April 23, 2024

Radiohead Album Available for Free, But Fileshared Anyway

The band Radiohead is trying an interesting experiment, offering its new album In Rainbows for download and letting each customer decide how much to pay. You can name a price of zero and download the album for free, if you want, or you can pay whatever price you think is fair.

Now Andy Greenberg at Forbes is reporting that despite Radiohead’s free-if-you-choose offer, many users are downloading the album from P2P systems rather than getting it from the band’s site. Some commentators find this surprising, but in fact it should have been predictable.

Why are some people getting In Rainbows from P2P rather than the band’s site? Probably because they find P2P easier to use.

Radiohead’s site makes you click and click to get the music. First you have to click through a nearly content-free splash screen. Then you click through another splash screen telling you things you probably already knew. Then you click an “ORDER” button, and click away a dialog box telling you something you already knew. Then after some headscratching, you realize you need to click the “VIEW BASKET” button, which takes you to a form asking you to name your price, in U.K. currency. (They link you to a third-party site, offering a large collection of currency-conversion tools – several more clicks to find the one you want.) After choosing your price, you click “PAY NOW”, at which point you get to stare at a “You are currently in a queue” screen for a while, after which you set up an daccount enter some personal information (including your email address and mobile phone number) and agree to some terms of service (which are benign, but it’s more time and more clicks to verify that). Finally, you get to download the music.

It’s easy to see why somebody might prefer a P2P download. Leaving aside legal issues – and let’s face it, many people do – the moral argument against unauthorized P2P downloading seems pretty weak in this case, where downloaders aren’t depriving the band (or anyone else) of revenue.

This is an interesting natural experiment that tells us something about why people use P2P. If people normally choose P2P over authorized channels because P2P is cheaper, we would expect customers to shift toward the authorized channel when it offers a zero price. But if people choose P2P for convenience, then we’d expect a shift toward more P2P use for this album, because people have fewer moral qualms about P2P downloading this album than they would for a normal album. The clunkiness of Radiohead’s site improves the experiment by sharpening the ease-of-use factor.

It’s too early to tell how the experiment will come out, but news reports so far indicate that the ease-of-use factor is probably more important than some pundits think. This is yet more evidence that had the record industry embraced easy-to-use Internet music technologies early on, things would be very different now.

[UPDATE (Oct 21, 2007): Bill Zeller documents how technical issues completely prevent a large number of users from legally downloading In Rainbows from Radiohead’s site.]


  1. First you have pirating of free content.

    Now you can pay for content from EMI where they don’t have the rights to distribute it. Google for “king crimson” + emi.

  2. @Rob
    Firefox 1.5 on Ubuntu Dapper, Flash 9

  3. “The “it takes too long” and “it’s unusable” excuses for not using their web site don’t fly. How long did it really take me to use their site? 2 minutes, from the seat in my home office. Now, if that’s not convenient, I must be living in a different world.”

    P2P is -MORE- convenient. You don’t have to give them your personal info to download it. Also, it works on all browsers and OS’s.


  4. It’s pretty disheartening that such a great idea has been so poorly executed.

  5. SIGH

    Radiohead could have just gone to Magnatune, got the exact same features on a non-sucky website, done by people who have been doing this for years and know what they are doing.

    This may be “highly experimental” for Radiohead but it’s bread and butter business already for plenty of other people.

  6. tehdiplomat says

    I didn’t have any issues on my Vista/IE7 configuration getting the page to load the information about the CD get it into my basket and get into the Queue (for testing purposes, I did not download the album nor offer any cash)
    I can definitely see it as a restrictive point if their version of flash isnt up to date.

  7. @John – Are you using Firefox or IE7? Same thing I saw, just swirly colors on both.

  8. I’m sorry — I just went to inrainbows.com and watched swirling colors move around for 60 seconds with no other feedback, no text presented and no option to move on. If a website load NO content in the first five seconds, I’m liable to give up and write off the business completely until the next time someone refers me to them. In this case I gave them 12 times as long. This site isn’t unusable; to me, it doesn’t even exist.

    How can anyone expect potential customers to sit staring at a screen with no content for minutes on end for no apparent purpose?

  9. In 25 comments in the FTT blog, I am very surprised not to hear one complaint that the site simply doesn’t work in Firefox on my Ubuntu machine (Flash 9, anyone?), nor in IE7 on my Vista box.

    I have to open IE6 on XP to even see the website correctly.

    I think this could also be a contributor to the P2P success of the album.

  10. Another reason RH did it the way they did it (i’m not saying it’s perfect) is because they opened the site to pre-orders. So, if you went to the site to pr-order (I did) they needed some way of tracking you and issuing you a pre-order number with which you eventually downloaded the album.

