Did Napster Take Radiohead's New Album to Number 1?

By Richard Menta- 10/28/00

When artists like Radiohead - a band that never hit the US Top 20 in either album or single sales - release an album people in the industry call "challenging", few have any illusions that this music will instantly ride up the charts. They're lucky if it appears anywhere in Top 100.

The record industry's reasoning is that this type of music tends to get lost on the teen fans who buy most of the records in this country. That is not an unfair assessment, these guys have been selling records for years. But there is a catch 22 here in that they also don't try as hard with such artists, reserving the big marketing dollars for acts they figure have a shot in bringing in a sizable return on invested funds.

Richard Menta

Yes, the rave reviews by the music press help greatly, but Radiohead was never to see the full force that big dollars can do to hype acts like Britney Spears and Ricky Martin. They have their niche, marketing will stay with it and that is good business.

When tracks from the bands latest album "Kid A" showed up on Napster three months before the CDs release, their record company was in a tizzy. Someone on the inside obviously leaked this out. Maybe it was an embittered employee looking for revenge. Maybe it was some misguided person who thinks exposure on Napster is the same as exposure on radio and thus will promote the band. It didn't matter, the music was now on Napster and being traded heavily. Kid A quickly became the most downloaded album on the embattled service.

Within days, tens-of-thousands of Radiohead fans had it. They now possessed what they no longer needed to buy. Furthermore, they got to hear how "challenging" this music really was. Certainly, a few of the more cynical industry executives figured they lost millions in sales dollars because fans had a chance to realize they didn't like this music BEFORE they plunked down their $17.99.

So here we have this band with a new album of challenging music that has by now been downloaded by millions of people worldwide. The CD is officially released. Did it fade away into bargain rack oblivion as many feared?

No, it shot to number one on the US album charts in its debut week.

Number one! Not number 27, which would have been damn impressive. Not number 10, which would have been a miracle. In its first week, Kid A topped the charts. Kid A beat out the combined marketing budgets of Eminem, Madonna, Creed, 'N Sync and Britney herself.

Can anyone take a stab at why?

Let's just say that Kid A's presence on Napster is not circumstantial to the events. As we said before, millions of fans and non-fans already had possession of the music. It trades today in heavy volume, continuously generating word-of-mouth about the album. By industry logic this should have killed the market for Kid A. Afterall, putting this music in the hands of only 500,000 fans traditionally gets it certified gold.

But mass Internet trading did not kill Kid A's sales. In fact, it seems that the music's availability on Napster promoted sales just as heavy radio air play promotes - not damages - record sales in a world where most households have cassette recorders.

We will tell you this; the record industry is loathe credit Napster. Doing so would acknowledge that the very program they are trying to shut down is the most important promotional tool for the music industry since, yes, radio. It also would give Napster something it badly needs for its court case, proof of a non-infringing use that benefits the major labels. (It may be noted here that back in the 20's the record industry tried to shut down radio. When that failed they petitioned the government to charge a tax on tubes to collect copyright fees. That failed too).

Big Music is not stupid. Many in the ranks see the promotional benefits Napster is having on them. At the very least, rising CD sales show it hasn't done anything to harm them. But what they don't like is an entity with such power that they don't control. Such an entity, they fear, can eventually undermine the profits that come with an oligopoly.

That is why Sony pulled the plug on The Offspring's attempt to release its upcoming album for free in the MP3 format months before the CDs release. It wasn't fear that such a move would compromise sales. Just the opposite, Sony's greatest fear was that the promotion would work. If it did, that would have undermined the industry's case against Napster.

Furthermore, it would show other artists in its stable proof of an inexpensive promotion and distribution tool that they could use without the record companies help, a real threat to control. If the Offspring had released the music as they planned and, like Kid A, it shot to the top of the charts, that would have been proof enough for many.

Right now Radiohead is enjoying popularity no one, including the band, expected. The group usually releases a new album with the announcement that it might be their last, reflecting some of the internal friction that regularly follows the group into the studio.

I wonder if the merits of Napster will promote a new heated debate within the group now that it may have become the subject of its force? It might be noted here that all this success has come with almost no US radio airplay so if anyone doubts Napster IS a force I challenge them to come up with a better one.

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