Radiohead's In Rainbows, becomes their first album to top Billboard's chart, with 122,000 copies sold in its first week. Not a huge news story - until you remember that In Rainbows was available for months as a pay-what-you-like (or a heck-don't-pay-anything-that's-cool-too) download from their website. 122,000 copies is relatively small potatoes compared to the 300,000 that their last major label album moved in its first week in 2003. Still, the question remains: Why did so many people wait for the opportunity to pay for something they could have had for free months ago?
The answer is obvious. Music is a thing. It's always been more than the beats and melodies coming out of your speakers or headphones. It's being able to hold a physical object in your hand and say "This is mine - I own it." For all the Utopian talk of file sharing and subscriber services that will render music ownership as we know it obsolete, the needs and preferences of the record collector, the force that's kept the music biz going since there were records to collect, are being ignored.
There are plenty of people who are thrilled that they'll never have to set foot in a record store again and have thrown out their CDs after putting them on the hard drive. But don't forget about the music lovers who still collect music and who still love the tangible object that is a CD or LP. And a lot of fans who aren't vinyl or CD fetishists seem to also believe that if they're downloading a file rather than acquiring a thing, it should be free, or next to free.
Artists are learning this the hard way. Unconfirmed reports say that about 2/3 of those who downloaded Radiohead's album paid nothing for it. Nine Inch Nails' frontman Trent Reznor reported this week that only 18% of downloaders paid for the new album by Saul Williams, which Reznor produced and helped promote.
You don't have to be a rocket scientist to figure it out. Market music as a thing for 110 years and people get pretty attached to the idea. Take away the object and replace it with intangible zeroes and ones and you've taken away a good deal of, if not all, of the perceived value.
Even though CDs will never again prop up the music industry singlehandedly the way they used to, 122,000 people proved this week that they're not going to stop buying music in thing form just because certain forces in the biz want them to. And if Radiohead or Trent Reznor or the record labels simply tell them to get with the program, they're alienating an important chunk of their audience - the chunk that still pays for music.