Idol Chatter

Here at Burn or Burn, we’ve been careful not to encourage dishonesty: you’ll notice that when we advise you to digitally burn a record, it’s as an extra copy, say for your car. We’re good citizens, and it is still illegal to download copyrighted music without paying, as a jury in Minnesota reminded the world last week when they ruled against a woman who allegedly grabbed songs through Kazaa, a file-sharing website.

Leave it to the most important rock band in the world to begin to change all that. When the English band Radiohead announced it would release its new album “In Rainbows” via its website for the price of whatever fans choose to pay, it signaled another turning of the page for the record industry, which has struggled to adapt to an era where most music can be found online for free. The big question—What is the economic value of a song?—has not had a viable answer, mostly because it has been submerged by the question most fans deal with first—How bad do you feel about stealing a song?
Now, Radiohead has launched an experiment in addressing that first question, inviting fans to decide what the band’s music is worth. As the New York Times reported, the bands’ advisors say the idea came about in the midst of a “metaphysical” conversation about music’s value. “To put your record out for someone’s individual perceived value is brilliant,” music producer David Kahne told the Times. “It’s a spiritual [business] model.”
I agree with Kahn that there’s something spiritual going on here, though I wish the Times would have let him say what he meant. But here’s my stab at it: When “In Rainbows” was made available for download in the wee hours this Wednesday, fans worldwide formed a unified whole. They gathered on the web, they gave an offering (early reports suggest most fans have paid something), they performed the ritual act of downloading the music, they listened to it closely and faithfully for hours on end (I’ve barely been able to take out my earbuds), and they talked endlessly about each and every element of the experience.
Not all this happened virtually: I’ve bumped into a couple friends today and yesterday who also have the album, and we’ve discussed the band’s new songs at length, which led into other conversations about art and commerce and how these issues intersect with our own lives.
Radiohead isn’t the first act to ask fans to pay what they wish, but they are the first to have the financial resources, committed fan base, and high quality track record to make the formula successful. It’s that last thing—the quality—that makes this event so meaningful for me. The music on “In Rainbows” is a kind of compilation of Radiohead styles, and unlike their previous work, there is less of a learning curve this time. “In Rainbows” invites you in and rewards you immediately.
But every Radiohead geek in the world has reviewed it already, so you can find plenty of analysis online. Or better yet: go to the band’s site and experience it for yourself. For free. Right now. Burn at will.

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