More bands embrace the option of giving away music

NEW YORK (Billboard) - The two latest bands to offer their new albums online for free are advancing divergent versions of the business model Radiohead introduced in fall 2007.

Where Nine Inch Nails’ approach, like Radiohead’s before it, draws fans in with free music and then offers additional music for purchase in more extravagant configurations, the Charlatans UK release doesn’t seem connected to any such game plan.

From the start, Nine Inch Nails planned to put out some tracks for free and charge for others from its instrumental album “Ghosts I-IV.” NIN began giving away nine tracks on its own Web site March 2 and uploaded those same tracks onto Pirate Bay, where fans were encouraged to share the music. But fans were given other options, too: $5 for a digital version of all 36 tracks from the album via Amazon or, $10 for a double-CD, $75 for a deluxe edition or $300 for an ultra-deluxe edition that includes a vinyl version and Trent Reznor’s autograph.

In the first week, the band says its release resulted in more than 781,000 transactions, including free and paid downloads and physical preorders. Though NIN didn’t break out sales by format beyond that figure, the band does say that pre-orders sold out all 2,500 copies of the $300 limited-edition release. Sales through topped $1.6 million in the first week, and digital sales though Amazon on the first day of release totaled $1 million, according to the band’s manager, Jim Guerinot.

Guerinot, for his part, insists that the free offerings weren’t meant as a quid pro quo to get fans to buy the album. “The only strategy behind it was (Reznor’s) notion for how he would do this as a fan and what would he want to see as a fan,” Guerinot says.

Still, in contrast with the NIN release, the Charlatans UK seem to be putting out their free album without a playbook. The band partnered with U.K. radio station XFM to deliver an MP3 version of “You Cross My Path,” which the band says was downloaded 60,000 times in the first week.

Frontman Tim Burgess speculates that fans attained additional copies through torrent sites. The Charlatans UK and XFM have no revenue-sharing plan for future releases; at this point, they’re merely using each other for purposes of promotion. The band carried the cost of recording, while XFM handled the digital distribution for free.

The Charlatans UK will also put out “You Cross My Path” in CD, double-CD and vinyl versions May 12 through Cooking Vinyl. But even those releases came as an afterthought, says Burgess, who adds that the band expects to make money on touring and merchandise.

“If people get a chance to have our music,” he says, “they might be interested to come out and see us play live.”

NIN and the Charlatans UK decided to go free after leaving major labels, following the path carved when Radiohead released “In Rainbows” on a pay-what-you-want basis on its Web site last fall. NIN’s contract with Interscope expired in October, and the Charlatans UK decided not to sign with Universal after that major bought and closed Sanctuary, which put out the band’s last release, “Simpatico.”

But the free model may not work for developing bands, says Guerinot -- who notes that NIN, like Radiohead, built its fan base in advance.