Column: Digital downloads great for music


With the music industry in a downward spiral, bands like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are taking matters into their own hands and pioneering a new trend in the age of digital downloads.

Shortly after Radiohead announced it would handle all sales and distribution of its latest release, “In Rainbows,” independent of a record label, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor followed suit. On Oct. 8, 2007, Reznor proudly announced on the official Nine Inch Nails Web site that the group was “free of any recording contract with any label.” The release of “Ghosts I-IV” on March 2 marked their first digital release as a group independent of any record label.

While several critics view this as a bold step forward in the music industry, the bigger question is if these artists can pull it off.

There is no question that both bands have established a dedicated fan base, including myself, over the years. With this in mind, they felt it was time to distribute music to the fans in a faster, easier way in the current age of digital downloading.

Even more significant is the risks these groups took. Both distributed their latest works with little to no promotion. For bands without a dedicated following, a bold move like this could make little impact in the industry and become a failed experiment.

However, Radiohead triggered enormous demand for “In Rainbows” by simply making a brief announcement on their Web site. Similarly, The Raconteurs experimented with the idea of promoting their sophomore album, “Consolers of the Lonely,” after its multi-format release on March 25. Though word-of-mouth about their plan spread among Internet sources, the band stayed true to their word and watched their album make its way to the top albums list on iTunes.

In addition, these groups let consumers decide the price of the downloads. All offered their albums, either in partial or complete form, for free. If consumers wanted to support the artists directly, they could name their own price and pay however much they felt necessary.

It looks like Reznor and Radiohead are ahead of the game. There were reportedly 1.2 million downloads of “In Rainbows” in the first two days of its Oct. 10, 2007, release. Although the group won’t share how much they’ve made from sales, it’s reported that over half of consumers downloaded the album for free and the rest paid an average of $5 to $8.

Though offering a free album seems like a huge profit loss, these bands know what they’re doing. Digital albums promote their later releases as a CD or expensive boxed set, especially to hardcore fans. Trends also show that popular digital downloads mean huge demand for live shows. Is it coincidence that Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails are rumored to headline Lollapalooza? I think not.

While some people question the outcome and longevity of this movement, I think it’s a good idea. Artists are showing their creativity in more ways than just through music. They are becoming involved with marketing and distribution, and their efforts are obviously working. This step brings the artists closer to their fans while reaping the benefits they so deserve.