Thursday, October 11, 2007

In Rainbows

So Radiohead's seventh studio album, In Rainbows, came out yesterday, accompanied by a load of media hyperbole and comment. (For those living under rocks - hello Mike - they made it available as a £40 gift box and a download for which you set your own price.)

I paid £2. My reasoning went something like this. I'd pay £6-8 for a CD, and there are lots of benefits to owning a CD:
  • Artwork - something tangible to flick through while the CD's playing - definitely not to be underestimated.
  • A box to put on my CD shelf.
  • A CD to play in my stereo at home, which is a pretty decent system and is set up to play CDs best. (It'll play MP3s through my Archos Gmini connected to the line-in, but it's not optimal sound quality.)
  • The freedom to rip the CD (in line with fair use) to a digital format of my choosing.
  • The freedom to play that digital copy anywhere.
  • The option to sell the CD if I decide I don't want it any more.
With a download of 160kbps MP3s, I only get one of the above benefits. So (depending on how the above are weighted), this download is only 1/6 as good as a CD. This is a new release (which also adds value), and 160kbps MP3s are pretty close to how I'd actually encode at the moment anyway. (A little high if anything.) I don't want the full-on box set thing, but I would like a 'proper' CD - I wonder if they'll release it in that format at any point.

Interestingly, I don't get any of the above benefits for an iTunes download (I don't have an iPod). I'd consider iTunes (especially here in the UK) to be massively overpriced for DRM-encumbered, lossy files. Even a lossless album would only fetch about £3 by this criteria. And an album that couldn't be ripped (e.g. using the defunct Copy Control technology) would be worth about half as much as a standard CD, if I didn't consider such a thing outrageous. So I guess having a physical disc is still pretty important to me.

It's a typically bold move on Radiohead's part to release their music in this way. I suspect that it won't end up being "the future of music" as some people seem to think, but it's an interesting experiment to see how much people are really prepared to pay for a digital download. I'd love to see the results - how much people paid and how much money the artists made, compared to how much they would have made by releasing the album through conventional channels (if such a comparison is valid). It raises the question of how music downloads should really be priced.