Column 145 — The new indie model? Lincoln Calling recap…

Category: Blog — @ 12:30 pm October 10, 2007

I’m listening to the new Radiohead as I type this, specifically track “Bodysnatchers.” Is it me or is Radiohead turning into U2?

Column 145: Paging Blanche DuBois
Radiohead’s free download scheme.
Last week, Thom Yorke and the rest of his cronies in Radiohead had the clever idea of making their new album, In Rainbows, available to download for the price of, well, whatever you feel like paying.

As most of you know, music critics usually don’t pay for music, anyway. It just shows up in their mailboxes in manila-colored bubble-wrap envelopes. But not this time. Radiohead’s publicist, Nasty Little Man, sent an e-mail to the lowly critics saying there will be no advances, promo copies, digital streams, media sites, etc. of In Rainbows. “Everyone in the world will be getting the music at the same time: Oct. 10. That includes us,” the e-mail said. “Sorry.”

So I went online to and placed my order. After registering on the site (which includes entering a credit card number) I was met with a blank entry field presumably to enter a price. Click on the question mark next to the field and up pops a message saying, “It’s up to you,” followed by another question. Click the ? again and it says, “No really. It’s up to you.”

You have to enter something. You could enter 0.00 pounds. Look, I’ll be honest with you, while I think OK Computer is one of the seminal albums of the 1990s, Radiohead’s music just hasn’t done it for me since. Kid A and all the rest, while sporting some interesting electronic noises, were essentially retreads of the same dark stuff I’ve heard before, sung in Yorke’s yawning, half-awake vocal style. Unless I was knocked out by some early tracks or singles, I wasn’t going to pick up In Rainbows anyway. On the other hand, if I liked the download, there’s a chance I’ll buy the box set for 40 pounds, which includes something of actual value — vinyl copies of the recordings.

I entered 1.00 pound, and proceeded to complete my order. I was told I’ll be receiving a link to the download on Oct. 10.

On the surface, except for all the publicity, the idea looks like an unprofitable gimmick. How many people will simply enter 1 pence or nothing at all? But giving away music is hardly a new concept.

Back before Myspace became a monster, Conor Oberst’s record label, Team Love, allowed visitors to their website to download entire albums for free, including TL-01, Tilly and the Wall’s Wild Like Children. The idea, which also was well-publicized at the time (including a story in Business Week), was that if someone downloaded the disc and liked it, chances were pretty good that they’d own up and buy a copy of the CD. It was sort of an artistic honor system. Over the years, I’ve heard a broad range of the number of downloads for that album, most in the hundreds of thousands. Conversely, I’ve been told the CD sold in the 10s of thousands — that the downloads outnumbered sales by multiples ranging in the double digits.

Foolish loss? Hardly. Tilly and the Wall went on tour to support that download/disc to sizable crowds of folks who never purchased the CD but who had downloaded the tracks and dug what they heard. Maybe the band was out the price of the disc, but they got a little back from the price of the ticket.
These days, you can no longer download Wild Like Children or any other complete album from So much for the honor system.

Tilly actually isn’t a good example of the power of free downloads. After all, Wild was the first release by The New Dylan’s record label. The band had a built-in hype machine fueling it by the time it hit the road. But the idea was a sound one, at least from an indie perspective. If you’re a band headed out on tour that’s virtually unknown outside of your hometown — and you don’t want to play to a roomful of crickets — you better get your music heard somehow. You certainly can’t depend on radio these days. Your only solution: give away your music. Today, that’s done through Myspace (but even then, they still have to find you among the 3 million other bands online).

As a result of, pundits again are forecasting the downfall of record labels, record stores and the recording industry altogether. Is it really the end of the world? Hardly.

Yes, everyone will be a surprised at the success of Radiohead’s pay-whatever-you-want music folly. But don’t expect label-manufactured acts like Justin Timberlake or Kelly Clarkson or Kanye West to follow suit — though 50 Cent already has declared himself a “free agent” after his Interscope contract expires. Radiohead was in the same boat as Fitty — the band’s contract with Capitol expired after their last album, leaving them to become an indie band once again.

We could be seeing the creation of a new career arc for musicians. Bands start off as indies, hoping to can get signed by a reputable indie label with distribution. The goal: To someday graduate to a major label where, with help from a team of marketing wonks, they can blow up into a million seller. If they make it through the flesh machine all the way to the end of their contract — and still have a semblance of their dignity in tact — they can again become indie bands, this time in the truest sense of the word, and like Radiohead, come to depend on the kindness of strangers for their pay-off.

* * *

The numbers are in for last weekend’s Lincoln Calling festival and they’re pretty good, but still missed organizer Jeremy Buckley’s target of 1,500 paid patrons. Buckley estimated total attendance for all four days at 1,250. “In hindsight, I think 1,500 was a pretty high hope,” he said, “that would have been 100 per show regardless of the show.”

He said no show drew fewer than 40 people. The top attendance was for Maria Taylor, Head of Femur and The Balance — all drew around 130 per show. On the other hand, Box Awesome’s opening night DJ show and The Song Remains the Same drew about 40, while the early-evening Zoo shows drew only 50, as did the Domestica/Capgun Coup show at Duffy’s.

So, will there be a 5th Annual Lincoln Calling next year? “So far, that’s the plan,” Buckley said. Here are the numbers by venue:

Thursday (Domestica/Capgun Coup) – 50
Friday (The Song Remains the Same) – 40
Saturday (Ideal Cleaners/Gito Gito Hustler) – 80
Sunday (Head of Femur) – 130

Zoo Bar
Thursday – (early-Tijuana Gigolos/Cory Kibler) – 50; late (Cornerstone Dub) – 70
Friday – (early – Charlie Burton) – 50 (late – Matt Whipkey) – 75
Saturday – (Killigans) – 90

Thursday (Maria Taylor) – 135
Friday – (The Balance) – 130
Saturday – (Eagle*Seagull/Little Brazil) – 100

Box Awesome
Thursday (DJ night) – 40
Friday – (Bear Country/Flowers Forever) – 100
Saturday – (Somosphere/Flobots) – 100

* * *

Tomorrow, Tim Kasher talks about Help Wanted Nights. See you then.

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