When Everyone's an Advertiser Where Does the Money Go?

You've probably heard that for its album "In Rainbows" released today, British band Radiohead is taking what industry watchers are calling a revolutionary step: letting fans determine the price they'll pay for it. But it isn't so revolutionary, if you've been watching media and business trends. It's not just that other, less famous bands have tried the same thing before or the half-failed attempt by Prince in 1998, when fans complained they didn't get his disc for months after ordering it direct from the artist.

What's happening to the industry is monopolistic advantages created either by regulation or severe limits on distribution are being shaken up by the new distribution platforms. If someone charges too much, a lot of the audience will get the music or programming for free – laws be damned. Marc Cuban quipped at a conference that he doesn't bother paying to put copy protection on DVDs of movies he funds that any six year old can crack. TiVo, YouTube, BitTorrent, Kazaa – the names are legion, and will be endless. iTunes was perceived as offering a fair price and great model, until NBC said recently they wanted flexible pricing for differentiation.

We're often taught that competition is great, but in fact capitalism can't function with perfect capitalism. If every piece of content, every ad spot, every song, every product is up for auction, and the disruptive technology of the Web flattens all profits, margins will be cut razor-thin, ad space become commoditized, and the ad industry loses -- except for those few breakout creative pieces that people will really be willing to pay for to show appreciation, or because that creative distinction is a differentiator that allows charging of a higher price. So much today is up for a "pay-what-you-want" or auction model. Auctions on eBay and competitors, keywords on Google and others, brokers who sell ad remnant inventory and the like.

What Radiohead, a highly acclaimed if not superstar band, is doing is not only using the technology to reach out to their core, not only using the new technologies to end-run the recording industry, but also working on new models for making music and making money. It's been pointed out that we're in a new music industry model, one in which, rather than making money off CDs, artists make money through add-ons and concerts. Concerts can take in hundreds of millions of dollars at $100 per ticket. Radiohead's site, through a very simple interface, says "It's up to you" what to pay, and later get a download code. They're offering the music for free, but offering upsells for more: a package with the CDs in a special box, another disc of songs, two vinyl records, lyrics, artwork and so on costs 40 pounds (about $80) that will be available in December. The latest Prince concert, gave away CDs, and took considerable flak for giving yet more away as a newspaper insert.

Radiohead's site crashed last week after they couldn't handle the demand. Their initiative is seen primarily as promotion. Within 36 hours after the announcement, Radiohead had reached #3 on Billboard's "Buzz 100" list of most blogged bands. But it's more: The band gets names and contact info of people who subscribe, all of which have a lifetime value. And they get marketing information: How much will fans actually pay for an album? And releasing the album this way doesn't preclude negotiating a conventional record deal later; that deal could be more lucrative once they've proven the music's popularity beforehand. (CDs still account for about 80 percent of music sales.)

How long, too, before sites like Radiohead's are seen as place to show ads? And there we begin to create yet another long tail disruption. If everyone who can aggregate an audience, especially an audience with a specific bent or demographic profile, begins to serve ads, begins to offer itself to advertisers, we'll start to see all these niche sites (perhaps in Radiohead's case it should be called a "mass niche") that get ad dollars in addition to all the other revenue streams. We'll also see if marketing budgets can sustain so much mainstream media that appeals to less targeted mass audiences.

Some links:
Radiohead Says: Pay What You Want (Time mag)
Radiohead letting fans set the price for new album (Canpress)
A record price for a Radiohead album: $0 (LA Times)

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