Byrne and Yorke on the Music Biz

See WIRED mag’s article “David Byrne’s Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists,” with links to his interview with Thom Yorke.

What is called the music business today, however, is not the business of producing music. At some point it became the business of selling CDs in plastic cases, and that business will soon be over. But that’s not bad news for music, and it’s certainly not bad news for musicians. Indeed, with all the ways to reach an audience, there have never been more opportunities for artists…

…So where do artists fit into this changing landscape? We find new options, new models.

Where there was one, now there are six: Six possible music distribution models, ranging from one in which the artist is pretty much hands-off to one where the artist does nearly everything. Not surprisingly, the more involved the artist is, the more he or she can often make per unit sold. The totally DIY model is certainly not for everyone — but that’s the point. Now there’s choice.

Byrne maps out the territory of the post-CD music business, and his six possibilities range from Madonna’s new deal at one end of the spectrum to the fully DIY at the other. All pop (in the broad sense) artists should be thinking consciously about where they’re trying to fit on the spectrum.


As I’ve distributed burned copies of XMAS this year, several people have tried to pay me for the discs. “It’s not like that,” I explain with some difficulty. “We give our music away.”

But in the interview with Byrne, Thom Yorke said something that’s nagged my memory since the start of Mr. Furious Records. He’s talking about Radiohead’s recent decision to let people name their own price, including zero, for downloading In Rainbows (my emphasis); “…it was really good. It released us from something. It wasn’t nihilistic, implying that the music’s not worth anything at all. It was the total opposite. And people took it as it was meant. Maybe that’s just people having a little faith in what we’re doing.

I’ve always been concern that the implication of Mr. Furious’ distribution model is that our music is worthless. In a consumerist culture, where price largely determines value, what is free is often understood as something that can’t be sold.

Radiohead (and, to be fair, other artists who pioneered the model in the past couple years) have found a way around this conundrum, creating a model that is both a critique of consumerism (you can choose to have the album for free) and allows for an expression of value in a way that is understandable in the wider culture (you can pay what you want).

So the question is;

Assuming the technical and person-hour obstacles can be overcome, would it be a good idea for MFR to release albums this way?

3 thoughts on “Byrne and Yorke on the Music Biz”

  1. Now – we could always start by trying pay-what-you-want with one release, and going from there. We could even maintain a two- or three-tired structure of strictly free albums, pay-what-you-want albums, and pay-a-certain-amount albums.

    (Three tiers is probably confusing).

    And I have no assumptions about the back catalog. If it turns out we like pay-what-you-want, the catalog could remain as it is or we could bring it under the pay-what-you-want umbrella (“The Dimly Lit Room,” for one, continues to be our most-downloaded album).

    Just thoughts. But pretty serious ones. Because for the first time, I can imagine how to not lose money on MFR ***WITHOUT*** compromising our mission. A potent brew. -h

  2. Serious thoughts indeed. I have a number of thoughts of my own on the subject, but the right words aren’t coming to me, so that may have to wait.

    Suffice to say, I like the idea. It seems like the right format for the right people at the right time.

  3. I’d really love to hear more, JT! This is a serious change to consider and I want it to have an open airing in the MFR community; however, responses so far have been universally positive! Cory and I are pretty excited.

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