The recent announcement by the British band Radiohead that they would bypass traditional corporate music distribution channels and sell their new In Rainbows directly to consumers at pay-what-you-wish pricing is astonishing and exciting. As a classical music collector, I can't help feeling nostalgic for the old world, with fond memories of flipping through endless bins of LPs at Sam Goody, or for that matter, the Tower Classical Annex at Sixth and South. But the old gray suits at the big labels just keep missing the brass ring, as they spin in circles while a savvy, culturally independent generation happily makes up new rules as they go, and just as happily breaks them. It is not a business model that is taught well at Wharton. Not yet.
The Radiohead news is not a revolution as much as it is a very significant new blow against the fading dinosaurs. Is there relevance here for classical-music consumers? You betcha, and corollary developments have been coming apace. For several years now, the London Symphony Orchestra has been offering CDs for sale at the end of concerts of the music that had just been performed. This seemed like a brassy move at the time, as musicians at that level are control freaks, and letting all performances, warts and all, out on the marketplace definitely took away a safety net. I have heard a couple of those LSO CDs, and found them to be spontaneous and full-blooded in a way that studio performances are not.
Here in Philadelphia, the orchestra has also bypassed the tried and true methods, but out of necessity, since they were not being offered deals from the majors. The new series from the small Finnish label Ondine gives the musicians complete ownership of the recordings, a radical departure from the standard practice of major studio control over the product. Not incidentally, the Ondine recordings are superb in every way, showcasing the fabled sound of our great band in live performances in Verizon, highlighting the best of the Eschenbach era. The orchestra is also offering Internet downloads of concerts.
The whole situation is a nightmare for music execs, but a wonderful new era for true music lovers. It is all about choice, which has never been greater. Pick your music, pick your means of delivery, pick your playback device. And now, if you will excuse me, I have to buy a new turntable. Gotta love those LPs.