Report: Radiohead Experiment Yields Indirect Success

Much of the analysis around Radiohead’s “pay what you like” experiment focused on the average price paid for the band’s 2007 release, In Rainbows. But a new research report (PDF) from the MCPS-PRS Alliance takes a different approach:

… did the project succeed in diverting traffic away from venues where the band receives nothing, and towards a venue where it could receive something, be it the currency of cash or (at least) an email address?

Will Page and Eric Garland, the authors of the report, offer a two-part conclusion. First, luring people away from their chosen outlets is a significant challenge:

The venue hypothesis suggests that even when the price approaches zero, all other things being equal, people are more likely to act habitually (say, using The Pirate Bay) than to break their habit (say, visiting The implication of this ‘venue hypothesis’ is that if you wish the customer to deviate from his habitual action (and try a new venue), then you must offer him an improved venue, at least in his perception. [Emphasis included in report.]

Second, the massive publicity Radiohead received from the experiment likely diverted some customers from file sharing sites. In this case, “some” traffic diversion is enough to claim success:

Let’s break it down real simple and treat torrent sites like a local bar, where curious consumers can enter and leave a venue of their choice anonymously, and found ‘In Rainbows’ to be the guest ale at the time — and popular it was too, more popular than going anywhere else, like visiting the brewery where it originated from. Whilst the stand alone brewery did lots of new business thanks to the promotion, all the bars up and down the country did even more business. Hence the twist to our answer — in that it is possible to redirect traffic back to your site, as well as bring new addition
traffic to the torrents.

It’s a murky outcome, to be sure, but Eliot Van Buskirk from Wired’s Listening Post says publicity from Radiohead’s experiment and the exposure In Rainbows received via official and unofficial downloads helped propel the band’s traditional album and ticket sales:

All of this torrenting of In Rainbows contributed to the album making such a big impression on a listening public that’s bombarded with an ever-increasing amount of information. Without its album being so widely traded, would Radiohead’s album have shot to the top of the charts? Would their worldwide tour be such a smashing success? … Not necessarily, says the report, and we agree.

Sorting through these types of reports is an arduous process because the permutations and relationships within the file sharing universe work against firm conclusions. Nonetheless, there are key takeaways:

  • Page and Garland’s “venue hypothesis” is worth serious consideration in any file sharing experiment. Depending on the desired outcome (i.e. general publicity vs. trackable/marketable data), going where the people already are could be smarter than luring an audience to a new destination.
  • A “rising tide lifts all boats” gameplan isn’t ideal, but it’s suitable when you’re up against an inherently murky landscape.
  • Finally, the quality of the content is, and always will be, the driver of interest. Alternative distribution boosted awareness for In Rainbows, but chart success and sold out concerts were the end results of good material. Put another way: attention is most valuable when consumers bond with the content.
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