Radiohead and the Ethics and Future of Downloading Music

On: October 3, 2007
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About Anne Helmond
Anne Helmond is Assistant Professor of New Media and Digital Culture and Program Director of the MA New Media and Digital Culture at the University of Amsterdam. She is a member of the Digital Methods Initiative research collective where she focuses her research on the infrastructure of social media platforms and apps. Her research interests include digital methods, software studies, platform studies, app studies, infrastructure studies and web history.


As you might have heard Radiohead dropped its major label and put its new album online for download. This is not a new strategy but what is interesting is that they don’t sell their music through iTunes for $0.99 per song or $10-12 per album but through their site only. They are moving the legal download music industry into a new direction. The album doesn’t have a fixed price but you pay what you wish.

Radiohead 01

I think this is a very clever move as it explores the boundaries of the ethics of downloading. I could go through a lot of trouble locating the new album and illegaly download or I could download it officially through their site. But this is where it gets interesting, how much am I going to pay? I could download it for only $0.99 or for the regular price of around $12.

Radiohead 02

Radiohead is the first artist that makes me think about the ethics of downloading and how much one would be willing to pay to download an album. I still haven’t made up my mind. I would feel guilty towards Radiohead if I would only pay $0.99 but I am not willing to pay $12 either. I’ve been thinking about $5 but the fact that I can’t listen to samples of the album makes the decision even harder. What would you pay for an album if you had the choice? (and now you do!)

Radiohead 03

6 Responses to “Radiohead and the Ethics and Future of Downloading Music”
  • October 3, 2007 at 2:14 pm

    Very nice! Something like this was bound to happen of course. I like the fact that its your own ethics that are called upon. What indeed would I pay for a full album? Would be nice if Radiohead gave us an average of what was already payed, or some kind of value-index bar. Then again, that would influence your decision of course. Hmm… difficult.

  • October 3, 2007 at 2:27 pm

    well, fact is that most artists only earn small amounts thru their albumsales. since the mid nineties the real money in the recordindustry is earned with playing live and selling merchandise.

    calling upon ethics in a postindustrial capatalistic society is near to commercial suicide. I don’t think radiohead really believes they will get money of this experiment directly.

    but the thing is, they will but via other ways.

    first there is the special box with cd’s and vinyl for the ‘real big fans’.

    furthermore this experiment will give them respect and goodwill you can’t buy with money. their merchanisesales and their upcoming gigs will boost sales.

    welcome to the new musicindustry ;-)

  • October 3, 2007 at 5:24 pm

    I agree with Theo that Radiohead is effectively creating goodwill with this action (I’ve stumbled upon this action like 10 times already today), but I also believe that most people will actually pay money for the CD, rather than downloading illegal torrents. The fact that you can decide for yourself how much you want to spend is interesting, as Anne points out your conscience comes into play here. You have the option to download the CD for one penny, but since the download is from the official site, you don’t want to come over as a greedy fan. Despite the fact that I don’t have a credit card, I’d buy a CD from my favourite band like this and I would probably pay around $5, especially with the current euro exchange rate ;)

  • October 4, 2007 at 1:00 pm

    I think it’s interesting they are serving two sides of listeners: the die-hard fans who will pay £40.00 for the special disc box set and other listeners who either pay nothing or what they are willing to pay.

    I agree with you that most money will be made outside of the actual album sales (box set or downloads) but I still think it’s an intriguing tactic in the age of the (illegal) download.

  • October 4, 2007 at 5:18 pm

    For Radiohead fans the decision is harder than you might expect. Over half of the songs on the album have already been played at live concerts. This makes owning the second CD even more desirable. 40 pounds however is a massive amount of money spent on having a few extra new songs (for sake of argument ignoring the fact that there is an obvious difference between live performances and studio recordings). Having already spend 5 euros on the album download, I really don’t feel too happy with this marketing technique. Theirs is a win-win situation. I feel like I lose no matter what.

  • October 4, 2007 at 5:21 pm

    At the same time I do support this strategy as a tool for breaking up the music industry’s traditional habits. I am curious to see what new initiatives this action will spark.

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