Thom Yorke’s “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” BitTorrent Experiment
When Radiohead’s Thom Yorke released his second solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, last September, he eschewed convention. Yorke opted to sell the album through BitTorrent in an effort to put ecommerce back in the hands of himself, the artist. While many argue that Yorke could have made more money by opting for the traditional route by way of a record company, the decision to make the album available on BitTorrent was mutually beneficial for Yorke as well as his fans. Selling for only $6, the album did not cost nearly what it would have if purchased in a record store. Yorke maintained full control over his work, did not have to meet record contract requirements and cut out most of the middle man’s profits.
A BitTorrent spokesperson reported that it only took 24 hours for 116,000 people to download the album’s initial “Bundle” that included a free video for the first single, “A Brain In A Bottle”. BitTorrent offers these “Bundles” for artists to group free downloads with actual paid products. Yorke is the most notable musician to participate in the Bundle program and it looks like it worked. Industry analysts estimate that Yorke made between $1 million and $6 million from Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes sales on BitTorrent. His album became the most legally downloaded on BitTorrent in all of 2014. Yorke is proof positive that selling out to a monolithic record company is no longer necessary to achieve financial success in the music industry.
In total, over four million people have downloaded Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. Yorke released a statement with the album’s debut to explain why he bucked convention. He said that his motivation for taking the BitTorrent route was to prove that it could be an effective way for an artist to control internet ecommerce and bypass the traditional “ self-elected gate-keepers”. BitTorrent pays out 90 percent of its Bundle income to artists, which led many to assume that Yorke made $24 million on the album. Yet this dollar figure was determined by assuming that everyone who downloaded the album actually paid for it. The reality is that Bundles include free downloads.
Yorke did not choose to release the official break down of the number of free downloads versus those that were paid. This is why many believe that the $24 million figure is inflated. Only Yorke and BitTorrent executives know how many people actually paid the $6 price tag for the album and how many opted to pay nothing. Music industry analysts believe that many opted to download the free video and not pay for the album. Therefore, Yorke probably made anywhere from $1 million to $6 million. That’s not a bad haul for a 38 minute solo album with only eight songs. It is especially impressive compared to what Yorke would have made if he released his album through iTunes, which draws an egregious 30 percent of sales proceeds.
If only 25 percent of downloaders paid for Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, Yorke would have generated $5.9 million by way of 1.1 million downloads. This is a fair assumption to make as Spotify’s subscriber to listener ratio is 25 percent. The question begs: Would Thom Yorke have made nearly $6 million if he took the traditional route and released his solo album through one of the large record companies? Yorke cut out the traditional middle man and enjoyed 90 percent of the profits. His success will likely spur other artists to release their albums through platforms similar to BitTorrent once their current record contracts expire. Diplo and Ratking have followed in Yorke’s footsteps by releasing content on BitTorrent. Perhaps the Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes experiment is a glimpse of the future in which traditional record companies do not exist.