Thom Yorke’s ‘new’ music model ticks few of tomorrow’s boxes

Looks like the future – sounds like status quo. EPA/Daniel Hambury

Late last week, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke released his new solo album – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes – via BitTorrent, Inc’s “bundle” platform. Visitors to the service pay a US$6 fee, receiving the usual torrent descriptor file (much as one would on a torrent index site such as Pirate Bay) and proceed through to a downloadable bundle of eight MP3s, a music video, cover art and purchase links to the vinyl edition. To date, more than 300,000 users have either purchased the album or legally downloaded a free portion of it.

It is the paid component of the bundle that proves a potent detail here. So far, this fee-generating torrent file has been the central media hook found in reportage on the album, spreading news of Yorke’s work beyond music and entertainment journalism into the broader technology press.

In much the same way Radiohead’s 2007 album In Rainbows created a broad-reaching splash with its pay-what-you-want delivery download model – a model the band subsequently abandoned – Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is an experiment only to the degree that all effective album promotion at this level is an experiment in unknowns.

This “new” delivery model, after all, draws heavily on a platform we’ve had for more than a decade now. Broadly speaking, the only part of this that is in any way new or innovative is that BitTorrent Bundles now allows users to pay for a product they’ve previously used for free, albeit often illegally.

Of course, Yorke is telling a very different story to promote the album. In the press materials accompanying Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, he is quoted as saying:

If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work. Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves, bypassing the self elected gate-keepers. If it works, anyone can do this exactly as we have done.

This is only tangentially true. It would be unwise to call the recording industry the “self elected gate-keepers” of the music industry at present. We’re now 15 years on from Napster, a moment in history read by many as the beginning of the end for the recording industry. Napster, if nothing else, proved a powerful promoter of the MP3 file format and for well over a decade independent artists have distributed their MP3s through a cavalcade of online models: MP3.com begat CDBaby.com begat access to iTunes begat Bandcamp.com, and so on.

There is no gate left to police with regard to music distribution. A small tweak to a new model does very little here.

Instead, the gate-keepers of the contemporary music industry corral attention. In a world where the cost of bringing music to market approaches zero dollars per unit (and reaps as much via Spotify and its $0.007 per track royalty), the name of the game is getting noticed and on-selling that attention to a willing buyer. In the terminology of the marketing sector, this is a strategy of brand extension and it’s far from a trade secret.

Billboard Magazine recently published a piece openly discussing the music sector’s attempts to capture more of these opportunities; similar initiatives currently net the sporting industry as much as US$12 billion annually. In that Billboard piece, Steve Pamon, marketing executive for American corporate finance juggernaut JPMorgan Chase provides an exacting account of how this transaction works:

It’s not about us supporting you, it’s about you supporting us in exchange for money. Once you tell me how it supports us, we’ll pull out all the stops to support you.

This transaction has been at the core of the mainstream commercial music business since the 1980s. Its nature rarely changes to any measurable extent. It is a case of financial capital exchanged for cultural capital, in aid of furthering financial capital. The promotional cycle for Thom Yorke’s new album will not liberate anyone from this.

Yorke’s promotional efforts may side-step the Fortune 500 in this instance, but this pay-gated bundling platform is nothing more than a microscopic step forward in a system that has – to date – failed to deliver on overly utopian promises. Put simply, this technology enables much but guarantees almost nothing beyond the status quo.

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