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RockNotes: Radiohead vs. Radio

They're the world's biggest and coolest street performers. They set up their primo gear on the sidewalk at the corner of OK Computer Street and Electric Avenue, throw down their PayPal hat on the virtual concrete and just start playing, letting all passers-by on the information superhighway get an earful for free but asking them to reach into their hearts and wallets to contribute to the cause.

Radiohead's much-discussed Internet business model for its new album In Rainbows is one that has a lot of appeal because, if it works, it would make street buskers out of the most arrogant of rock stars and, oh please let it be so, consign the whole rapacious record industry to the cut-out bin of history.

Just think: If all new music were distributed freely this way, there would no disingenuous and pernicious record company gatekeepers crouching at the precious source of musical creativity, and those thousands and thousands of great bands who have been denied a living because of the misguided whims and policies of clueless corporate greedheads would finally get a chance to make it or break it based solely on their talent.

And at the other end of the band life cycle, corporate rock dinosaurs who are kept annoyingly in front of us, years and years past their natural expiration dates, would be forced to depend on the kindness of the fed-up strangers known as music consumers rather than the cynical calculations of the Clear Channels of the world, whose goal it is to browbeat us mercilessly with repetitious crap until we're so tired that the slightly-less-crappy seems like the music of the angels, and in thankful relief, we flock to Best Buy to shell out for overpriced CDs, the profits from which don't even go to the slightly-less-crappy band, but to the Bluetooth-wearing suits running the rigged carny game.

Oh, it is a brave new world we're envisioning here, one in which the recording industry's too-numerous-to-count deals with the devil finally brings about its long-in-coming undoing. One in which a business that thinks it's a good idea to harass and sue its own consumers is shot down in flames by a democratizing technology. One in which, in a given situation wherein ten equally talented and amazing bands are all starting off in the same place, the sole commercial winner would be chosen by bean counters because their music sounds the least "new." Music is way too important to our culture, our society, to our very lives, to continue to be trusted to these so-called gatekeepers.

Yes, I know there have been lots of belly-aching that Radiohead's giveaways aren't "CD quality" digital files. I say, so what? MP3s encoded at 160 kb/s are plenty good enough to hear what the music's all about. No, they're not going to satisfy hardcore audiophiles who need to hear every last synthesizer bleep as if it were a blast from the trumpet of doom. For those folks, there will still be the overpriced CDs, and they are exactly the kind of people who deserve to pay through the nose. For them, nothing but the best will do, and for them, I feel not a whit of sympathy as they help Bluetooth guy pay for his kid's prep school. They are made for each other.

But for the 90 percent of everyone else, the free distribution of new music on "good enough" MP3 files is the profound answer to the questions of the Internet music age that Radiohead is helping all to see. No matter how many single moms in Duluth and college dorm rats the record industry sues, nothing is going to stop the inexorable march of recorded music into becoming a nearly valueless commodity. Its fate is now that of a "loss leader" that gets the consumer's foot into a deserving band's door, a band that then must close the real sale with concert tickets and pricey, high-quality CDs, merchandise and other goodies for those consumers who turn into real fans.

Under this business model, the winners are the multitudes of great, unknown and unfairly treated bands and fans who will finally realize the great democratizing wave the Internet will bring to the music world.

The losers will be stultifying corporate radio, their buddies in the rake-it-in record industry and the lame-ass collaborator bands whose dubious talents have been force-fed to us for 30 years.

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See the RockNotes catalog for your fix on the rock radar.



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Posted on October 15, 2007


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SPORTS - A Fall Without College Sports.

BOOKS - How The South Won The Civil War.

PEOPLE PLACES & THINGS - Speak At Your Own Funeral.


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