Radiohead and Charlatans ‘give away’ albums: the end of the label (for some)?

November 2007

Record labels

by Marc P Holmes

In the space of a few days, two of the UK’s most enduring rock acts have announced plans to ‘give away’ their latest albums. Radiohead, in a cunning experiment have led fans into a moral maze and will allow consumers to name their own price starting from £0.00, thus either entrapping their fans into admitting that they’ve never paid for a single one of their albums, or else giving those who would have downloaded the music anyway the best possible quality copy of the work. In the ake of the announcement the band’s website crashed as it tried to cope with demand. An Xfm survey pitched up with 40% saying they would pay nothing, 30% plumping for £10 and the rest suggesting other figures. The Charlatans, for their part, are giving their latest efforts away as part of an XFM sponsored free download, accompanied by the hyperbolic language of a ‘revolutionary…groundbreaking first’, with the predictable anti-label (but not anti-copyright) lip service being paid by another band that coincidently happens to no longer have a major record deal. What does it all mean? The moves appear to signify that, once released from the their contracts, successful artists are becoming more willing not only to accept publicly that the income from record sales alone has been decimated by filesharing, but also actually do something about it. Depending on which way one looks at it, it either strikes another blow at the heart of an already weakened copyright regime struggling to adapt, or effectively takes those IP rights back into the hands of the artist who then consents for them to be given away. Unfortunately, the change may appear more cosmetic than anything else, with the alternative reality for now being the label owning the copyright, actively condemning filesharing, which then occurs anyway.

However, and more interestingly, it the events hint further at a world where, no longer in need of a label due to sufficient notoriety, an artist will shed the restrictions imposed by its contract, and enter a new period where it can maximise income from touring and merchandise, giving up altogether on revenue from record sales. For the time being, the irony of all this, at least as far as these two bands are concerned, is that the publicity budget that they no longer have – being out of contract – has effectively been secured for nothing with almost universal reporting of the moves in the newspapers and music press.

What is for certain is that this symbolic ‘dumping’ of the record label is a luxury that the vast majority of acts will not be able to afford, however, it gives a glimpse of the major label bosses’ worst nightmares – that there may come a point in a band’s career when labels are no longer a necessity. Ultimately, the problem still remains: how to compensate labels for much of the popularity that may be owed to them in the first place? It will be interesting to see how this manifests itself in contractual terms, especially at a time when the oppressively long and controlling recording contract is considered all but dead and buried by the courts.

Five Eight magazine (10/10/07) add “with both Oasis and Jamiroquai possibly set to follow suit. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails has just declared his band a “free agent, free of any recording contract with any label” after 14 years of industry attachment. Is the sale of concert tickets and merchandise the only future for music now and just how can emerging artists fit into this brave new world? Or is this new world not so brave at all and merely a means of promoting acts that are approaching the end of their sell-by date and who are struggling to disguise the patches of mould”

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