â€œ[Radiohead] did a marketing ploy by themselves and then got someone else to put it out,â€ Gordon told The Guardianâ€™s David Peschek. â€œIt seemed really community-oriented, but it wasnâ€™t catered towards their musician brothers and sisters, who donâ€™t sell as many records as them. It makes everyone else look bad for not offering their music for whatever. It was a good marketing ploy and I wish Iâ€™d thought of it! But weâ€™re not in that position either. We might not have been able to put out a record for another couple of years if weâ€™d done it ourselves: itâ€™s a lot of work. And it takes away from the actual making music.â€
Gordon, like other artists, obviously hasn’t really thought about what it was exactly that Radiohead did. Community had nothing to do with it.
The idea was that, since the music was going to be available online anyway, why not try to get in front of the issue and make it as easy to pay for as get for free?
Did it work for Radiohead? It looks like it. In the end, the band’s publisher claimed three million “sales” for the album, which I guess is reasonable when you take into account foreign tallies, its own offering, and iTunes, which the group finally broke down and joined.
Since Radiohead released the thing on its own, taking far more from each transaction than the $2 or $3 it might have gotten from EMI, the financial take should have been correspondingly breathtaking, notwithstanding the fact that some fans paid less than they would have otherwise. (The group is also said to have unloaded 100,000 $80 special editions of In Rainbow on fans, representing another chunk of change.)
What does that total? $25 million?
Anyway, back to SY. Leaving aide Gordon’s double-reverse ironic/not-ironic patois, which I bold-faced above, Radiohead wasn’t devaluing its music. It was just dealing with reality, which, unfortunately or unfortunately, has devalued music period.
The question is whether the same opportunities are available to Sonic Youth. The answer is, mutantis mutandis, yes and no. Sure they can do it, but no, they’re not going to make as much money out of it.
Why? Because they’re Sonic Youth.
The real irony here is that the group is one of those bands who probably did better than they should have with its major-label deal, in this case with Geffen; it’s hard to imagine they ever made money for the label. The band seems to have left it amicablyâ€”i.e., without any money owing, though its hard to see how it could have recouped its advances from the heady Nevermind era. On the other hand, there’s been this or that re-release of things like Goo, which would presumably bring the band a little bit of money.
Then as now, one of Sonic Youth’s selling points has paradoxically always been its uncommerciality.
Today, on Matador, they would probably benefit from higher royalties, but get much smaller advances and of course benefit from less marketing, the corresponding fewer sales and, inevitably, much less interest from fans. That why it’s gotten on the “We’re gonna play one of our old albums in its entirety” bandwagonâ€”and why it made that ludicrous deal with Starbucks.
Here’s Lee Renaldo, incidentally, explaining that little deal to the Guardian, which deserves credit for bringing it up:
“It didn’t take a lot of blood and sweat from us. We thought we’d try it and see what happens. There’s a certain side to this group that likes perversity, and that’s a pretty perverse concept. At that time, Starbucks were selling records when no one else was. The majors were throwing up their hands. The irony is, for all the spewing it caused on the blogs, it is our most rare record. I have never seen a copy in a store, and I’ve never met anyone who’s seen a copy in a store.”
Funny how Renaldo pats himself on the back for the creepy association, trying to spin it as being radical. (“I threw a drink in this woman’s face. I wasn’t being an asshole; I was being perverse.”) He’s just rationalizing doing a promo deal with a coffee shop trying to look hip. The fact that it wasn’t successful after the band pocketed its fee underscores again the fact that Sonic Youth has done pretty well in its career from the kindness of strangers.
The idea of the old-fashioned major keeping major artistes on board even when they didn’t make any money was always overstated; in the end, its difficult to separate out them from those to whom the labels just paid too much for, given their sales records.
But in the world we live in today cozy homes for the likes of Sonic Youth will be very rare; all it really has, in the end, is that cool factor, which will decline with each Starbucks deal. Gordon’s snipe at Radiohead, which after all is just doing its best to make its own place in that new world, is perhaps a sign of the pressure getting to them.