Sonic Youth's Kim Gordon attacks (sort of) Radiohead's "In Rainbows" pricing plan

"They did a marketing ploy by themselves and then got someone else to put it out," Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon told The Guardian on Friday. "It seemed really community-oriented, but it wasn’t catered towards their musician brothers and sisters, who don’t sell as many records as them. It makes everyone else look bad for not offering their music for whatever...It was a good marketing ploy and I wish I’d thought of it! But we’re not in that position either. We might not have been able to put out a record for another couple of years if we’d done it ourselves: It’s a lot of work. And it takes away from the actual making music."

Wired's Scott Thill had this to say about the episode:

It seems disingenuous to complain that Radiohead’s model is responsible for making other bands — especially ones like Sonic Youth, which admitted in the Guardian interview that it spent many unhappy years on the major label Geffen — look bad...Gordon’s condemnation as a ploy of what by all accounts was a very successful experiment in online distribution just because it didn’t adhere to an imaginary solidarity ("brothers and sisters?") or a traditional model that has obviously come and gone is bad faith...Radiohead, for all its warts and so-called ploys, seems like the band of the future. Especially when compared to Sonic Youth, whose latest effort, The Eternal, has been hailed as a throwback to the days of Evol and Daydream Nation. Good luck turning back the clock, Sonic Youth. I’ll be rooting for you. Musically speaking.

I will say that many local Chicago bands I spoken to (Snowsera for one) feel that they absolutely have to make their music free now. Snowsera's reasoning: no one's heard of us, so why would they pay $5 for an EP of 4 songs?

As a hypothetical response, one may say: "Because your music is good, and if it's not then you won't sell albums and you'll stop playing music." But that's a little unfair -- an unsigned band needs some way to help themselves get noticed, and many see giving their music away free as a great way to do so. They figure they'll then make money from shows, merchandise, or album sales in the future when people are willing to pay for their music.

This, of course, is not exactly what Radiohead did. They were trying to avoid the pains of traditional marketing (as Thill points out). And the pay-whatever scheme worked for Radiohead because, well, they're Radiohead. They don't need that traditional marketing anymore.

But Gordon's argument that this "makes everyone else look bad" for not doing the exactly same thing as Radiohead is wrong. People -- and that includes musicians -- aren't stupid. Independent, unknown bands aren't going to follow exactly in Radiohead's footsteps. They're going to adapt the strategy to their own needs.

In the end, Radiohead's strategy just delivered another tool in the independent artist's toolbox: a way to promote themselves and get themselves noticed without the aid of a major label. I believe that's something Sonic Youth would fully endorse.

Incidentally, we're featuring Sonic Youth on Future Perfect Radio this week for their new album The Eternal. Check it out here.