Back in 2000, Metallica led a war against Napster over MP3 sharing that meant a downloader could pay nothing for music. That was then.
This week, British band Radiohead announced that its new album, "In Rainbows," would be available for download at its site with the "price" space left blank (for donations). A "disc box," which includes CD and vinyl, can be bought for about $80. That suggests the band sees the value of diversified formats – and of feeding the fan base to keep it interested in concerts, where there's money to be made.
"People have been waiting for Radiohead to do something like this since they left EMI in 2005," says Jonathan Cohen, senior editor at Billboard. "It points to the fact that a band like this, despite relatively high sales, probably didn't make much money in their major-label days."
Other acts – including The Charlatans UK and Travis – have also pumped out freebies. Prince gave away 3 million "Planet Earth" CDs through a British newspaper in July. "You have to be at a certain point in your career to be able to pull this off," Mr. Cohen notes.
Artist-versus-industry strain grows. Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails was so angry about a $30 price on his "Year Zero" CD that he told concertgoers in Sydney to steal his music. In May, in a different sort of squabble, instrumentalist Mike Oldfield railed at EMI for distributing free copies of his 1973 album "Tubular Bells."
Will a distribution standard emerge? The Recording Industry Association of America declined to comment. "Talk to the record companies," said a spokesman.
– Clayton Collins