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Trend watch: Honesty boxes

  • Story Highlights
  • Fans buying the new Radiohead album name their own price.
  • Honesty boxes on executive floors are returned lighter
  • Radiohead's move could revolutionize the way music is sold
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By Brigid Delaney
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LONDON, England (CNN) -- What is it?


Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke trusts his fans. The band are asking them to pay whatever amount they feel is right for their new album.

An honesty box is the ultimate in silent shop keeping.

You take the goods and are expected to drop some coins in the box -- but no-one's going to know if you take off without paying.

Honesty boxes have been used to sell products such as fruit and vegetables left at the farmer's gate, newspapers at stations and entrance fees to car parks, museums and historical ruins. Although there is no CCTV trained on you, it is difficult to approach honesty boxes without feeling that you are being watched.

Honesty boxes and "pay what you think it's worth" prices appeal to our best selves -- the selves that won't take the goods and run, or won't take advantage of the seller's trust by underpaying them. The digital version of the honesty box is being used by Radiohead to sell their new album "In Rainbows."

The long awaited ten-track album will be released as a digital download on October 10. Fans that tried to pre-order the release this week were told they could name their own price. A blank price box appears on screen saying "it's up to you" and "no really, it's up to you."

In the UK, the usual price per track for downloads is 79 pence. Fans already have begun debating in chat rooms what the appropriate price is to pay. Some have even admitted to paying nothing which hasn't impressed some fans who say the album is not a give away.

By Wednesday the Radiohead site had crashed due to fan demand but a spokesman said most fans were pre-ordering the disc box and very few were trying to get the music for nothing.

Do honesty boxes work?

Researchers at Newcastle University recently conducted an experiment by displaying a poster above a tea and coffee honesty box. For 10 weeks, they alternated the poster. Some weeks, it featured a pair of eyes, and others, a bunch of flowers. They found without fail that more money was paid when the poster showed eyes.

"We thought we'd get a subtle effect with eyes," they reported, "but it was really quite striking how much difference they made. Even at a subconscious level, it seems people respond to eyes, and that might be because eyes and faces send a strong biological signal we have evolved to respond to."

"Freakonomics", a best-seller making sense of economic issues also reported a case where a New Yorker who used to bring bagels in to work with him. Colleagues paid for them through an honesty box and his collection rate was 95%. When he began delivering bagels to offices all over the city, the rate fell to 90%.

The book concluded people will cheat a stranger more readily than a friend, while smaller offices were more honest than big ones. Alarmingly, honesty boxes left on executive floors came back lighter than those left on sales and administrative staff floors.

Will it work for Radiohead?

The band is known to have a loyal fan base and this is their first release in four years, so the good will towards the band may translate into healthy sales. A rock critic for The Times called Radiohead's honesty box pricing as "remarkably radical."

"What this moves relies on is the notion that there is between Radiohead and their fans collateral of trust and, dare the term be uttered, decency... If it works, it will -- at the click of a few million mice -- make them the most powerful band in Britain."

The honesty box system may prove significant -- with bands able to quantify how much their fans love them. Some artists have gone even further outside the usual distribution system. In July Prince gave away his new album in a British Sunday newspaper and gave copies away free with tickets at his London shows.

The Charlatans are releasing their next single as a free download. Paul McCartney also by-passed the usual ways of distributing music when he signed a deal with coffee chain Starbucks to release his new album through their stores.

The preferred business model arising from this is bands making money from touring and merchandise. These moves are likely to send further panic through the record industry already under threat from piracy, illegal downloads and increased competition from other entertainment mediums such as video games.

For the traditionalists or at least those who prefer to keep the guess work out of purchasing music, a box set of Radiohead music including the new album is available from record stores for $80. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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