The release of popular rock group Radiohead's new album Wednesday is the latest wake-up call for a music industry still struggling to deal with the advent of digital music, experts say.
Normally a Radiohead release generates huge buzz as fans and critics alike wait to hear the latest musical direction of a band that has produced such varied offerings as the radio hit "High and Dry" to the experimental musings of "Kid A."
But the English band's seventh studio album "In Rainbows" is being closely watched for business reasons: The album is being released digitally by the band itself, just 10 days after the completion of recording and mixing.
And the price? Fans can pay what they want. The price listed at http://www.inrainbows.com says simply: "IT'S UP TO YOU."
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"This has been a long-brewing issue with artists," said Ted Cohen of music consulting firm TAG Strategic. "In a digital world where you can create something relatively quickly and get it out there immediately, why wait? Is there any overwhelming need to sit on something for three or four months?"
Typically a band of Radiohead's stature would be signed to a major recording label, which would wait several months before releasing the music to allow time for buzz to develop and plan a tour and marketing campaign.
Tony Bongiovi, a record producer who has been in the music business since the 1960s, said the fast turnarounds could hurt a music business that he believes is losing money as it becomes more singles-driven, rather than album-driven, in the age of iTunes and Internet file-sharing.
Some bands wouldn't work to complete an album if they could put out a good single right away, he said.
LESS CASH FROM SINGLES?
According to Bongiovi, a singles-driven market would lead to less money for musicians and producers, and, ultimately, to fewer artists getting a shot at the big time.
"When you go into a record label now, its got to be such a sure thing. Otherwise, there's no money for you," he said.
Radiohead is releasing its latest recording alone after benefiting from label support for their first six albums, the last out in 2003. But fast releases might not be as worthwhile for newer bands.
"People know who Radiohead are — there is a pent-up demand of people waiting for the next thing," said Gartner Vice President Mike McGuire. "Very few bands have that kind of loyal audience following."
Radiohead's quick release in some ways is evocative of the early days of rock 'n roll, when it was not uncommon to record a song in the morning, press it into a 45 in the afternoon and have it on store shelves the next day.
Radiohead is not alone in taking advantage of new technology, helping artists to stay ahead of fast-changing musical trends and reducing the risk of illegal downloading.
Stars, an indie Canadian rock band known for lush pop songs, made their album, "In Our Bedroom After the War," available for download on July 10, four days after completion.
The CD only became available in stores on September 25.
The band said the album would have inevitably leaked during the period usually marked for promotion, and it hoped fans would choose to support it by paying to download it.
It also said they believed that the widespread release would help build word-of-mouth about the release.
"We believe that the line between the media and the public is now completely gray," Stars said in a statement. "What differentiates a commercial radio station from someone adding a song to their Last.fm channel? Or their MySpace page?"
[Radiohead themselves paved the way for that strategy, putting up free MP3s for every track from "Kid A" two weeks before its 2000 release. The album entered the U.S. charts at No. 1.]
Brooklyn-based indie rockers Bishop Allen said they have benefited from putting out their music speedily. They wrote and recorded a four-song EP every month in 2006, making the record available for purchase or download the last day of each month.
"The idea that you could make something from what you're thinking at the moment, and that fans can immediately access those thoughts, makes it more like a dialogue," said Justin Rice, who plays guitar, piano, and sings in the band.
"They were hearing what we were saying without a weird lag. It's kind of beautiful," he said.