The release of Radiohead's new album as a pay-what-you-want-if-you-want-to-pay-anything download has once again raised the question -- what the heck is going on with the music business? And is a CD worth the plastic it's burned on anymore?
Between Radiohead's experiment and Prince's giving away millions of copies of his new album and CD sales sliding deeper into the toilet on a weekly basis, it seems like recorded music is ceasing to be a viable commodity, and will now function as a tool to promote concerts, rather than the other way around, which is how it's been for my entire life. A lot of people think this is a good thing -- that you're not really a musician unless you're constantly on the road. To which I say, huh?
If the sale of records had been in freefall in 1967 instead of 2007, would the Beatles have been allowed to spend all those months and all that money in the studio making Sgt. Pepper ? Would they have felt the pressure to tour behind the record? How would that have affected what they recorded? Or would they simply have packed it in after their last concert in 1966? How would Brian Wilson and Phil Spector have reacted to the wholesale theft of music they'd labored over in the studio? Would they have bothered if they felt like they had to give their music away and hit the road in order to get people to hear it?
Fast forward 10 years, or 20. Would Steely Dan have gone back to being session musicians after their last tour in 1974 to avoid being on the road? Would they have bothered to create such sophisticated, well-produced albums as Aja and Gaucho if they had to play the songs in hockey arenas for nine months out of the year? Would XTC's Andy Partridge have gotten a day job rather than make some of the most brilliant pop music of the last 25 years after stage fright got the best of him? Would R.E.M. have made Out Of Time and Automatic For The People, two of their most intricate (and best, not to mention biggest-selling) albums, if they knew they had to tour behind them?
A lot of people are still really angry that they paid $19 for a Backstreet Boys CD 10 years ago. (Not that anyone put a gun to their heads, but still....) But that doesn't mean that, as some sort of 40-acres-and-a-mule payback, studio recordings should now be free. Musicians -- recording artists, if you will -- put time, effort, sweat, and creativity into making records, not to mention money. Just because record companies have charged too much for music for at least the last 15 years doesn't mean the pendulum should swing so far in the other direction that it should all have no monetary value.
The good news for Radiohead is that early reports indicate their fans are paying MORE for their new album than they generally pay for a CD. As one pundit puts it, it's the fans' way of showing their appreciation for the band's goodwill. If the rest of the industry can find some way to come to the same sort of delicate balance -- where neither the consumers nor the artists feel ripped off -- then maybe the music biz, in both its pre-recorded and live concert forms, will turn out OK. And maybe musicians who make CDs won't be forced to hit the road in order to sell them.