Unless you spend your Mondays in seclusion, you’ll most likely have heard that yesterday Radiohead announced their new album, “In Rainbows” would be released in just over a week, October 10th. (If you don’t know who Radiohead are then … there really is no hope for you).
The most interesting thing about this–besides the sneak-speed announcement and timeframe for such a long-awaited album–is the method of distribution. Radiohead are currently without a record deal, and so they’ve chosen to release the album themselves via download. A variable-contribution download, which means that you choose how much you are willing to pay for it–including nothing at all.
Cue much discussion on the future of the music industry and record companies; the inherent value of music; consequences for music charts; what people are actually buying when they purchase an album, etc, etc. It is true to say that it was going to take a superstar band to do this and get the industry and public to really take notice, and it’s also true to say that what the band have done is taken control of the inevitable “leak” and subsequent “illegal” file-sharing, and done it on their own terms.
What is intriguing to me, and why I’m writing about this on my ostensibly-academic blog, is that they have set up a really fascinating social experiment, one that is not too far off the sort of thing that psychologists, economists, and anthropologists are increasingly using to understand human social behaviour: an economic game. Economic or public-goods games take some aspect of behaviour that is context-specific and examine how the interplay of private versus social factors affect the decisions we make. Famous examples include the Prisoners Dilemma and the Ultimatum game. These sorts of artificial situations are set up to try and understand why and how prosocial behaviours such as altruism, punishment, co-operation and group co-ordination can evolve. Evolutionarily-minded social scientists are intrigued by these things as often they appear to run counter to our long-term (genetic) or short-term (economic) self-interests.
Which begs the question: why would anyone in their right mind enter anything apart from £0.00 in that little box? Why, furthermore, are there people complaining about the free download, who would rather pay a tenner for a CD? Something to hold in your hands, perhaps? Hardly: CD covers, liner notes, artwork … all these things are available (free) on fansites and music sites 0.0007 seconds after an album release.
Yet people did pay money, according to their self-reports on websites and forums. And people felt guilty about not paying anything … even those who by their own admission regularly download music from file-sharing or peer-to-peer networks without paying for it, or without a twinge of conscience.
What is going on here?
The study of economic games has taught us this: that our strategies might be different if we play a game once or anonymously, versus if our interactions are repeated, or face-to-face. The sets of adaptive social strategies that we humans use evolved in small, face-to-face societies, where there was a high likelihood of interacting with the same people repeatedly over a lifetime. Anonymous and one-shot interactions aren’t what we’re used to dealing with. But this doesn’t account for the fact that we all do “defect” or “free-ride” in some social situations. We don’t donate blood, we don’t put our recycling in separate bins, and we don’t return to the shop, coins in hand, when we’re given us too much change. Certainly our cognitive strategies are not so fixed that we can’t take advantage of a good deal or a free lunch when we see one.
But throw in relationships–and their concurrent emotional responses–and it becomes a different sort of strategy set. We want good behaviour to be reciprocated, and bad behaviour to be punished, in our relationships and repeated interactions. Emotions themselves are excellent moderators and cueing systems to facilitate the desired behaviours in relationships. This is the intriguing thing (for an evolutionary anthropologist) about what Radiohead have done. They have demonstrated that an emotional connection, or some sort of relationship (no matter how one-sided) is going to be the key to successful operation in an “honesty box” culture.
Importantly, the “music business” is not just a business. It transacts not only in the tangible product but in intense amounts of emotion. The social contracts between an artist and their audience are multiple and complicated, and they do not produce agents who play their economic games in a rational manner. To understand why people pay money for something they could get for free, you have to understand that it isn’t simply a business transaction. The audience wants something back–a feeling, an experience, another album in the future … music *is* a public good. In varying degrees, depending on how much of a fan you are, it is an emotional relationship.
Of course, it is unsurprising that the band who wrote “Street Spirit” would recognise this fact.
 As an aside, it would be fascinating to have the website data from the announcement onwards. Tracking not just the average amounts that people pay, but the amounts that the “first wave” of buyers paid compared to later sign-ups. Sadly it is a little muddied by the fact that one could also pay £40 for a later-arriving box set of CDs, LPs and extras, including the downloads, and this premium product is presumably what the dedicated fan will buy–thus we have no way to gauge what those people might have offered. Still, real-time data would make me geekily happy.