Seeing eye to eye with Radiohead

posted by Scott Schaeffer-Duffy on November 15th, 2007

Peter Maurin, Radiohead fanOn October 9, the British rock band Radiohead shook up the music industry by offering its new album, “In Rainbows,” online for whatever fans wanted to pay. The next morning, The Boston Globe reported not only that tens of thousands of CDs had been downloaded under the risky plan, but that the album was pretty good to boot. On the BBC news, lan Youngs admitted: “I paid precisely £0.00 – for research purposes, just to see if it could be done. And it could – the ordering process skipped the credit card section and went straight to the confirmation screen. But soon my conscience was nagging me to be a bit more equitable and give them a fair price . . . . I decided to pay £9.82 because that was the average price paid for a CD in the UK in 2006.”

My son Patrick and I went online that night and paid £3.45 (about $6). We were listening to the album less than nine minutes later.

The revolutionary pricing decision by Radiohead was motivated in part by the band’s frustration with the huge costs involved with having their music distributed by traditional recording industry labels. Middlemen jack up the price of their albums and siphon off profits without ever having played so much as a single chord of music.

Despite efforts to stop it, fans have increasingly circumvented the major labels by illegally downloading and distributing thousands of albums. Last year, MC Lars, what Wikipedia calls “a post punk laptop rap” band, released “Download this Song,” a catchy tune now available on YouTube, blasting the music industry for overcharging fans and encouraging everyone to join a “music revolution” that “cannot be dismissed.” Satirist “Weird Al” Yankovich weighed in with his own sarcastic song, “Don’t Download This Song,” in which he croons like Elton John, “You start out stealing songs, then you’re robbing liquor stores and selling crack and running over school kids with your car.”

My wife and I have had many fruitless conversations with our children about the dubious ethics of illegally downloading music and movies for free. Our kids say they are striking a blow against the greedy recording and movie-distributing industries. We say they are stealing from the artists who made the songs and films. Radiohead satisfies both of our concerns.

When our community first began its cottage industry, the Bread Not Bombs Bakery, I calculated the cost to produce, package, and deliver our breads, swirls, and muffins. Since we seldom bake more than 150 items at a time, we could only save so much by buying supplies in bulk. When I estimated our cost per item and then added a small increase for the cost of labor, I came out with a price which some people would consider too high to pay. This made us uncomfortable, so we dispensed with a set price and have ever since told our customers that our goods are “priceless.” We stress that they can pay anything they like, and even take the bread for free if they choose to do so. Interestingly, some people, especially elders on fixed incomes, take our products close to or under our costs, but virtually everyone else pays over what we would have charged; some lavish us with ridiculous sums. I sometimes tell people that a loaf of our bread has sold for as little as 5 cents and as much as $50. I also intone, ‘The customer is always right.”

There are different economic theories. Capitalism tells us that competition for highest profits and lowest costs will produce fair prices. Communism says only state control can set prices at fair levels. Fascism insists that state control alongside subsidies for privately-owned big business is the best way to organize an economy. Peter Maurin said, “capitalism, fascism, communism are three in a chain. Imperceptibly one passes into the other. All three are fundamentally materialistic, secularistic, totalitarian.”

Francis of Assisi experimented with a spiritually-based economics. In his Testament, addressed to his followers shortly before his death, Francis wrote: “Let those who do not know how to work learn, not from desire of receiving wages for their work, but as an example and in order to avoid idleness. And when we are not paid for our work, let us have recourse to the table of the Lord, seeking alms from door to door.” The Franciscans offered their work without negotiating a wage. What they received for pay was as freely given as what they received from begging. The economics relied heavily on trust grounded in the conviction that everything is ultimately a gift from God anyway.

For the most part, the Catholic Worker movement, drawing on a personalist interpretation of the Gospel, does not subsist on salaries negotiated with an employer or income assured by pricing its products to consumers. Like the Franciscans, we take the economically absurd position of trusting God and our supporters to assess our work and freely provide what we need to continue it. Along with Radiohead, we are pleased to say that people are far more generous than greedy.

Apparently other bands are following the Radiohead lead. May this economy of free pricing help transform our society into the one Peter Maurin dreamed of, “based on creed instead of greed.”

(Illustration: Peter Maurin, Radiohead fan, by Grace Duffy. This article first appeared in the Catholic Radical: 52 Mason St, Worcester MA 01610.)

Easy Essays

by Peter Maurin

Basic Power

Bourgeois capitalism
is based on the power
of hiring and firing.
Fascist Corporatism
and Bolshevist Socialism
are based on the power
of life and death.
Communitarian Personalism
is based on the power
of thought and example.

Futilitarian Economists

The Utilitarian Philosophers,
Hobbes, Locke, Hume,
were followed
by the Futilitarian Economists,
Adam Smith, Ricardo.
The Futilitarian Economists
thought that religion
had nothing to do
with business.
They thought that everything
would be lovely
if everybody took in
each other’s washing.
They thought that everybody
should try to sell
what he has to sell
to the highest bidder.
So people started
to think of time
in terms of money,
and ended by shouting:
‘Time is money!”

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