hey! radiohead has a new album! and they've decided to let their fans choose the purchase price for the album. um, three words: bad idea jeans! silly anti-capitalists! silly radiohead!
anyway, so like zillions of radiohead fans, i went online
yesterday (the official release date) to download the new album. of course, the site was overloaded and was running really really slowly and kept timing out and all that stuff that reminds us that we're still fallible. this isn't radiohead's fault, but in our i-want-it-NOW
day and age, it was a wee bit annoying. but once the proper pages finally loaded, i got to the screen where i got to enter my own price.
bear with me through this next part -- i promise i'm getting to the point...
way back in the day, to make some extra cash, i took a part-time job in visitor services at the philadelphia museum of art
during a big edgar degas
exhibition (a truly irrelevant aside here is that i wanted to make t-shirts for the visitor services staff that said "viva las degas", but i seemed to be the only one who thought that was funny. whatever. impressionism is totally boring anyway.)
just so i properly flesh out my personal history here, this was one of three phases of my life in which i was employed by the PMA. i was a full-time grant writer for a couple of years. and i also did a stint as a membership telemarketer for a while. why? i honestly don't know. the PMA has a weird way of getting its hooks into hipster artsy coolkids in their 20s and not really letting go until those hipster artsy coolkids grow up a bit. and yes, you heard right -- i just pseudo associated myself with the philadelphia hipster artsy coolkid crowd. n.b. i said PSEUDO. that was probably the closest i ever truly came to being hipsteresque, and even then i was way on the margins. i mean, i never had an asymmetrical haircut or wore skinny pants with socks and flats. come on -- that stuff is just silly. i'm way more punk than hipster anyday.
anyway, visitor services is the department at the museum that does things like staff the admission desks and sign up new members and manage the coatroom. the job was super-easy and actually pretty fun. especially in the coatroom where i'd make well over $100 in tips in any given shift, even though by the end of the shift, i'd be completely exhausted. anyway, the admission policy on sundays at the museum
is "pay what you wish." despite its plain-on-its-face meaning, this concept baffled visitors every single sunday. in my opinion, it's a pretty rad policy (duh -- it appeals to my inner socialist). you can't get in for free, but you can pay a penny if you want. it was a really interesting thing to experience from the receiving end of the transaction. a lot of people would just pay the regular admission price (which at the time was $10). every once in a while someone would pay more than the regular admission price. but most folks would pay between $5 and $7. and some folks paid only a dollar or two. and there were always the jackasses who acted like they were gaming the system and would give me their pocket change in exchange for an admission button. i was all, "really? you think you're mr. coolguy for giving me a shiny nickel? because really i don't care -- it's freaking 'pay what you wish' day. it's not a moral challenge -- it's a freaking admissions policy." also, back when i worked in the development department, i saw the general operating budget for that place. i know full well that it doesn't make the bulk of its money from admissions.
which brings me to the point -- when you let people name their own price, there seems to be a dangerous (in my opinion) tendency to bring morality into it. remember, the vast majority of museum visitors on pay-what-you-wish sundays would pay between 50% and 70% of the regular admission price. i could see the wheels turning on their faces as they decided what to pay -- it was as if they were thinking, "well, i don't want to not pay enough, but i do want to take advantage of this, so..."
look, it should come as no surprise that i'm not a capitalist. and that i don't think morality and economics should cross paths any more than they have to. (and if it does come as a surprise, hi! and welcome to my blog!) but how else does one figure out how to price something without thinking of the valuation process as one of both economics and personal worth? take two groups of people i encountered while working at the admissions desks -- the folks who paid more than the usual admission price and the folks who paid less than a dollar. on one level, paying more than you must is show-offy and paying next to nothing is cheap. on another level, paying more than you must is generous and paying next to nothing is living-within-one's-means. but the people who seemed (based on my own observations, which may or may not be an accurate assessment of financial resources) like they truly and honestly didn't have the money to spend on fancy museum admission were rarely the ones who only gave a few cents -- they would generally try to pay at least a couple of dollars. i can't help but wonder how much of the decision of what to spend was motivated by altruism, how much was motivated by ability, and how much was motivated by a sense that they might be judged according to how much money they gave.
i.e., how influential is the perceived judgment of others? i'm no sociologist or statistician, and nor am i much of a gambler, but i bet it's pretty freaking powerful.
okay, now back to the radiohead album...
there are obviously some major differences between this "pay what you wish" policy and the one at the PMA. first of all (and perhaps most importantly?), this transaction takes place online, so you don't have to speak to or encounter any real people while naming your price. a nameless, faceless, secure online payment system isn't nearly as intimidating as an actual human cashier. second of all, i'm not sure how comparable a not-for-profit cultural repository (even one that is pretty well established and has one hell of an annual endowment income) is to a for-profit rock band with a loyal following, seven studio albums, and a career that spans more than fifteen years. third of all, i imagine that the vast majority of people who would actually purchase the new radiohead album at a named-by-the-record-label price in a store have long ago overcome their moral hangups about downloading music for free. we're not talking about bringing art to the masses, here. we're talking about kids in college dorm rooms who can put music on their ipods in their sleep if need be.
and radiohead (or the folks who market their music) isn't stupid. on that same website where you can download the album for whatever price you choose, you can also pre-order the _in rainbows_ "discbox", which includes the actual CD, a bonus CD, two vinyl albums, and a book. this magic discbox set can be yours for a mere 40 GPB. which, according to current currency exchange rates, is about $82. and just like all of those silly folks who pre-ordered the "legendary" release of Halo 3
(which for a bunch of extra dollars, gets you an extra DVD and a stupid master chief helmet?!?), i'm quite sure there are plenty of fans with disposable incomes who will insure that sales of the _in rainbows_ discbox keep radiohead from going hungry.
i'm really curious about what folks are going to pay to download this album. i imagine that the majority won't pay much. there will probably be some folks who pay something comparable to what they would pay in a music store, or what itunes would charge. i don't want to be too cynical, but given what i suppose will be the demographics of those who will get this album, i really doubt that people are going to give a lot of thought to what radiohead means to them or how much they value the artistic contribution radiohead makes to society.
as for me, i wanted to get the freaking new radiohead album for free. judge all you want, but i don't have any moral hangups about paying precious little for music. and i've paid the regular store costs for those other six studio albums radiohead has released, so you know, they probably owe me or something. however, naming your own price has a catch -- regardless of what you choose to pay, the download server charges you a 0.45 GPB transaction fee. and despite my many attempts to enter 0 as my chosen price, it wasn't accepted. neither was five or ten pence. so i bumped it up to 25 pence, and this seemed to be acceptable. i can't verify that this is the lowest i could go. not only did i not try out 11 - 24 pence, but i also could have been victim of weird overloaded server issues. regardless, i got my downloaded copy of the new radiohead album for 0.70 GPB -- seventy pee. which is approximately $1.43.
and what of the album itself? it's good, kids -- REALLY good! i've been listening to it nonstop all day today.
it's worth every penny.