Thom Yorke Probably Didn't Make $20M on 'Tomorrow's Modern Boxes'

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Thom Yorke of Atoms For Peace performs during day 3 of the Austin City Limits Music Festival in Austin, Texas. 

There's a story going around the Internet that Thom Yorke could have made "as much as $20 million" from his BitTorrent release, Tomorrow's Modern Boxes. Feel free to ignore it.

It's true Yorke could have earned $20 million from the innovative release. It's not impossible. But it's incredibly unlikely that all, or even most, downloaders actually paid for it. (BitTorrent says the release has been downloaded 4.4 million times but doesn't break out free single/video downloads and paid downloads of the full, eight-track release).

How many downloads were paid? Who knows. One reasonable estimate comes from the fraction of Pandora listeners that pay for what is a free service: 4.3% (3.3 million subscribers out of 76.5 million monthly listeners). That works out to 189,800 buyers (4.3% of 4.4 million) and revenue of $1.02 million (189,900 times 90%, Yorke's take of BitTorrent sales, of the $6 sale price).

That's the equivalent of 146,000 digital album sales at $10 retail and $7 wholesale. That wouldn't be a bad showing for a self-released, direct-to-fan album that allowed Yorke to circumvent major download stores and gather customer information -- but it's no Hollywood starring role, either.

What about a successful scenario? It's not unthinkable that Yorke achieved a paid-to-total download ratio of 25 percent, which is the subscriber-to-total listeners ratio at Spotify. That equates to 1.1 million paid downloads and $5.9 million of revenue.

While the above comparisons with Pandora and Spotify aren't apples-to-apples, they're useful illustrations of how willing people are to pay for something -- when something free is sitting right next to it.