Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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The socioeconomics of Radiohead

You may have been following the news that Radiohead made its most recent CD release a pay-what-you-will download. The offer expires December 10th, so if you’re of a mind to download it and pay nothing — as I did — here’s your chance. Better act now.

Much has been made in the media of this as the latest example in the wholesale revaluing of things both physical and experiential. In the late 1970’s, vinyl LP’s were about $7.98 (a rather fantastic sum at the time, especially considering the flimsy pressings that often emerged newborn out of the sleeve with scratches and pops); CD’s are now somewhere between $11.99 and $15.98 (or $9.99 if downloaded from iTunes). My first computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80 (lovingly nicknamed “the trash-80”) with separate cassette-tape player for “bloading” binary files from tape, was $800 circa 1980, while its printer, capable only of printing on four-inch-wide aluminum strips, was another $800. (The machine’s entire database held up to 40 — forty! — names and addresses. Which I could then print on the foil strips if I so wished.) Now, of course, I can communicate with the planet Antares 5 with a handheld device costing under two hundred bucks. Newspapers once cost 25 cents an issue; that is, until they cost $1 an issue; or until they went online, where they are utterly free. In addition to these changes in technology and delivery platform, and all the upset in price scaling and price conception that has resulted, there is an ever-widening margin in incomes as well as offerings to match those incomes. When I’m at Pacific Dining Car, a steak is $45 or more; tonight at Acapulco what would have been a $12 steak was free because of a promotion. A recent think piece in the LA Times detailed some of the confusion caused by these matters in the entertainment industry.

Where I think many commentators have gotten the analysis wrong is in their thinking about this new Radiohead release. In their minds, and, I suspect, in the minds of the band itself, “buyers” (including we who did not pay) have placed a value on the music and acted accordingly. From this point of view, the jury is in: 40% of buyers paid $8 for the download, and have therefore set a price. That is a capitalist perspective — and one I myself would often tend to adopt, being a capitalist. But no, I think that probably 50% of those who downloaded “In Rainbows” actually look a socialist perspective. It goes like this: “Hm. Radiohead: famous, wealthy rock stars. Me: not so much. I’m sending them… nothing.”

I could be snarky and say that I paid for “In Rainbows” precisely what it’s worth — and having listened to the disc three times today, that is indeed my opinion. Someone in their profession who cares about them might introduce them to things like, well, a beat, or the clever way that drums and bass and guitar and voice can often coalesce into that thing called a song. In all fairness, some of these elements do intrude on Track 9, but that’s either an accident or a test to see if the listener is still awake for the conclusion of the album with Track 10. (And no, I do not know the title of Track 9 or Track 10 or of any of the tracks, because I don’t believe any of said titles are sung in any of these songs. At least, not so that I can tell.) Finally, imagine “song” after song with a lead vocal remarkably similar to the piercing whine of air escaping the tightly stretched neck of a toy balloon. By comparison, Yoko Ono was Perry Como.

It’s notable that I arrived at these conclusions after downloading “In Rainbows,” and therefore after having chosen not to pay. It was entirely a socialist judgment: They don’t need the money more than I do. Thus the capitalist analysis flies out the window. Had I thought the band needed the money, I would have acted differently. Had it been a new release by Pere Ubu, so influential in music history but so notable in its tiny corner of the universe for having once sold all of 6000 copies of a release on a major label, I would have paid far more than expected: at least $25, maybe $50. But had it been Pere Ubu, I would have gotten my money’s worth.

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