’ And do you know what they said? ‘To figure out how to market it.’ I said: ‘Wait a minute, are you sure you need six months for that? Couldn’t some bright people do that in two days?’ Jesus Christ. I said: ‘Look boys, I’m sorry, I’m digging a new furrow.”

EMI seem to be making the mistake of treating artists like widgets. They have mistaken creativity for something that can be switched on and off like a tap.

And they seem to be amazingly inefficient. Fans know all-to-well about the six month gap between the announcement of a new album and its actual release date. It surely don’t have to be that way. Indeed, one of the most refreshing things about In Rainbows was that it was announced a mere ten days before its release.

So if the middlemen are no longer needed and are actively hurting the artists and the fans, does it mean labels are doomed?

Well, Radiohead took a risk, and it paid off. A lot of people say they were in a lucky position. And they were. Radiohead are the best band in the world and probably the most popular contemporary band. They were always going to do well regardless.

But what about the smaller bands? Surely the chances are that they won’t do as well as Radiohead by adopting such an honour system.

But honour systems work. Paul Feldman the bagel salesman knows that. LibraryThing has been using such a model for a while, and found that their takings increased once they adopted the system.

A lot of music fans are extremely loyal to their favourite bands. They are just the type of people who won’t take advantage of the fact that you can get music for free. They get such a warm glow from knowing that they are rewarding their idols.

Labels and bands may still be wary. If honour systems don’t convince, the common answer to the problem is to release music for free and use it as a way of generating publicity so that more money can be made from touring. Alan McGee, manager of The Charlatans, who are also now giving away their music for free, reckons that it could even triple the size of the crowds at gigs.

Merchandise is also becoming increasingly important. There is a theory that the reason concert promoters don’t charge the market value for gig tickets is because keeping the price low attracts a younger audience. These youngsters will go on to buy loads of t-shirts from the merchandise stall, so in the end everyone involved makes more money. Some bands are even stopping selling CDs at gigs for fear of cannibalising t-shirt sales.

So the future of music is gigs and t-shirts. This is great for my wallet. I rarely attend concerts, and I am more and more reluctant to buy t-shirts.

But I think the music industry could still potentially make lots of money from selling physical copies of the music. And my wallet won’t be so happy about that. That will be the subject of my next (and, at last, final) post in the series.


  1. I think you’re getting the EMI/Terra Firma/artists dispute the wrong way round.

    Macca left EMI because he was pissed off with how bureaucratic and long-lead-time-ish they were *as a plc* – by the time TF bought EMI, they were aware that Macca and Radiohead were going to leave. Part of the point behind TF’s bid was that they would make EMI less bureaucratic and more responsive, as well as cutting costs.

    The Robbie and Verve dispute is different – that *is* TF’s fault, because they’re not used to dealing with companies whose output is dependent on keeping a couple of dozen left-leaning prima-donnas happy. So they didn’t expect that sacking half the workforce would annoy Mr Williams and Mr Ashcroft…

  2. Don’t know about Macca, but Radiohead have said they wanted to stay at EMI but couldn’t because it had changed hands. From what they have said in interviews, you can almost blame Guy Hands as a person for Radiohead’s refusal to sign a new deal.

    ‘Did the band purposefully wait until after their record deal expired with EMI to release their most commercially appealing album since OK Computer, just as a kind of final “screw you”?’ – Shay, north Wales

    Colin: ‘No, the whole EMI thing, we were still working with them up until the release of this record.’

    Ed: ‘We thought a deal could be done. We really did. So…’

    Why wasn’t a deal done?

    Ed: ‘Because EMI is in a state of flux. It’s been taken over by somebody who’s never owned a record company before, Guy Hands and Terra Firma, and they don’t realise what they’re dealing with. It was really sad to leave all the people [we’d worked with]. But he wouldn’t give us what we wanted. He didn’t know what to offer us. Terra Firma don’t understand the music industry.’

  3. Cheers for the link, doc.

    The point about honour systems is interesting. New technology throws light onto other types of currency such as honour and kudos which traditional business models overlook.