On October 1st, Radiohead announced that fans could pay a price of their choosing for the new In Rainbows. Three days later, the verdict in the first RIAA suit against an illegal downloader to actually go to trial came in, and Jammie Thomas, a thirty-year-old single mom of two, was socked with a $220,000 judgment for sharing twenty-four tracks. Early estimates had Radiohead buyers paying an average of $10 for the album, or $1 per song. Thomas will have to pay $9,250 per song.
Radiohead and Jammie Thomas are symbols of the same thing: how directionless the industry as a whole has become. Whatever it turns out to be, Radiohead's move played in the media as a death knell for the major labels, as Trent Reznor and Madonna immediately announced they would follow suit and find new ways to release their music. It's unclear how many other bands could dump their labels, and it's worth noting that all three of these artists are bigger touring than album acts these days, and they got to that level with years of record-company support. It's also interesting that the best business mind in the bunch — that would be Madonna — simply switched conglomerates, from no-longer-a-superpower Warner Bros. to no-longer-called-Clear Channel Live Nation.
What is a label for? The old answer — manufacturing and distributing CDs and promoting them to radio — no longer holds much sway now that music has digitally dematerialized and radio has been deregulated into one vast strip mall. Everyone acknowledges that the labels as we know them are done. So it's hard to see what the RIAA suits against file-traders accomplish, except further alienating the kids who already regard the majors with greater contempt than they do Big Oil or Halliburton. (It's more personal — Halliburton doesn't sue their friends.) The RIAA maintains the suits educate the public that trading is illegal, though it would be better advised to try educating the public that prices for new CDs have dropped pretty much across the board (most can be had for $10, yet the $18.98 list price is what sticks in people's minds).
Radiohead's masterstroke was putting their audience in control. Control is something that music fans â€" many of them believers in the specious conspiracy theory that the record industry force-feeds its consumers garbage (how else to explain Britney in 1999, or Hannah Montana today?) — haven't felt enough of since the industry became locked in a struggle to take power back from filetraders. No one really knows how long it will take the endgame to play out, but in another decade or so the major labels will likely look more like cable companies, piggybacking on someone else's fiberoptic bandwidth and occasionally rolling out some original content that's Sopranos-level but most of which is simply diverting. We'll rely on them to deliver big hits and classics we've already come to know, and maybe we'll pay on-demand prices for early access to a release by an artist we're passionate about. Meanwhile, the record industry looks afraid of the future. And Radiohead get to play the prophets of tomorrow.