The release of Radiohead’s 7th album “In Rainbows” has created something of a stir in the blogosphere as well as in traditional media outlets. For those who have not yet heard (or read), the U.K. band has decided to make its new collection of songs available as a digital download on a “pay what you want” basis. This is not exactly an original idea. Prince, always the innovator made news earlier in the summer by giving away free CDs through a London paper. The Grateful Dead basically “gave away” music for decades. Other examples abound. But Radiohead’s move does offer the latest sign that the Industry Formally Known as Recording is having a hard time getting up from the mat on which the punch of peer-to-peer networking laid it.
The Chicago Tribune’s coverage of the event aptly notes that Radiohead’s move stands in sharp contrast to the recent announcement that “the record industry won a $220,000 judgment against a Minnesota woman it sued for downloading 24 copyrighted songs and making them available for file sharing.” Indeed. But what really caught my attention in the Tribune’s article was a quote from R.E.M’s manager, Bertis Downs. “Radiohead’s developed a pretty good brand name over the years,” he says, “They’re in a position where, of course, they can do something like this.”
Yes, of course. Any group with that has consistently delivered value to its audience over an extended period and that has established itself as a leader in its particular niche might possibly be able to say “pay what you want” for its latest offering and expect the financial consequences to be positive. To a certain extent, this is what the average charitable organization is up against when soliciting donations. What about the average association? Would “pay what you want” for membership work? Or, more in line with the focus of Mission to Learn, “pay what you want” for an online education offering?
There may be associations that take this approach—and if you happen to belong to one or work for one, please comment—but I can’t say I have run into them. As I’ve noted before, I get asked often about pricing for online learning, and I have written about the topic here at Mission to Learn more than once (one example being the aptly titled Pricing Online Learning). “Pay what you want” is not a strategy I have advised before, and I am not sure it would work for most associations even if perhaps it should. In spite of occupying, by their very nature, a fairly prominent, visible position within their particular niches, I suspect most associations do not enjoy the kind of customer enthusiasm that U2, Pearl Jam, or Dave Matthews—other artists mentioned by R.E.M’s manager—experience.
Still, similar to pondering the question “what if your online learning program disappeared?,” considering what the results of a “pay what you want” program might be for your organization can be a useful rhetorical exercise. It may even be worth experimenting with on a limited basis to see what the actual results are. Could a “pay what you want” approach actually increase the perceived value of your offering (and perhaps your organization)? Could your online learning offerings be used less as a revenue source themselves and more as a catalyst for attendance at live education sessions or meetings—a strategy pioneered by the Grateful Dead in the music world and practiced by some of the bands above?
If any readers have tried the “pay what you want” strategy—whether for online learning or for other products and services your organization offers—I’d really welcome your comments below. Or, if you prefer to share them privately, e-mail me at jcobb_at_missiontolearn.com.
Related Items and Updates from the Blogosphere
Comment of the Day: R.E.M. Video = Open Source As In Linux: R.E.M’s more recent foray into this arena provides an interesting gloss on Radiohead’s efforts.
Radiohead Revisited: Nine Inch Nails Selling Album Online: March, 2008. Brief posting from Marketing Pilgrim on Nine Inch Nails venture into offering a combination of free and paid options for Ghosts I-IV.