Radiohead Didn’t Change the Music Industry, But at Least They Tried

Sandra Canosa

 

Few alternative rock bands from the 1990s should still honestly be described as “contemporary” artists, but at least Radiohead can be safely counted among them. Their May 2016 release and ninth studio album, A Moon Shaped Pool, once again showcased the band’s continuous refusal to become irrelevant, despite the usual statutes of popular culture regarding people over 40. The record explores new landscapes sonically, but its actual release proved, yet again, that the band knows how to take advantage of the Internet.

Like its two predecessors, 2011’s The King of Limbs and 2007’s In Rainbows, A Moon Shaped Pool was released with little notice and even less promotion. On May 1, the band’s entire website and social media profiles went black, which of course prompted the Internet to erupt into a tizzy of speculation. On May 3, one song, “Burn the Witch,” and its music video were released. Three days later, another song and video for “Daydreaming.” And another two days after that, a full album unleashed on the world.

By now, the “surprise drop” album is nothing new for musical artists or their fans: Everyone from Drake to My Bloody Valentine is doing it, while Beyoncé has more or less perfected it as an art form unto itself. But it’s easy to forget that nearly a decade ago, Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want and direct-to-download release format for In Rainbows was not only largely unprecedented, but downright seditious.

“The new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days.” That was the sole notice given on Radiohead’s blog in October of 2007 to announce In Rainbows (an announcement that, by today’s big-banner surprise drop standards, seems almost quaint). As the band’s first foray into self-release after departing with their former label, EMI, Radiohead was freer than ever to explore what they saw as the potential of digital music, both in terms of distribution and access.

In some ways, it was a project that had been building since the turn of the millennium. Even in 2007, Radiohead had a long history of flirtation with the digital ether: In 2003 – two years before the invention of YouTube – the release of Hail to the Thief coincided with the launch of radiohead.tv, a site featuring music videos, short features, and live studio webcasts from the band. Amnesiac, in 2001, was also accompanied by “mini-sites” called Iblips and a fan-centered instant messaging service. When Kid A came out the year before that, the album streamed online two weeks for free before its official physical release. (“It became almost viral in nature,” said the label’s head of new media at the time; “We had over 240,000 listeners in the two weeks.”)

With In Rainbows, the technology and the vision fell into place. “When we did the In Rainbows thing, what was most exciting was the idea you could have a direct connection between you as a musician and your audience,” singer Thom Yorke later explained. “You cut all of it out, and it’s just that and that.”

 

 

As many as 1.2 million people downloaded the album through Radiohead’s website (and another 500,000 or more accessed it through torrent sites), and though the pay-what-you-want scheme seemed both daring and disastrous at the time, it ultimately proved successful: In Rainbows’ financial sales outstripped that of their previous record, despite the fact that on average, three in five downloaders didn’t pay a penny for the album at all.

It would be easy to cast the commercial success of In Rainbows as a triumph for independent music-makers over the greedy corporate tactics of the bloated major-label industry, or as a tale of virtue in the fan’s willingness to pay for and support the arts, even when they are not obligated to. On the other hand, there’s no doubt that such a feat could not have been accomplished by anyone other than Radiohead at the time – which is to say, a band with legions of devoted fans, over a dozen years of experience in the mainstream record industry, and perhaps most importantly, money to burn if things didn’t go exactly as planned.

Then and now, the Internet is a frightening and wonderful place for creatives and consumers. At a time when the music business was desperately trying to stamp out piracy and file-sharing through scare tactics and Goliath-type lawsuits, Radiohead simply demonstrated that the Internet can, in fact, be used for good. They embraced the changing technological world of their medium and their fans, rather than denying it. Really, In Rainbows was not so much a rebellion against the music industry as it was a new business model proposal. Just because we’ve always done things a certain way, the release seemed to say, doesn’t mean that that’s the way it should always be done.

Even though no one technically had to pay for In Rainbows, the album was not a suggestion that music should be free. It was not an altruistic gesture from a wealthy British rock group of art for art’s sake (cf. U2’s Songs of Innocence). It was a means of showing the world that there is a way to make both fans and artists happy in the digital music age, if only we’re willing to experiment with the available tools and see what happens. For the better bulk of their career, Radiohead has been willing to serve as our guinea pigs for that cause.

Whether the radical release of In Rainbows truly changed the music industry is not as clear-cut as it may seem. Though many other artists have followed in the surprise-drop path, few are as ready and willing to drop their labels and trust their fans, totally and completely, for support. Despite the fact that most of today’s young pop music fans have never existed in a world without the Internet, the record industry is still dragging its feet when it comes to giving digital music a real and fair chance.

Thom Yorke was an early and outspoken critic of streaming services like Spotify, famously calling them “the last fart of a dying corpse,” a thinly-veiled disguise of the same old major-label tactics. As long as safety nets like streaming remain, both musicians and fans will be sure to fall back on the known and familiar, unwilling or unready to explore the potentials of music’s new nature.

“I feel like as musicians we need to fight the Spotify thing. I feel that in some ways what’s happening in the mainstream is the last gasp of the old industry,” Yorke told Sopitas magazine in 2013. “Once that does finally die, which it will, something else will happen… What happens next is the important part.”

 

Author Bio:

Sandra Canosa is Highbrow Magazine’s chief music critic.

 

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