How Radiohead Got It Right And You Can Too

Stop struggling with your marketing. A brief look at how you can use Radiohead's successful marketing tactics for your own band.

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You all know the story. Against a lot of resistance from critics, In 2007, Radiohead released their album "In Rainbows" on a pay-what-you-like download basis, completely on the notion "...we believe if your music is great, then people will pay for it." The album quickly became #1 on iTunes, selling 30,000 copies within the first week alone. What followed was a surge in ticket sales and the ultimate sell of over 3 million copies of the album, including 100,000 copies of their deluxe edition box set. They immediately became an inspiration to thousands of bands worldwide, who years later are offering the same pay-what-you-like system to their own fans, hoping for the same success.

Artists at all levels of their music career have been successful following this model, and yet some haven't. Many have even criticized the model as only working for bands that already have a huge fan-base like Radiohead, ignoring the countless stories of smaller artists having similar success. Yes, they may not have sold millions, but they have sold thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, which is much more than most other relatively unknown musicians can claim.

So if you follow their lead, you'll sell a lot too, right?

It's the same model after all, right? Well...not exactly.

You might instead follow a much lesser known artist's model, like Adam Singer, who used his album purely as a promotion tool through Creative Commons. Within weeks his album had been downloaded over 5000 times, and shared an uncountable amount beyond that. He started being approached to write music for youtube videos, was featured on multiple popular music blogs and internet radio stations, gathered tens of thousands of visitors to his website, and even had remixes start to appear in cool viral videos. All this for simply putting up his album for free under Creative Commons. He didn't have a following, he didn't market his music to anyone. And yet, he gained more attention in one week than most artists gain over the course of several years.

Let's look again at Radiohead. They released their 2011 album the same way, and again, the critics are coming down hard on them yet again. Later, they released it on Vinyl, and once again got fussed at by critics, even though The King Of Limbs quickly became the best selling Vinyl album of 2011 by an insanely large margin. Those critics don't get it. But do you?

Radiohead also put out their entire back catalog of albums on a USB stick for $160, and it sold like hot cocoa on a cold winter day. Are you catching on yet?

So what model should you follow?

Pay-what-you-like? Creative Commons? And what about Vinyl? Or USB? There's one simple answer. Vote "none of the above." Sure, you can give out just about anything on a pay-what-you-like basis, but if it's not done the right way then it will fall flat. Perhaps you should not be looking so much at models and results, but instead at the mindset behind them. Radiohead wasn't successful just because of the model they chose or the amount of fans they had waiting. Adam Singer had no fans and use a completely different method, no pay, no Vinyl, no USB sticks, and yet he still had a huge response to his album. These are two extremes, but share a very similar mindset behind them that brought both artists a lot of music career success. The question isn't what model you should follow, rather "What model will engage YOUR audience in the biggest way possible?"

Apple didn't ask critics and experts what they thought of a purely touchscreen phone or ten inch iPad. They didn't ask critics and industry executives about putting out an all-in-one machine, or about slimming down MP3 players to the size of a deck of cards and smaller. Napster didn't ask the industry what they thought about digital downloads or streaming music. Netflix didn't ask about mail-order DVD rentals or streaming movies. Everyone around them told them it would never work, and yet years later, everyone's trying to copy their success. And those copycats are missing the point too.

Don't attempt to copy someone's success by doing the exact same thing they did. Don't expect the same results because you put out your album as pay-what-you-like downloads, Creative Commons, Vinyl, or USB. Instead, model what's going on in their mindset behind that success.

How to create success for your next album:

You have enough explanation already, so let's break it down into actionable steps:

  1. Define your ideal target audience. Go deep. Seriously deep. The better you know your ideal fan, the easier it will be for you to anticipate what they think would be the coolest way to find, consume, and purchase your music. Not just any fan, but that one ideal fan who would go crazy over your music and buy everything you ever released. They should be your focus. Define them so well that you not only know their searching and buying preferences, but also exactly what types of things they would go crazy over.
  2. Keeping your ideal fan in mind, plan out a release model that makes it easy for them to find, easy for them to consume, and easy and fun for them to share.
  3. Implement.

Yes, it's that easy. Radiohead knew their ideal fan so well that they naturally chose release models that their fans went crazy over. Adam Singer had a fan base waiting for him without even knowing it. They were just like him, and he engaged them where they were at with exactly what they were looking for - easy to find, easy to download, easy to share, easy to use, good music. These two artists, and even the innovative companies we mentioned, anticipated ways to engage their audience despite the outcry of all those who would eventually shamelessly copy them.

So the question remains. What model will engage YOUR audience in the biggest way possible?


About the Author: Draven Grey is an artist development specialist and accomplished professional musician who has been where you are. He coaches bands across the world in how to be as successful as their favorite bands. Sign up for more great tips about the music business and a free Band Booster Pack now at

15 comments sorted by best / new / date

    If I go into the mindset of my ideal fans, I should give them free pot with my music... I'm NOT giving away my pot!
    esp 4 life
    People actually feel guilty for paying nothing when the option to pay is there, its not like piracy when the money is out of your mind, i felt guitly for paying .01 cents for a pay as you want game, and increased my payment thereafter
    Ty Morgan
    What a great reminder of how to reset the metal side of marketing and promotion! Will be implementing this new perspective and tips ASAP!
    Rovan Deon
    What a wonderful article! Well written, intelligent, and a lot of gold nuggets in here for every reader. Excellent!
    Draven Grey
    Thanks everyone! I think my next article will address a similar subject, but from an entirely different point of view.
    Ideally, if you're starting out, you will not have a target fan base as you won't have enough fans to determine that...So don't start out with a target in mind, that's boring. Just write and see who gravitates toward your music.
    GREG X
    Great Stuff Draven. I have recently released an album as you know and I was wondering which way was the best for me. I chose the traditional model as I think Radiohead's model works only for established bands. Anyway if you google: Greg X Dream - you can pretty much get my album for free from places like Mega Upload and other file sharing places. I think that real fans of music have to make their choice if they want to support artists or not. Without album sales itw hard for us to make music for fans