Radiohead Drops Name-Your-Price; Mojo Nixon Sees Little Return On Catalog Giveaway

Radiohead gave its fans an unexpected Valentine's Day present when it announced it would release a new album, "The King of Limbs," on Feb. 19.

While the announcement came out of left field, the release strategy did not.

Gone is the experimental name-your-price offering that made "In Rainbows" such a landmark release. In its place are firm prices in line with standard retail prices (Billboard.biz, Feb. 14).

When Radiohead released "In Rainbows" in October 2007, it let consumers pay whatever they wanted at first-from zero to £99.99 (about $210 at the time). The strategy seemed to raise the possibility that embracing what effectively amounted to a tip-jar model could get more people to listen to your music.It also appeared to pay off in terms of sales. After Radiohead gave "In Rainbows" a proper U.S. commercial release three months later through ATO Records, the album debuted atop the Billboard 200 with first-week sales of 122,000 and has sold 839,000 units and 692,000 individual digital tracks to date, according to Nielsen SoundScan.

So why not repeat the approach with "The King of Limbs"? Radiohead and its management team couldn't be reached for comment. But it was clear before that Radiohead's embrace of free music was more calculation than ideology: The band's management has said that "In Rainbows" was an experiment meant to increase sales of the proper physical and digital release.

Topspin Media CEO Ian Rogers says he isn't surprised that the band didn't offer its new album for free. "I always felt they were standing up philosophically and saying there are other ways to put out music," he says. "I don't think they were saying pay-what-you-want is the future."

Since the release of "In Rainbows," the most prominent album giveaway was Mojo Nixon's decision to offer free downloads of his entire catalog at Amazon in October 2009. According to Nixon, about 200,000 consumers downloaded a combined 1.5 million tracks, which included songs downloaded as part of an entire album download.

But subsequent sales after the promotion suggest that consumers were just being opportunistic. Nixon had sold 6,000 digital tracks before the promotion from January through September 2009, according to SoundScan. Since the promotion ended, he has sold only 9,000 tracks to date.

"It wasn't quite the financial treat I thought it would be," Nixon says, adding, "I was hoping that people who make movies, TV shows and commercials would say, 'Oh, yeah, Mojo Nixon. I used to listen to his music all the time. Let's use his music in our productions.' But that hasn't happened yet."

Still, free music will remain part of many artists' release strategies. Bradford Cox, singer in the rock band Deerhunter, regularly offers free downloads of EPs by his solo project, Atlas Sound. Kanye West gave away one free download per week during his "G.O.O.D. Fridays" campaign. And rappers of all stripes release underground mixtapes.

But in all three examples, free music has complemented, rather than replaced, traditional commercial releases. Both Atlas Sound and Deerhunter release proper albums. West's "G.O.O.D. Fridays" downloads helped fuel demand for his latest chart-topping set, "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy." And mixtapes haven't replaced full-length hip-hop albums.

Some independent artists continue to use free music to generate revenue in other areas, like touring and merchandise. Electronic artist Pretty Lights (aka Derek Vincent Smith) has long given away his music at his website while taking donations through PayPal. "Derek is living this," says Randy Reed, Smith's manager at Red Light Management. "It's not a temporary strategy he tipped his toe into."

Reed says Smith is playing larger venues when he returns to a market, has strong merch sales and, most important, commands a strong connection with his fans. And some fans still prefer to buy his music at digital retailers, where Smith sold 15,000 albums and 102,000 tracks in 2010, according to SoundScan.

As it did with "In Rainbows," Radiohead will give "The King of Limbs" a proper commercial release by licensing it to ATO Records in North America, XL Recordings in Europe and Hostess in Japan and Asia.

••••Additional reporting by Ed Christman.

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