I Paid Thom Yorke $6 and It Was Worth It
Radiohead singer and songwriter Thom Yorke has long wanted to find a way for musicians to distribute their work without intermediaries and still make money. His latest experiment involving BitTorrent, the company whose software is often used to share pirated content, works very well, in my experience. Spotify, however, has nothing to fear from it.
When Yorke's new album, "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes," started selling last Friday, BitTorrent put in place a novel paygate. You can get one song for free, but if you want the entire 38-minute album, it will set you back $6. That's less than you would pay at iTunes or Google Play, mainly because Apple and Google take a 30 percent cut and BitTorrent keeps only 10 percent of the proceeds. Yorke did not need a record label to produce the record, so the remaining 90 percent, less some small transaction costs involved in the PayPal or credit card payments, is all his.
That is as big a cut as an artist can reasonably hope for in any model except, perhaps, distributing music through his own website -- which requires a serious investment in hardware and the maintenance of an online store, perhaps eating up more than 10 percent of sales. BitTorrent's technology for downloading a "bundle" of files is worth the modest commission. The files are broken down into pieces served up by the computers of all the users who have them, then reassembled like a puzzle.
"It's an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around," Yorke and his producer Nigel Godrich wrote on the BitTorrent blog. "If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of Internet commerce back to people who are creating the work."
It worked well for me. It took six clicks to pay for and download "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes" onto my Android tablet, and that included installing the BitTorrent app. The download was done before I finished brushing my teeth. I listened to Yorke's second -- or third, depending on how you count -- solo record on my way to work, and I'm listening to it still, even though I'm not much of a Radiohead fan. It's a subtle, understated, fragile, spare and masterful creation. Don't take my word for it, read a professional review (but not this one, both because I disagree with it and because it mentions "the mewling of a hundred ghost cats who died miserably in a fire").
The number of free one-song downloads in this experiment is now approaching 500,000. And while Yorke doesn't allow BitTorrent to release sales numbers, the company's chief content officer Matt Mason says he's "really, really happy with the conversion rate." Yorke may have finally gotten independent distribution right. Even that, however, is not enough to cause a revolution in the music business.
For musicians, the BitTorrent offering beats dinosaurs such as iTunes and modern streaming services such as Spotify, famously described by Yorke as "the last desperate fart of a dying corpse," the cadaver being the music industry. Apart from keeping 30 percent of revenue, Spotify, like other "gatekeepers," pays artists according to a formula involving the number of their streams as a share of total streams. This can lead to humiliatingly low royalties, and it offers nowhere near as much control as BitTorrent allows.
For consumers, the benefits are less clear-cut. Reducing intermediaries' share of revenue definitely makes music more affordable, and I'd rather pay $6 for an album than $10. That said, I can listen to a lot of albums for $10 a month on the streaming services -- and save space on my device.
Yorke's work is not going to be on Spotify or Deezer, and I'm happy to pay him directly, but I have a feeling most of his colleagues will settle for lower income with higher exposure. Yorke himself proved with a previous experiment that that was the way to go.
In 2007, Radiohead gave away its "In Rainbows" album on a pay-if-you-like basis. This helped hype the release so that Radiohead made more on sales before the album was officially released than it had earned in total for its previous record, "Hail to the Thief." "In Rainbows" ended up selling 3 million copies, and the band went on a hugely successful tour. To the extent that fans paid after downloading the free album, that was not an important revenue stream.
Keeping one's music available on the top streaming services helps a musician sell a lot of concert tickets, which is the safest way to make money these days. Selling albums individually is terribly old-fashioned in an age of curated playlists. Only Yorke, and some others, can pull it off.
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