On the Download: The Industry, The Musician & The Internet – Part II

Digital download isn’t just regulated to smaller acts with no other means of distribution. In fact the first time free digital download led to commercial success was by Radiohead. But of course not everyone was met with the same fortune, much like putting out your music in record stores, putting them up on the internet is just as big of risk with varying success rates. And sometimes, to get into the industry, you have to bypass it first and vice versa.

After breaking free from the shackles of their then label EMI, Radiohead released their 7th album In Rainbows for digital download on their website using a model unheard of at the time; pay what you want (including no payment at all). Their site simply stated “it’s up to you.” 1.2 million downloads were recorded on the first day of release alone, most chose to pay the standard retail price as opposed to choosing to pay a penny or none at all for the album. Ed O’Brien has gone one to claim that despite not selling as many records, they’ve made more money than ever through self-distribution. However there were disputes over the veracity of these claims, for one their own manager said the figures were exaggerated. Then a survey conducted later discovered that one third paid nothing for the album. Whatever the truth was, the physical release of In Rainbows was still 1 of 10 only independent releases to reach number 1 on the Billboard 200. Fulfilling the band’s hopes of using the digital download as a promotional means to boost physical sales later.

Saul Williams, afropunk poet and occasionally David Bowie impersonator with a higher melanin level, adapts Radiohead’s model for his third album The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of NiggyTardust!. Being a much smaller name in the scene, it wasn’t surprising that the reception he’d gotten wasn’t anywhere on the level of Radiohead. While managing to go over 100,000 downloads, all of ‘em did not pay for the album. This resulted in Saul removing the free download after it reached the 100,000 point. While monetary it wasn’t quite the success (28,322 chose to pay full price for the download in comparison to the 30,000 who bought his last album), Saul Williams still managed to reach a wider audience.

JUICE has probably featured these punk-by-way-of-hip hop kids way too many times, but hey, they seem to be this decade’s zeitgeist-defining music movement. Using Tumblr as their base, OFWGKTA utilises the entirety of social media and file-sharing sites available (from YouTube, Twitter, Soundcloud, to Mediafire). With 12 free digital releases under their belt, more than half are of album quality as opposed to mixtape quality, these guys have gotten enough attention that crew leader Tyler, the Creator and MellowHype snagged distribution deals with the likes of XL and Fat Possum Records. And with full creative control to boot, swag.

Appearing seemingly out of nowhere on YouTube and the blogosphere, Abel Tesfaye’s alter ego The Weeknd enthralled music critics with his brand of morose r’n’b. First gaining exposure from a Twitter co-sign courtesy of Drake, Abel has since released a trilogy of free albums through his official Tumblr. He has since been announced to play at Coachella 2012 and had performed a sold out show at the legendary Barrymores Music Hall. Abel is currently still indie as ever.

Part of OFWGKTA, Frank Ocean is too disparate from the rest of his crew for us to lump them together. One of the oldest members in the youthful crew, Frank is also the most mentally matured of them all. Like The Weeknd, he was in the first wave of indie acts dubbed tumblr’n’b due to their method of distribution. Debut mixtape nostalgia, Ultra was initially released with little to no fanfare and promotion, unlike Odd Future’s other mixtapes, but it was soon quickly picked up by the blogosphere hype machine and ended up on numerous yearend Best Of lists. The critical acclaim it got remedied Frank’s relationship with his label Def Jam, who had put him on the shelf indefinitely previously. Frank has now become something of a prolific songwriter for pop starlets, writing for anyone from Beyonce to Justin Bieber.