There was a lot of resistance in 2007 when the band Radiohead put out their album "In Rainbows" on a pay-what-you-like download incentive, purely on the notion "...we believe that if your music is great, then people will pay for it." Within the first week, when the CD sold 30,000 copies, it was apparant that this new CD was indeed a success. There was then a large number of concert tickets sold and their CD eventually sold over 3 million copies. Thousands of bands, motivated by Radiohead's success, then tried to sell their own album through the same pay-what-you-like system, hoping for the same degree of success.
Musicians at all levels of their music career have been successful replicating this model, and yet some haven't. This system has also been heavily criticized for only working for bands that already have a devout fanbase like Radiohead, rejecting the countless stories of smaller artists having similar success. Yes, these smaller bands may not have sold millions like Radiohead, but selling a 100x to 1000x more than the other bands on their "level" is huge.
So if you follow their model, you'll be successful too, correct? It's the same system after all, right?
Have you heard of Adam Singer? He used a entirely different release system by using his album exclusively as a promotional tool through Creative Commons. In just a few weeks, it was clear his CD and his approach were popular with over 5,000 downloads and innumerable shares. He was featured on various notable music blogs and internet radio sites, drew more than 10,000 visitors to his site, approached to create music for videos on YouTube, and even had remixes begin to pop up. This all came about by releasing his music without cost under Creative Commons. He didn't have a fanbase and he didn't market his music to anyone, but oddly enough he rapidly attracted more attention than most music artists ever do.
Let's look again at the band Radiohead - they released their 2011 record the same way and later released it on vinyl, all while the critics came down hard on what they were doing. Their album "The King Of Limbs" quickly became the best selling vinyl albums of 2011. But do you see what they overlooked?
Selling their entire catalog on a USB stick for $160 was another bold move that they made, and they sold like mad. Are you catching on yet?
What system is right for us?
Give it away for free? Let them pay what they like? And what about releasing it on vinyl? Or putting it all on a USB? We have a simple system to follow: none of the above. Sure, you can give out just about anything on a pay-what-you-like basis, but if it's not done the correct way then it will fall flat. It could be you should not be studying simply the models and results, but instead at the mindset behind them. Both Radiohead and Adam Singer chose a completely different methods and both had large levels of success. Radiohead and Adam Singer share a common and professional mindset toward their music career that feed their success. The question isn't what model can you copy, but "What method is perfect for your audience because it's what your fans are looking for?"
Apple didn't survey the experts and critics what they thought of an all-in-one machine, MP3 players smaller than the size of a deck of cards, a purely touchscreen phone, or the ten-inch iPad. Napster didn't just follow the existing models in the industry when they put out streaming music and digital downloads. Netflix also didn't simply follow the existing systems when they were the first to put out DVD rentals through mail-order and streaming movies. They told them it wouldn't work, and yet years later, they're all trying to replicate imitate their results. And these copycats have missed the point too.
Don't strive to replicate someone's outcome by doing the exact same thing they did. The number one thing is that you discover their mindset.
You have sufficient understanding as of now, so let's lay it out into actionable steps:
1) Define your ideal desired fanbase. The more you are able to understand your intended fanbase, the simpler it will be for you forecast a CD release model that actually works for them. The easiest way to do this is to picture a fan, not just any fan, but that one perfect, favorite fan who totally loves you. Describe them: Who are they? What are their browsing and purchasing tendencies? What examples of things do they go mad over? Go deep. Truly deep.
2) Now take what you wrote about your ideal fan and plan out a CD release process that makes it easy and fun for them to find, consume, and share.
3) Now, put it in action.
It really is that simple. Describing their perfect fans so fully made it simple and natural for Radiohead to choose release methods that their fans would go mad over. And Adam Singer, had a potential fan-base just waiting for something that spoke to them. Singer's audience was just like him, so he met them with only what he would be looking for - good music that was easy to find, purchase, share, and use. Both of these music artists and also the businesses we discussed anticipated ways to effectively engage their audience, and they did this regardless of the clamor of those that ultimately shamelessly followed them.
I'll leave you with this final question: What method will most effectively engage "your" audience?