For those of you not following this, the popular band decided not to sign with a major label after their last deal expired. They produced In Rainbows on their own and have released it as a digital download (or deluxe vinyl+CD package) via their own site at a price solely determined by purchaser, with no guidance other than "It's up to you".
So. Me the music buyer. First off, I buy ALL my music online. Except under duress, including international releases (bought via Amazon sites in the appropriate country) because of draconian measures by iTunes and the industry to prevent easy electronic purchase. Or draconian bands not selling anything digitally. Like Radiohead until 2 weeks ago.
Second, I don't download MP3s online. Tried it. Boring waste of time. Much rather spend my time checking out recommendations from a smart recommendation engine (iTunes biggest weakness).
Combine those two factors with a certain period of life spent not exploring new music and you get the fact that I'd never heard Radiohead before. So, the "name your own price" (NYOP?) strategy was instantly appealing to me. My initial price? 0.00GBP. A risk-free trial. The site itself, while beautiful, was a bit sucky, taking several tries to complete a purchase, but they did capture some interesting and potentially valuable info about me, including mandatorially(?!) my mobile number. They did nothing to discourage or punish me for my no cash "transaction"... didn't take a credit card or tell me why it would be a good idea to pay more.
Successful immediate download and I was hooked on my first listen. Immediately ordered (see firstly, above) their previous album Kid A from BN.com via Digby (a surprisingly pleasant mCommerce experience). And have listened to it many times in the last two weeks. To the point where, I realized my free trial was up.
So, today I return to the site and pay them 6GBP for it, or roughly $12USD. Why that amount? Well, an album on iTunes is usually $10. I like this album more than the average album, so I paid more. Plus, I appreciate their experiment and want to reward them for taking the risk. Kid A cost around $18 on BN, but that involves atoms and boxes and people's physical effort hefting it around the world, none of which pertain here.
One surprising thing, though, is that Radiohead's site didn't remember me. My password didn't work and they didn't recognize the email address they sent my receipt to. Glitch? Or did they give up on me after my zero-sum transaction? Surprising either way and slightly inconvenient. But no big deal overall. Still like the album enough not to mind.
Stepping out of the subject's shoes, a couple thoughts from an ecommerce/internet strategy POV. First, on the notion of risk free trials. Why don't more businesses dealing in bits or very low cost atoms take this route? Common with software, but why not more common with music or design or literature or games or ??? Seems like the kind of fan you want as an artist is one willing to pay for what you're doing. Free gets a lot of people through the door. The really interested, grateful ones will thank you with their wallets. Call it the busker economy!
Second, why did they do this completely on their own? Would an Amazon or iTunes launch generate more downloads? Reports / rumors claim they have pushed 1.2M downloads at an average of 5USD to 5GBP in a couple of weeks. But other reports suggest that the site was so slow, 250-500K just downloaded it off P2P sites. A real infrastructure could have netted them enough to cover the middleman fees. So, iTunes: why not support artists directly with this strategy, and only take a share of the transactions over a minimum price.
And a question: does this only work for established b(r)ands? Could you build a band on free or do you need to establish a relationship first and then go free? Do people need to see a baseline value set before they can be trusted to respond with a fair NYOP valuation?
Overall, makes you wonder what other businesses could learn from this? Could airlines charge a base price and let users pay on the way off the plane based on the quality of their experience? How hungry would that make everyone to deliver a great experience? Or let users NYOP for extras like window/bulkhead/exit seats and allocate to highest bidder per flight? Zappos gives shoe buyers a free trial, by covering shipping both ways. I'm sure most of their buyers have noticed that they are not the cheapest option. The free trial pays off in loyalty and premium pricing. Who else could make a business work this way?