Radiohead to Fans: “It’s Up to You”


Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke performs during the band’s “Hail to the Thief Tour 2003.” (Tim Mosenfelder/MCT)

Published: October 25, 2007

I am not, nor have I ever been, a fan of Radiohead. In fact, I think that Thom Yorke has one of the most obnoxious and whiney voices I have ever heard. I find absolutely nothing enjoyable about their music, and their newest album did little to change my opinion. But I do have to hand it to them, the way in which they released “In Rainbows” was pretty revolutionary.

The release of their newest album cut out the middle man entirely. The official announcement about the album was released on Oct. 1, through the band’s blog. The message read, “Hello everyone. Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days. We’ve called it ‘In Rainbows.’ Love from us all.” With that statement, the band, which has already established itself as dissidents of the music industry, created a completely unconventional experiment in music distribution.

The album was released exactly ten days later, exclusively through the band’s Web site in the form of downloadable mp3s. And if that weren’t enough to keep the record industry on edge, the band is also allowing their fans to set their own prices for the album. When purchasing the album, buyers are prompted with a screen that has an open-form box in which he or she can set the price. Next to the box is a question mark that, when clicked, reveals a page that states “It’s up to you.” And on the next screen, “No really. It’s up to you.”

What’s to keep people from downloading the album for free? The answer: absolutely nothing. T.J. Pallas, FCLC ’08, purchased the album for exactly zero dollars. How did he rationalize that? “I don’t feel like I should pay now for a crappy download when I’m going to be buying the high-quality disc when it comes out.”

In addition to releasing only the mp3s from their Web site, the band is also offering a “discbox” that includes two vinyl records, a CD with bonus material, a corresponding booklet and the digital download of the new album. This set, available only for pre-order at the moment, will be shipped on Dec. 3 and costs £40 ($82). The boxed set will also be released solely from the band’s Web site, allowing them to set the price.

According to, just one day after the album was released it had already been downloaded 1.2 million times. In an article in The L.A. Times, Murray Chalmers, a spokesperson for Radiohead, was quoted as saying, “Although the idea is that you can decide what you want to pay, most people are deciding on a normal retail price with very few trying to buy it for a penny.”

But there are also fans who are willing to pay far more than the average cost of a CD for this new album. According to a Lime Wire blog, one man wanted to pay $500 for the record, but the order form would not allow him to go past £99.99. Converted into American dollars, this fan bought the album for $205.81. That equates to just about $20 per song, the average price of an entire CD.

By releasing the album on their own Web site, the band was able to not only gain all the profits themselves, since they are not beholden to a record label, but they also eliminated the extra costs of promotion. The one and only announcement about the album was released by the band through its own Web site, which cost them absolutely nothing. Buzz about the album spread solely by word of mouth from one Radiohead fan to another.

Although this writer would never download a Radiohead album, for free or any other price, the distribution of “In Rainbows” is sure to change the way the music industry operates. Here is a band that is actually treating its fans like fans, giving them the opportunity to listen to their music at a price they deem acceptable. Radiohead’s move sets a model that prevents feeding a record label the fruits of a band’s hard work.  Instead, the profits go directly to the band from appreciative fans.

In the long term, it should be interesting to see how many other bands adopt this buy-direct approach and then how many fans either stick to a downloadable version of an album, or if most will still want to own a physical copy in the form of a CD or vinyl record.