Ask Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead, whether the band's foray into a "pay what you want" model for music was successful and he'll tell you, as he told David Byne (Talking Heads) in this Wired interview:
In terms of digital income, we've made more money out of this record than out of all the other Radiohead albums put together, forever--in terms of anything on the Net. And that's nuts. It's partly due to the fact that EMI wasn't giving us any money for digital sales. All the contracts signed in a certain era have none of that stuff.
Sounds great, except that he's comparing "more money" to "zero money." Apparently the music companies don't pay new bands (or old?) squat for digital sales (read: iTunes) of their music. I can't fathom why. I suppose because they don't have to.
But where the interview becomes useful and interesting is when Yorke talks through the relevance of this new model for new bands. Teaser: it's not.
The only reason we could even get away with this, the only reason anyone even gives a xxxx, is the fact that we've gone through the whole mill of the business in the first place. It's not supposed to be a model for anything else. It was simply a response to a situation. We're out of contract. We have our own studio. We have this new server. What the hell else would we do? This was the obvious thing. But it only works for us because of where we are.
David] Byrne: What about bands that are just getting started?
Yorke: Well, first and foremost, you don't sign a huge record contract that strips you of all your digital rights, so that when you do sell something on iTunes you get absolutely zero. That would be the first priority. If you're an emerging artist, it must be frightening at the moment. Then again, I don't see a downside at all to big record companies not having access to new artists, because they have no idea what to do with them now anyway.
We're in uncharted territory here, just as in the software world. A model that works for one band or one software company may not work well for another. But that's OK. The general principle is. The "how" is up for grabs.