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somewhere, under in rainbows
the record industry, radiohead, and the rest of us
by jeffrey d. walker
10.19.07
music

Selling your soul isn't easy.

Neither is selling your country, R&B, or your rap music. And selling classical is extremely difficult. Just ask the major record companies, whose sales have been in decline for the last several years.

Anyone following the decline in record sales have certainly heard the major labels blaming illegal downloading, a/k/a "piracy", for the trouble with CD sales. I've read many studies supporting this theory, and a small few refuting. At any rate, the big labels recently had their day in Court, so to speak, when the book got thrown at Jammie Thomas, and she was handed a verdict charging her over $200,000 for alleged illegal file-sharing.

But this headline wasn't the biggest in regards to record sales in the past month. That distinction, in my estimation, falls to Radiohead, who has generated a lot of buzz by self-releasing their latest album from their website, without aid of a label, and further, permitting downloaders to name their own price for purchasing the album.

In the first couple of days following this experiment, the evidence suggests that there were (so far) 1.2 million downloads of Radiohead's In Rainbows exclusively from their website, averaging $5 to $8 in revenue per purchase (even with 1/3 of people paying nothing). Without the usual corporate cut of those proceeds, Radiohead probably has made a pretty penny for themselves. Such a business model has prompted some to suggest that a revolution is coming that will eventually topple the big record companies, and let the artists take control of their own destinies.

Having never experienced the gift (or curse) of a major record deal, I never thought that much about file-sharing and its impact on my music. If you aren't signed to a label, you're pretty much selling your CDs at your shows, at local stores, or on a website.

But unless you're already a Radiohead, you aren't likely to generate 1.2 million downloads in a year, much less in a couple of days. That's mainly because 1.2 million people have never even heard of you.

Herein lies the fallacy that the record industry is likely to be toppled anytime soon, by a Radiohead, or otherwise. To wit: a band can only promote itself on a major scale if they have already had the fortune of major-label-esque promotion.

If you've followed my work here at IM, you may know that I play in a band called Rocko Dorsey. This is our video:

Rocko Dorsey -Across the Sea- the video

Add to My Profile | More Videos

Since I joined R.D. in 2005, we've opened for artists on major record labels, played shows in several states across the U.S., were in the running for Fox's Next Great American Band show, including being called by Fox employees who asked us to be ready to take 4 days off of work and fly to Vegas, only to then stop calling us and later find our that we were dropped from the running in what we were told was the "final cut." We have played on live television and radio, and been written up in newspapers. Our myspace has garnered over 20,000 views; a respectable figure, but far from 1.2 million.

Still, Rocko Dorsey, as well as other groups we consider our peers, are all struggling to find the key that turns our art into our livelihood; searching for the key to sell CD's ranging in the millions, or at least the low six-figures. Okay, five-figures would be nice.

But, without what I call the "guiding hand" of music fate, being a major (or at least a well oiled minor label) intervening on our behalf, or a promoter who can get us on national television and radio, bands like Rocko Dorsey, I'm sad to say, will never pose a serious threat to the music industry.

If Radiohead had never been given a major label contract, I can safely say that they would never have managed 1.2 million downloads from their website out on their own. It was only after having the benefits of major label promotion, including press, video, airplay, etc., that Radiohead had the appropriate "springboard" to go out on their own and still make major sales.

Likewise Pearl Jam did not rebel against Ticketmaster in the mid 1990s until after becoming an act so large that people cared enough to go around the normal channels in order to attend their concerts. This fight, if it had been launched before they were famous, would have likely left Pearl Jam as merely your favorite local Seattle act.

For those unsigned, fairly regional acts such as I am involved in, we are still playing shows in the hopes that the major records labels will arrive one day, contract in hand, to sweep us into the limelight. The success of Radiohead is nothing that we can realistically hope for, and should not be mistaken as a sign that the benefit of the major labels can be bypassed on the way to fame and fortune. We must still await the "guiding hand" to take us to the next level, or else, still await for the true unknown band who, through some creative employment of the Internet, or by some other means, finds the way to put their songs on the lips and minds of the masses without aid from any traditional source.

Until then, we're all more likely to end up famous like Jammie Thomas did, as opposed to Radiohead, at the hands of the major labels. And their stranglehold on what has the opportunity to "make it," and what doesn't, will continue to reign.


ABOUT JEFFREY D. WALKER

A practicing attorney and semi-professional musician, Walker writes for his own amusement, for the sake of opinion, to garner a couple of laughs, and to perhaps provoke a question or two, but otherwise, he doesn't think it'll amount to much.

more about jeffrey d. walker

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COMMENTS

russ carr
10.20.07 @ 9:42p

When you (RD) put out a CD, I'll buy it. No question about it.



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