New music models and old music models

(This is cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

More than a month after Radiohead allowed users to download its latest album and pay whatever amount they wanted for it, debate continues about whether the move was just a stunt — one that only an established band with a dedicated fan base could pull off — or whether it was a viable alternative to the traditional record-label model.

The band has yet to say how many people have downloaded the album or what they paid, but that hasn’t stopped others from experimenting with similar moves. Suburban Home Records, an independent label based in Colorado, recently announced that fans can download a free sampler collection of songs from all the bands represented and distributed by the label — and they can share those songs with whoever they wish.

Meanwhile, a new music site known as RCRD LBL launched this week, founded by Engadget editor Peter Rojas and Josh Deutsch of Downtown Records. The site features songs by a variety of up-and-coming artists, which are provided for free download (without any digital-rights-management restrictions), along with widgets that can be embedded in various blogs and other sites that stream RCRD LBL artists. The venture is completely ad-supported.

Another artist inspired by Radiohead (in addition to The Charlatans, another UK band who released their album for download not long after Radiohead did) was Trent Reznor of the Nine Inch Nails, who recently dumped his record label. Reznor has made a number of comments both at public events and on the band’s website about how he was looking forward to developing a “direct relationship” with his fans, and was also instrumental in getting a record by Saul Williams — a record Reznor produced — released online as a free download.

One of the NIN frontman’s attempts to interact more directly with his fans has been stymied, however — at least for now — by the lawsuits between his former label (Universal Music) and YouTube. As Reznor describes in a recent note on the NIN website, fans have been remixing and reworking his songs for the past couple of years, creating interesting works of their own, and the artist wanted to recognize these efforts by setting up a dedicated site at NIN.com for them to upload their files. Then he got a call from Universal.

The label, which owns the rights to Reznor’s previous works, wouldn’t let him go forward with the project because they are afraid it might jeopardize their lawsuit against YouTube and MySpace. The label is arguing that the two sites don’t have protection under the “safe harbour” clause of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and according to Reznor “Universal feels that if they host our remix site, they will be opening themselves up to the accusation that they are sponsoring the same technical violation of copyright they are suing these companies for.”

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