Radiohead released their new album, In Rainbows, on October 10, 2007 amidst massive hype — not only because they are “the best band in the world” or that In Rainbows is an incredible album, but because the band chose to bypass traditional music outlets — both brick & mortar and online (even the mighty iTunes) — and release the album themselves direct via their website. And, nearly causing heads to explode at the executive offices of major labels worldwide, Radiohead has allowed fans to choose their own price/adventure for downloading this album.

  • If you want to download the album for free, turn to this page.
  • If you want to do the equivalent of making a two-foot hoagie out of cash and eating it, then turn to this page.

While there has been plenty of hyperbole about the imminent destruction of the recording industry as we know it (and some grousing about the “poor” audio quality of the download — more on this later), I wonder if what Radiohead has done doesn’t have implications for the church as it relates to worship music.

Perhaps that last statement needs some unpacking. In my experience in ministry with youth and young adults, I find that very few people have questioned whether or not it is ethical to download pirated songs from peer to peer file sharing networks — it’s just the way things are so get over it already, old man. In fact, I have often encountered indignation when raising the possible ethical concerns of such practices, especially when it comes to praise & worship music. One particularly outraged student told me, “Why shouldn’t I get these songs for free? It’s all to praise God, isn’t it?”

Certainly, there are some glaring problems in the contemporary Christian music industry, not the least of which is the the $18.99 or more one can often expect to pay for a worship CD at the local Christian bookstore. However, I remain unconvinced that piracy is the solution. But perhaps this is where the In Rainbows pay-what-you-want model has something to say…

I am very sympathetic to the plight of musicians, having had many friends struggle to make it as indie artists. Even musicians with good buzz who have released a few albums often need to hold down “real” jobs in order to pay the bills. I am a big believer in supporting great music and the people who create and perform it, which is why the whole piracy thing rubs me the wrong way. I could see how it would be burdensome for indie artists to try this, but wouldn’t it be something if some of worship music’s heavy hitters — the Tomlins, Crowders and Deliriouses — “resourced” the church by releasing an album (or even just an EP or single) directly to individuals and allowed them to pay what they felt was right?

In the end, perhaps part of what I’m feeling is the importance of personal connection. That’s what I loved about the DIY culture of indie rock from back in the day — during my recent trip back to Michigan I discovered a handmade zine that I had picked up at a show during college. The cover is made of sandpaper, and it was handstamped with the zine’s title, “Mine.” Immediate, direct, passionate — something is lost when we follow the big box worship model mediated by huge corporations with little or no vested interest in our communities other than shaking us down for cash.

Jonah Matranga has been using a sliding-scale payment model for awhile on his webstore. In true DIY fashion, Jonah fulfills all of the orders himself (and, usually, includes fun freebies as well!). His reason for doing so, in his own words:

For a long time, I’ve made it a point to have a personally-run webstore that makes it as direct as possible between us. I maintain it and send out all the orders myself, with occasional help when I’m drowning. Now that we’re in download-land, the infrastructure is finally really there on every level for an artist that wants to do their own grunt work to get the music out there, in a way that works for the people that like the art and want to buy it… It’s sad for me to see different middle-men entities coming in and taking money (and therefore raising prices) for not doing much but being a musical equivalent to Starbucks or Wal-Mart or McDonald’s; global familiarity over individual culture. So I’m trying to keep up with tech and make it work in fun ways… the rewards of direct contact outweigh any potential downsides for me, and hopefully for you as well.

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For your cost-free viewing enjoyment: Radiohead covering The Smiths (!) and Jonah’s video for “Not About A Girl Or A Place” (who knew an incredible indie-pop song would go so well with zombies?):