Pay what you want: Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” turns 10

XL RecordingsTen years ago today, on October 10, 2007, Radiohead dropped what Time called “easily the most important release in the recent history of the music business.”  It was the band’s album In Rainbows, which was released as a “pay-what-you-want” digital download.

The website where fans could download In Rainbows featured a box where you could input any monetary amount as a payment, including $0. The move was hailed as revolutionary, and The New York Times called it “the most audacious experiment in years.” 

According to research by a company called comScore, only 38% of fans actually paid for the album, though the band disputed that figure. In fact, Thom Yorke said that “in terms of digital income, we’ve made more money out of [In Rainbows] than out of all the other Radiohead albums put together, forever.” Additionally, the vinyl version of the album was the best-selling vinyl record of 2008.

The approach was not without its critics, though, including Trent Reznor. And while “pay-what-you-want” was a big deal when it happened, not many artists since have chosen that path. Subsequent Radiohead releases abandoned the strategy as well.

Arguably, the biggest legacy left by In Rainbows is the concept of the “surprise release.” Radiohead announced In Rainbows just 10 days before it arrived, and the band would later use a similar strategy for their 2011 album The King of Limbs and last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool.

Other artists who’ve adopted the surprise-release method since include Beyonce, U2 and Kendrick Lamar.

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