    It still could have been improved on the usability scale.

    (BTW – I paid $10 for it because RH deserves it and I’m for sticking it to the record companies and the RIAA. Better that it went in RH’s pockets.)

    For all you who downloaded it for free using P2P, don’t tell me it was because of convenience. You did it that way to 1) get it for free, and 2) avoid RH’s web site tracking.

    The “it takes too long” and “it’s unusable” excuses for not using their web site don’t fly. How long did it really take me to use their site? 2 minutes, from the seat in my home office. Now, if that’s not convenient, I must be living in a different world.

  11. SO MANY TABS says

    Isn’t the cost a bit much?

  12. Radiohead et al have got to break away from the release being bound up with purchase.

    1) Give away your first song.
    2) Invite your audience to pay for the song that they don’t yet have.
    3) Sell that song – free of copyright.
    4) Release it on a filesharing network – free of copyright.
    5) Goto 2.

  13. Anonymous Coward says

    I suspect one major reason for P2P sharing was that the Radiohead site kept going down under the load. It took a few days to get in on the official site.

    I’m a little surprised they didn’t offer two forms of download: the .zip file and a .torrent file. That might have helped, but then again, most of the problem seemed to be on the splash screen web site. The download server they used seemed quite zippy (when I eventually got there).

  14. I P2Pd it because I didn’t want to fill in forms. No shopping baskets. No customer registration.

    And I wanted to hear it before I decided what it was worth.

  15. foolish_child says

    I, too, struggled through the website nonsense hoping for a Paypal link at the end of the rainbow. When I had to register a credit card I just gave up – I don’t have one. I transfer funds from my bank to my Paypal account every month, that’s it.
    I really wanted to pay Radiohead for this album, but I couldn’t. I went to their website to try and find a contact address or forum thread about Paypal – that site was even more impenetrable than the inrainbows site!
    I’m still searching for a way to pay the band for their album (which I listened to once, but it’s more about the principle to me).

  16. To add to the list of reasons, I think a lot of people want to download it through p2p-sites, is that a lot of them apply ratios. When downloading something popular, people tend to download that, and when your ratio exceeds 1:1, you’re on the plus-side of things, and believe me when I say it’s mighty popular.

  17. I think they’re just trying to replicate the retail experience, with the multiple and incredibly ugly screens being the product unwrapping process. They still need to work on it, though; it doesn’t seem to provide the thrill of risking breaking the product or injuring yourself that the physical product does.

  18. Radiohead had to do it this way. It is a classic walk before your run analogy. A direct torrent release to the internet is a bit too much. They, like other performing artists, are beginning to realise that recorded music is now for promotion only and to be a successful band (as in solvent) you have to mop up the money from else where. No P2P can compete with a live performance. Adapt or perish, who weeps for the black smith.

    Besides they also want you to be on their site for a bit of time so that they might have a chance of convincing you to buy the box set. The mp3s are the loss leader to get you in the door.

  19. And the Seattle band Harvey Danger did this about 2 years ago and did it much better. You could directly download the album in MP3 format or grab the torrents for the MP3 or OGG formats.

  20. Open Source licenses generally work for software in that, for example, most people will adhere to keeping the source with distributions if that’s what the license demands.

    I wonder if doing a similar thing with AV media will work. In the first track or the beginning of the media, request “Please retain this track/content.” Then go on for just a moment to direct the listener/view to a sight to purchase if they so desire. The same message can be included in the cover art as well as textual data on the physical media. And if the message is actually from the artist rather than some legalese voice-over, I think it becomes a very strong motivation for the consumer to oblige.

  21. @Midwest,

    Daniel is right. If say you want to pay zero, the site gives you the files for free, with no service charge. That’s what I did.

    (Before anyone calls me a leech: I paid zero because I wanted to verify that the files were actually available for free — there were reports (false, as it turned out) that you had to pay a service fee even at zero price. If I decide I want to listen to the album, I’ll “buy” it again for a nonzero price.)

  22. tehdiplomat says

    User downloading album from inrainbows without donating: Costs = Bandwidth charges, Increased queue line for paying/inrainbows “customers”

    User downloading album from p2p without donating: Costs = Nothing.

    You would think Radiohead would prefer if you didn’t wish to pay to grab it from wherever. They still want you to listen to your music.

    I agree with the donation style that some of the commenters have suggested above.

  23. Incidentally, I’d like to offer the following subtle shade on the usability argument: even if today’s p2p software is objectively hard to use, presumably most current users have already scaled the learning curve. They have their routers configured and their favorite app at the ready; they’re like cashiers who have mastered the elaborate function-key arpeggios necessary to ring up your sale as fast as possible on their POS POS system (while wearing fake nails, to boot). For an experienced p2p user, any other method of getting music therefore seems like an unnecessary effort.

