Though an event like this had been predicted for months, the news last week that Radiohead would offer its new album, In Rainbows, for free over the Web still landed like a bombshell.
I hasten to add that the album isn't exactly free. What makes the situation even more interesting is that the band is essentially asking that its fans choose the amount they want to pay for the download -- thus, if you're a dirtbag, you can take it for free, and if you're a true fan you might want to send along the twenty bucks it would take to buy the equivalent CD. There's even a very expensive gift box you can order from the band's Web site if you really want to show your support not just for Radiohead, but the whole idea of breaking the backs of the record industry.
Other artists are now following suit, including Oasis, Jamiroquai, Nine Inch Nails and Will.i.am of the Black Eyed Peas (the last memorably announcing that "the new distributor is your niece." But it's the Radiohead announcement that has really gotten the attention -- and plunged daggers of fear into the hearts of record executives everywhere.
This is, after all, the biggest band in the world -- and, thanks to OK Computer topping almost every poll of the best albums of the last twenty years, also the most admired. Lead singer Thom Yorke has always been a renegade, but until now it's mostly been about politics. With this move, he and his bandmates may very well completely reconfigure the entire entertainment industry.
It only helps that In Rainbows is also getting some terrific reviews. Certainly the news of the album's release, four years in the making, was met with cheers in our house. Sixteen year-old Tad has been a huge fan ever since I brought home a copy of OK Computer when he was just a little kid (though, I suspect like most people, we listen to The Bends much more frequently). And when the news came out about the pricing scheme (he got it from Boing Boing, I got it from Drudge) we met in the hallway and cheered.
But I was curious if his reaction would be different from mine. As a Boomer, I was raised with the believe that nothing is really free, that the product of anyone's hard work -- including works of art -- has a value, and that taking these items without paying is tantamount to stealing. But Tad (and even more his little brother, I suspect) is a Gen Yer, a member of what is pejoratively being called "the Entitlement Generation". These are the kids protesting on college campuses over the fact that they can't download and share everything for free … the assumption being that if the creator cannot come up with another way besides charging the customer to monetize his product, then he deserves to be ripped off.