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Radiohead criticized as band shuts down 'In Rainbows' promotion

Questions are raised about why band is shutting down pay-what-you-want offer for album after three months. If it were a success, why not keep it going?

One of the recording industry's most daring experiments ended on Monday. Three months after Radiohead stunned the music industry by allowing fans to pay whatever they wanted for the album, In Rainbows, the band has now opted for a more traditional sales approach.

That was fast.

Just weeks ago, the group was being congratulated for laying the groundwork for a new business model that pundits said could one day save the music industry. But as Radiohead prepares to distribute songs the old-fashion way--selling CDs out of retail stores--not everybody is cheering.

Nicky Wire, a member of the Manic Street Preachers, a rock band whose hits include "Send Away The Tigers," told a news publication last week that Radiohead's offer "demeans music."

"Fair play to Radiohead for doing something different," Wire told the United Kingdom's Daily Star. "It's certainly great publicity, but I think it kind of demeans music. Music used to be a market; now it's all gone digital. It's worrying (that) cinema is doing well, video games are doing well, but music isn't. The free-download phenomenon is ruining the industry."

Such statements are heresy to the "free" culture, but Wire may be right to question whether Radiohead's experiment was a success.

Nobody other than Radiohead and its handlers know how much money the groundbreaking promotion generated, and they aren't sharing figures with the public. Nonetheless, there are signs that the revenue was less than spectacular.

Last month, ComScore, a traffic-tracking company, stirred controversy when it estimated that 62 percent of those who downloaded In Rainbows did so without paying a cent for the music.

The band called ComScore's figures, which were calculated by tracking a sample group, "wholly inaccurate."

Why would Radiohead kill the promotion and go back to a traditional sales model, if the cash were rolling in?

The obvious question now is why would Radiohead kill the promotion and go back to a traditional sales model if the cash were rolling in?

The album is still in its infancy, say music industry executives. The economic life span of an album can last as long as two years. It starts when an act releases a record and is extended when the performer goes on a concert tour.

"For those of you who wish to buy In Rainbows in the usual way," said a message at Radiohead's site on Tuesday, "it will be available on CD/vinyl and download from traditional outlets from the 31st December 2007."

Several publications have also reported that Radiohead is negotiating to make In Rainbows available on iTunes.

You can argue that the reason to pull the plug on the offering is to give the band a chance to tap into the shrinking but lucrative CD market. Discs are still the way most people listen to music.

But if the pay-what-you-want promotion was a cash cow, why not keep it going at the same time that you sell CDs? If the digital and CD markets are separate then there's no fear of undercutting disc sales. If they are not, then hasn't the high-profile online promotion already doomed physical sales?

And then there are the statements made this weekend by the group's manager, Chris Hufford, in an interview with the The New York Times. He indicated that the In Rainbows strategy was a one-off.

"This was a solution to a series of issues," Hufford told the Times. "I doubt it would work the same way ever again."

He's not saying the promotion was a bust, but neither is he hollering, "Eureka, we've discovered the new paradigm!"

There's no doubt that Radiohead's gutsy move scored points with fans. Another benefit is that other performers who follow Radiohead's experiment, such as rapper Saul Williams, are sure to learn much from their experiences. They might even improve on the idea.

Last month, Williams launched an offering similar to Radiohead's but tweaked it so people would have more motivation to plunk down money. At the same time he gave away a digital version of his album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardus, Williams offered a higher quality download that could only be obtained with a $5 donation.

At this point, it looks like Radiohead began a discussion. There's plenty still to be debated.