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Following Radiohead

Oasis, Jamiroquai, and the Charlatans (UK) will follow Radiohead and give digital downloads of their forthcoming albums away. But what happens to this new "business model" once it no longer generates free publicity?

U.K. newspaper the Telegraph has been giving lots of coverage to Radiohead's recent decision to offer its next album on a bid-for-download basis, with lots of breathless headlines. Some of the paper's analysis seems overly simplistic to me--the labels were in trouble before Radiohead's move, and younger kids buy plenty of CDs and downloads, just not from flavor-of-the-minute pop artists like they did five years ago. But the coverage emphasizes how much Radiohead's move is shaking up the music industry.

Today, the paper reports rumors that Oasis (who have the #3 all-time sellerin the U.K.), Jamiroquai, and the Charlatans (known as Charlatans UK in the States) plan to follow in Radiohead's steps and release their next albums as free digital downloads. I doubt Jamiroquai or the Charlatans could sell enough discs to recoup the promotional and recording costs that a label would presumably impose, so they might as well give their music away as a promotional device. Oasis probably still has enough die-hard fans to recoup, but the publicity could help them recapture some folks who tuned out back when Liam's antics still made the headlines.

But look ahead a year or two, after 15, 20, or 50 high-profile artists have done the same thing. What happens when giving it away is no longer news? If artists don't reap free positive publicity from giving free downloads, will it still be worthwhile? Sure, it might deepen the connection between these artists and their existing fans, but how do these acts find new fans? Superfan #1 might forward the Web link to all his friends, but how many of them will clear a date in their calendar for the show? Especially since bands that sound good on record may suck live, and great live bands often put out mediocre records.

Free recorded music could also hurt artists who are just starting out. Touring's necessary to build a reputation. But there's a lot of up-front expense involved--who pays for all that merch they're selling at the table?--not to mention gas, repairs to the van, and the occasional night with a bed and shower. A label could help defray these costs, but if the label no longer has anything to sell, how does that work? Will every band need a designated yuppie or Trustafarian to front these costs?