Radiohead and the mediocre middle
I got a ton of email this week about the Radiohead rollout. The short version: Radiohead (a million-selling rock band) launched their new album as a pay-what-you-want MP3 combined with an expensive boxed set. This is the sort thing I've been talking about for seven years and many unknown bands have been doing for at least that long.
A lot of pundits have jumped in and talked about how this is the next big thing. That the music industry is finally waking up and realizing that they can't change the world... that the world is changing them.
But that's not the really useful insight here. The question is: why did it take so long, and why did we see it from Prince (CD in the newspaper), Madonna ($120 mm to leave her label and go to a concert promoter) and Radiohead?
Most industries innovate from both ends:
- The outsiders go first because they have nothing to lose.
- The winners go next because they can afford to and they want to stay winners.
- It's the mediocre middle that sits and waits and watches.
The mediocre record companies, mediocre A&R guys and the mediocre acts are struggling to stay in place. They're nervous that it all might fall apart. So they wait. They wait for 'proof' that this new idea is going to work, or at least won't prove fatal. (It's the impulse to wait that made them mediocre in the first place, of course).
So, in every industry, the middle waits. And watches. And then, once they realize they can survive the switch (or once they're persuaded that their current model is truly fading away), they jump in.
The irony, of course, is that by jumping in last, they're condemning themselves to more mediocrity.