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Is it because he’s black?

If for no other reason than my own personal amusement, someone ought to conduct the following study.

If a group was to release an album over the Internets using the Radiohead model, i.e. people can pay whatever they want for it, from no money at all to upwards of $200, would people pay more on average if the group was white than if they were black?

(Of course my guess is that they would.)

Not only would this be hilarious for those of us who feed on contentious race issues as if they were an all you can eat buffet at KFC[1], but it would be useful for the hip-hop community, if a rapper was considering releasing an album using that model.

Obviously this would be a difficult experiment to conduct. To have it be completely scientific (I took both freshman-level biology and freshman-level physics in college), you would need two groups, one that was white and one that was black, to put out the same album – so that you’d have what’s known in scientific circles as a “control group.”

In fact, such a study might be impossible to conduct in a way that was entirely scientific. Recent events though, suggest that my hypothesis might be true.

The other day, it was announced that Radiohead’s new album In Rainbows managed to debut atop the Billboard charts despite the fact that Radiohead had been giving it away for free (or for $200, if you’re so inclined) for something like three months prior.

And for the past several days now, people have been speculating as to what this all means: Do people like Radiohead so much they’re willing to pay for an album they could get for free? Or is there just not that much overlap between the segment of their audience who bought the album and the ones who downloaded it.

Either way, Radiohead has gotta be happy as a fudge at the Y. Not only are they gonna cake off of those CD sales, but who knows how much money they made from the saps who paid to download In Rainbows?

Probably quite a bit. Radiohead isn’t gonna say, probably because they made way more money than they expected, but it’s been estimated that somewhere in the neighborhood of 1.2 million people downloaded the album in the month after it was released, and that about 38% of them opted to pay money for it, and that they paid about $6 for it on average.

Now, putting my superior math skills to use (did I mention I also took calculus? u + me = us, nullus), that means they made over $2.7 million in the first month alone. $3 million if you round up. (Why not!) And probably more since then.

Holy crap!

In less celebratory news, Trent Reznor announced on the Nine Inch Nails website a couple of weeks ago that his similar experiment with def poet Saul Williams didn’t go nearly as well.

While all we really have is estimates for the Radiohead album, I’m assuming Trent Reznor has actual sales figures for Williams’ The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust! (Or whatever it’s called.) Since he paid for it and all.

According to the item at (which is being a real bitch right now), about 150,000 people have downloaded Niggy Tardust so far, but only about 18% of them opted to pay $5, which was your option in this case. Again, busting out my ol’ trusty TI-83, that’s about $135,000.

Not bad at all (definitely more than I’ll ever make), especially when you consider that Saul Williams’ other albums only sold 30,000 something copies each. So he probably never made anything from them. But if Niggy Tardust cost a lot of money to produce, he might not be getting a check from Trent Reznor either[2].

Which of course begs the question: Is it because he’s black?

Like I said before, it would be rather difficult (some might even say pointless) to compare download figures for two entirely different groups and try to draw some grand conclusion about race in America. It could be the case that people just find Saul Williams a less-worthy artist than Radiohead, so of course they wouldn’t want to pay him as much money. I know I do.

But think about it: If people found Saul Williams so unworthy in the first place, why would they even bother with Niggy Tardust? And wouldn’t that account for the difference in overall download figures. So way less people are into Saul Williams than Radiohead. The Saul Williams figures are relatively low even if you adjust for the size of his fanbase, so to speak.

And then there was the fact that the Radiohead was a much more hyped-up release, and the fact that they gave the user more payment options than just free or $5.

My guess though is that a lot of people were put off not only by the fact that Saul Williams is roughly the shade of the leather on Barack Obama’s fine Italian shoes, but by the fact that his album deals heavily with nasty race issues. (While the Radiohead album, in contrast, is called motherfucking In Rainbows – and that’s pretty much what it sounds like.)

As this year’s presidential election is proving, white people don’t really want to think about race, except if it’s an opportunity to prove they aren’t racist by aligning themselves with certain black people. In that sense, it’s hardly any wonder that not very many people were willing to pay $5 to hear Saul Williams shouting about slavery and what have you.

What do you fruits think?

[1] Something else for someone to look into: Does KFC have a corporate policy to only build all you can eat buffets in areas that are 95+ percent white? I know there was one in the town where I went to college, and there’s one in Alton, Il, across the street from the motherfucking Agosy, but that’s about it.

[2] Delicious irony alert: A black man not receiving any money from his white producer for his album about slavery.

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