Radiohead made a low-bitrate version available several weeks ahead of the physical release of In Rainbows. The management even waived the credit card charge - and you could get the album, in its entirety, for free.
Such was the buzz around Radiohead's approach to market that few people noticed that it really wasn't very inspired. No one seemed to mind very much. Contractually free of their deal with EMI, the band signed with Beggars Group indie label XL Recordings to release the physical version - which went on to top the charts in the UK and the USA. Many fans paid twice for the same recording - and some of these are fans who'll complain about the music business' practice of getting us to pay for the same record twice as one format supersedes another.
How the honesty box worked
Despite investing £20,000 in new servers to cope with the demand for the digital preview, Radiohead benefited from the "honesty box" release in several ways. There's the one I've mentioned: the bet that people would pay twice - once for the preview, and again for the physical release.
There was an instant cash-flow dividend, too. There was no waiting around for a royalty statement from the Accounting Department of the Mega Label. And best of all, the renewed interest from overseas - particularly the United States - gave the band far higher royalties than they'd gain from a physical release with a major label.
So although fewer fans put less money into the honesty box than many people claimed, it didn't really matter. Enough had done so to recoup the one-off costs - and the album was available as a sampler for weeks.
But one-offs, by definition, are not to be repeated. Neither Trent Reznor nor Coldplay have generated anything quite like the publicity that In Rainbows digital preview enjoyed.
Without the Freetards, the publicity coup could never have happened. Even the most inventive major label marketing genius with the biggest budget would have struggled to get such an indifferent "product" to the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.
And the real money, you'll note, is in the CD, and getting fans to pay twice. Which looks a lot like the Old Business Model to me. ®