RIAA should adapt, profit from online sales

A few weeks ago, I mentioned Radiohead’s new album, “In Rainbows,” as an example of an older band maintaining a high-quality musical output. There’s a more interesting side to the story, however, as the recording industry braces for a new holiday season.

As November drags on, an ever-growing collection of music industry figures will once again set about bemoaning disappointing record sales and predicting the slow but steady decline of the record business altogether. These people single out bands like Radiohead as the culprits.

On Oct. 10, Radiohead released “In Rainbows” on their Web site. Fans were able to name their own price for the digital album, even if that price was $0. According to information collected from Internet watch-group Gigwise.com, “In Rainbows” was downloaded 1.2 million times in the first day of its release, with an average payment of $8.

If you do the math, you’ll find that Radiohead made more than $9 million for themselves in the first day of their album’s release. They’re set to make more money in the coming weeks from a planned distribution deal, a special-edition vinyl boxed set and, of course, touring.

Touring, in fact, is the main way bands make money to live these days. Artists see so little money from album sales after it’s made its way through the strainer of conventional record labels that the main profit comes from hitting the road and charging admission. For many groups, albums have become strictly a public-relations item to entice attendance at touring gigs. Giving them away for free is beginning to make sense. After all, the bands weren’t seeing the money to begin with.

Groups like Weezer and the Brian Jonestown Massacre have been allowing fans to download music directly from their Web sites for years. Many other groups take the so-called plague of illegal downloading in light-hearted stride, insisting they are simply glad people are interested in their music.

Different artists have different opinions on the trend of music downloading, but they all usually make their bread and butter on the road rather than through their record label.

The Recording Industry Association of America has cracked down on downloading and sharing music online in recent years to make an example of those who would violate existing copyright laws. However, the RIAA acts in the interest of record industry executives, not individual artists.

The digital music “criminals” are really just participants in an emerging music business model. Our popular culture is increasingly driven by online interaction, and so it is only natural that music would be exchanged this way as well. If this cuts down on the profits of Epic Records or Universal Music Group, it is the fault of those companies’ executives for not adjusting their conceptual strategies, not the fault of the consumer for reacting to a new business environment.

The decision-makers at these record companies are paid to think of ways to make money from distributing music. They should adapt to the new Internet environment, or they face extinction. If they are smart, they will find a way to produce revenue through online advertising, licensing or the sale of special online material. If they’re not, the ranks of record industry fat-cats will grow ever thinner. Perhaps this wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Some companies have resorted to releasing albums with special content not available from a simple MP3 download, such as videos, stickers, posters or special access to the band’s Web site. The effectiveness of this strategy is still being determined, but at least it is clear there are businesspeople in the record industry willing to change with the times.

Online distribution is the way of the future, and there isn’t anything the RIAA can do to stop it. If they aren’t successful in finding new ways to glean a profit, the album will go back to what it was always intended to be in the first place: a personal statement from a musical artist and an invitation to come out and see them in their natural setting: a live show.

Personally, I’m fine with the times.

John Crowell is a journalism senior and public relations director for WRFL. E-mail [email protected]