Trent Reznor And Thom Yorke Learn Offering 'Free' Music Doesn't Pay The Bills

The very rock groups who initially promoted and employed the "pay what you want" business model for their music are now turning their back on that method.

Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Nine Inch Nails' Trent Reznor are among those who have found that though offering "free" music makes for a beautifully utopian philosophy, it doesn't exactly pay the bills.

"The way things are, I think music should be looked at as free," Reznor told CNET in 2008. "It basically is. The toothpaste is out of the tube and a whole generation of people is accustomed to music being that way."

Fast-forward four sobering years, and Reznor went back with a major label, joining Columbia Records in 2012.

This occurred after Reznor, who left the label world in 2007, self-financed a song giveaway similar to Radiohead's "pay what you want" method it used for self-release of its 2007 In Rainbows album.

Reznor was "disheartened," according to The Verge to discover (duh) that only 18 percent of the 150,000 people who downloaded the song (by rapper Saul Williams) bothered to pay for it.

This, after Reznor's having been "very aggressive" about "find[ing] alternatives to the label-dominated methods of selling and distributing music."

"Increasingly ... it seems that the digital revolutionaries are coming back around to the old industry model for recorded music," says The Verge.

Radiohead frontman Yorke is another apostate who has realized that "[b]y turning music commerce into a sort of large tip jar," the "pay what you want method" — which was in 2007 considered by bands and fans alike as a forerunner of what was to come to the music industry — may have done more harm than good.

In a recent interview with The Guardian, Yorke laments that what the band thought of as "subverting the corporate music industry" with In Rainbows' "pay what you want" method may have in fact led to "fears they were inadvertently playing into the hands of Apple and Google and the rest."

"They [Google, Apple et al] have to keep commodifying things to keep the share price up, but in doing so they have made all content, including music and newspapers, worthless, in order to make their billions," says Yorke. "And this is what we want? I still think it will be undermined in some way. It doesn't make sense to me."

With more music streaming services available — Spotify, Rdio, Pandora, YouTube, and Vevo — than ever before, Yorke feels that perhaps what Radiohead bandmates and he did back in 2007 was get audiences to simply assume that music would be free from now on.

Philosophically pleasing or no, this is something that doesn't make a healthy living for performance artists.

It's for this reason that more artists are becoming vocally critical of the scant royalties paid by music streaming services. Among them are the likes of Coldplay, Tom Waits and even more currently relevant musicians such as Adele.

The major labels, however, still see the streaming sites as a viable alternative to simple (and easy) illegal downloading/sharing of music. Hence, even such infamous hold-outs as Metallica have made deals with streaming services that, according to The Verge, "embrac[e] what some artists argue is the lowest grade of digital distribution; allowing listeners unlimited access to their music in exchange for a cut of ad revenue."

Streaming site Pandora has meanwhile been lobbying Congress to actually lower royalty rates that webcasters must pay artists/labels, with resulting protests by the artists themselves. Linda Perry, writer of Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful," came out with the shocking numbers that whereas the song was played on Pandora more than 12.7 million times, she personally only received $349.16.

Just imagine what these kinds of numbers mean for smaller bands eking out a living hitting the road in the old van and living out of their girlfriends' houses when they're not on tour selling T-shirts just to pay for food/gas.

"Complete independent releasing has its great points but also comes with shortcomings," says Reznor. "No one else can write the songs I can write ... [b]ut there's other people that can do some of that [marketing] stuff ... [W]e [want] a team of people that are better at that than I am worldwide. That felt like it was worth slicing the pie up monetarily."

Hopefully, in this reporter's humble opinion, such statements will soon be heard from high-profile representatives of other creative industries — film, television, book publishing, periodicals — so that we can all get back to making money again, doing what we love (and can do) best.

 Like what you're reading? Follow @profklickberg.

(Edited by Lois Heyman)

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