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Right-on Radiohead - the union busters?

Band is quids in, but collective bargaining is the loser

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The internet has been great for millionaire music performers and amateurs - it's everyone else in between who gets screwed. Now we have Radiohead's publisher Warner Chappell helping confirm the trend. The publisher's head of business affairs Jane Dyball has divulged some information on the band's "name your own price" offer last year.

Radiohead offered fans the chance to pay for a low-bitrate version of its new album In Rainbows, an album that was made available in various physical formats on indie label XL Recordings a few weeks later. Since the credit card processing fee could be set at zero, fans could preview and keep the album for free, while true mugs fans could pay twice: once for the preview, and again for the CD.

Not surprisingly, the avalanche of publicity for this brave move gave In Rainbows a huge boost - reversing a decade of dwindling sales for the band. Dyson said this week that Radiohead had sold 3.25 million copies, more than half of which (1.75 million) were physical CDs. 100,000 diehards paid £40 for the box set. This exceeds sales of 2001's Kid A and Amnesiac and 2004's Hail To The Thief. Only the band's The Bends, a US hit in the early 90s, and the worldwide bestseller OK Computer did better.

There were other benefits to this go-it-alone strategy: since physical sales were handled by the Beggars Group's XL label, an independent, Radiohead kept more of the revenue. The band didn't have to pay overseas rates for revenue on digital downloads from their site, and cut out the retailer for those box sets, which were sold by Radiohead's Waste Management operation. Dyball said the band saw more revenue from the "name your own price" digital download than it had from its final album with EMI. So the gimmick proved to be a resounding success for the band and their publisher.

But before musicians cheer too loudly, such success came at the expense of a hard-fought principle. The experiment was only possible because collective bargaining societies bent the rules to make it happen, bringing their own existence into question.

Let's see why.

Collective bargaining

In 1846 the French composer Bourget was enjoying a meal at the trendy Champs Elysées cafe Les Ambassadeurs, and heard the house band playing a composition of his. He stood up and left without paying, explaining that if the cafe didn't pay for his music, he wouldn't pay for its food.

What resulted was the world's first collective bargaining organisation on behalf of composers and musicians, which became SACEM. Huge egos were put aside so the organisation be created, which enabled it to negotiate a better deal for many, rather than just a few. It was a union in an age when union activists in Britain were being deported to Australia, and it required both courage and altruism.

Radiohead's experiment came at the cost of collective action: they opted out of negotiations that would have been carried out by the British society the MCPS PRS Alliance, and conducted their own.

As Music Ally explains today, the Rainbows experiment is "bad news for collecting societies like the MCPS-PRS Alliance, which was forced to bend its own rules to allow the initiative to go ahead, only to see it seemingly prove how much money can be made without their involvement. The reasons why are too varied and complex to cover in depth, but fundamentally Warner Chappell was able to move faster and do quick deals – with everyone from Radiohead themselves to iTunes and Last.fm – to ensure the money came in straight away."

That's something Radiohead might want to ponder - if they can turn their attention away from agonizing over their carbon footprint for a moment.

While Radiohead's singer Thom Yorke has said he won't repeat the experiment, the band will have helped achieve what Thatcher and Reagan failed to do - help destroy collecting societies.

It's a dog eat dog world out there, as they keep telling us. ®

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