    From this standpoint, the usability issues of inrainbows.com may even confound the variables in our experiment. What if Radiohead had offered us the best shopping experience in the world, but people still turned to filesharing?

  24. @Midwest: I believe if you choose to pay £0 for the album, there’s no service charge at all, but this definitely discourages micropayments: at prices below £2 you’re spending most of your money on currency conversion and credit card transaction fees.

  25. @thomas:

    You don’t understand! The site being down was all part of the immersive experience! You really need to learn to appreciate Radiohead’s work 😉

    Anyway, i just grabbed it from p2p as well, might re download it when the site actually works again. POS-site…

  26. I for one purchased the album off Radiohead’s website as soon as I was able to (it took me nearly all morning, slow as that site was). I paid £10 (about 20.37 USD) for it without having heard a single song first, and am, for the most part, satisfied with my purchase. It must be said that my decision on how much to pay was based at least as much on Radiohead’s decision to release the album this way as it was on my love for their music.

    I understand that the whole point of making you ‘order’ it is to guilt you into throwing a few bucks their way, but I have to wonder if maybe they would have done better to go with a donation style approach.

    Give me an option to use PayPal or other established payment method so I don’t have to ‘sign up’ for anything, and separate the payment from the album, so if I already have it from some other method (p2p for example) I can pay and then not be nagged to download it.

    Just my thoughts.

  27. Midwest Product says

    In addition to the usability and personal info concerns listed above, I would have to object to the idea that the album is available “for free.” There is a service charge, roughly $1 US. Not a high price, granted, but still more than zero. Hence, it’s not actually free.

  28. Another possibility, and one I strongly suspect, is that the grand majority of potential listeners are utterly unaware that Radiohead are doing this. How many people heard the album somewhere, want it, and just went to P2P? How would they know about this promotion? What percent of people ever take advantage of any promotion, or are even aware of it?

    We also see a roughly opposite phenomenon, of people buying a book that is available on the shelf of the library down the street, unaware that they could get it “for free.” I personally haven’t clipped a coupon in maybe 10 years, and who knows how much free money I’m completely missing?

    That reminds me of a story from the 1980s: since home computers were basically used for video games, computer magazines had regular columns of “tips and tricks” discovered by readers. Some were bugs, some were hacks (poke here to give yourself infinite lives in Jumpman) and some were Easter eggs.

    I noticed that every month someone submitted an easter egg for the game Lode Runner. Hit this key or that key during a level transition to give yourself an extra life, or skip the next level, etc. These hot-keys weren’t actually easter eggs at all, but features clearly documented in the game manual. But nobody had the manual. Guess why?

    So here was a feature given to you by the game’s authors, gratis, and everyone was learning about them the hard way, because everyone got the game through a “peer to peer” network of friends. This was coupled with a sense of accomplishment, that you earned that extra life by uncovering the secret easter egg, and may be charitable enough to share your valuable hacker knowledge by writing a letter to Compute’s Gazette magazine.

    There is a curious lesson here: we already know that information equals money, for example that side information on a stock or horse race increases the doubling rate of a gambler’s optimal betting strategy. But lack of information, ignorance, also creates value by creating the illusion of cost and scarcity for something that is free.

  29. fHaving followed Radiohead for may years the one thing I can say is that ‘ease of use’ has never been a priority for any of their public facing materials be that their website or the packaging for their CDs. They’ve always opted for something of a more immersive experience for their fans. In most cases I’ve found it absolutely delightful.

    I P2Ped it but only because when I went there last week to download it the site was down. While I wasn’t intending to pay for the download, (because of the low bitrate which on their music makes a big difference), I was intending to buy the disks when they came out.

    Then I listened to it…

  30. It also doesn’t help that when you click to download you get the message “You are in a queue. We value your custom.”

    I still don’t understand why they didn’t just release an official torrent for the album anyway.

    In this particular instance P2P wins on ease of use and speed. Why delay the reward when I can get it now and faster?

  31. One solution for Radiohead, if the cumbersome website design plus their limited bandwidth is truly the reason for the P2P activity, is simply to have a link that says, “I’d rather download this stuff off P2P, and I’m just here to contribute to the band”.

    By the way, I’d point out that another factor here would appear to be privacy. I’m sure at least some of the P2P users in this case visited the site, got to the onerous collection of personal information, and punted.

  32. I’m currently at the brink of p2p-ing that album, too. The website is just plain unusable, never saw anything worse after 1996…