Outstreched arm

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Name your price - no, really, any price

By now you may have already heard that Radiohead decided to sell their new album, In Rainbows, in a pretty novel way: you can pre-order a downloadable version from their website. Cost? Whatever. The price field is a simple text box where you're free to enter any amount between 0 and... well, $100,000, if you feel like it. (There's also a special "discbox" which includes vinyl and other goodies; a collector's item through and through.)

Quite shocking, isn't it? Today, the BBC ran this rather ironic comment from the band's spokesperson:

Most people are deciding on a normal retail price with very few trying to buy it for a penny.

Why do I call it ironic? Because if most people agree on the price, the choice of naming your own price becomes less important.

This sales experiment may turn out to be an example of the sort of illusion of choice that similar honor systems have long embodied. When given the option to pay nothing (or next to nothing) or "whatever they feel it's worth", people tend to estimate the worth of the item pretty close to its retail price. Paying $3 for the album would seem wrong somehow, even if you did it in the privacy and secrecy of your computer room. And you wouldn't want those nice Radiohead people to look at the orders and go, "hey, who's the tosser in Ohio who paid so little? Screw this - next album's going straight to Walmart." That's a caricature, of course, but the point is that most of us probably aren't "deciding" this too close to the conscious part of our brain. The social pressures at work do what they do.

Still, this does give the option of paying only $1 to the person who can't afford to pay more, or who expects to like only one or two songs on the album. This option wasn't available before... unless they downloaded the album illegally from a file-sharing network. That, of course, would have been against the band's wishes, but I'm betting that Radiohead wouldn't be thrilled if it turned out that most people were paying $1 either.

I'm not saying it's six of one, a half dozen of the other whether you pay $1 or download In Rainbows from, say, Soulseek. But it's pretty darn close, especially if everyone else did it. The reason they don't is that they see how five and a half is rather close to a half a dozen.

I'm, of course, assuming that the quote is correct and that most people indeed paid the retail price. For my part, I threw in $10 before hearing what others were paying.

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