Radiohead's Brilliant Publicity Stunt
Earthquake up the mall
Less than 24 hours after the announcement was first made, it barely seems worthwhile to comment on the idea of a new Radiohead album that'll be out in ten days, since it's all over the damn internet already. A quick recap for those just catching up: yesterday, Jonny Greenwood posted an announcement that the band has finished In Rainbows, their new album, and that they'll be releasing it via download on October 10. The album will be two discs, and we'll only be able to download the first one, but we're allowed to decide how much we want to pay; besides a pocket-change processing fee, we can totally just opt to pay the equivalent of two cents for the thing. We can also order something called a discbox, which includes the full download as well as physical CD and vinyl copies of the album. The discbox costs 40 pounds, or about $81, and you're supposed to get your copy in early December if you order it that way. Radiohead's not under contract with any label right now, and all evidence says that they're doing all this basically by themselves. A normal CD version of the album will show up in stores eventually, but no one's saying when exactly that'll be or whether the band will work with any label to make it happen. This is a pretty direct slap at pretty much every piece of conventional record-industry wisdom, and it's also a really audacious and masterful PR stunt. Rather than putting their audience through months of traditional hype-cycle tedium, they've compressed the prerelease anticipation period into a week and a half and made it more intense in the process. They've figured out a way to exploit the devotion of their cult without insulting that devotion. And they've cut themselves loose from a sick, dying, hostile industry by selling direct to the people who want to hear them. So far, it's working; the In Rainbows website is taking forever to load because too many people are clambering over each other to give this band their money. This is a major coup in just about every sense, and the rigor and discipline that it must've taken to hold off on this announcement is something to behold. I can't wait to see how it all works out when the dust settles.
Radiohead aren't the first major artists to attempt a record-industry fuck-you on this level, and I'm really curious how In Rainbows will stand up against its most obvious predecessor. In 1998, a label-free Prince self-released a three-CD set called Crystal Ball. I've still never heard Crystal Ball, mostly because it was widely considered to be a bloated, pretentious disaster pretty much immediately upon release. And apparently the album's distribution left a lot to be desired, as well; plenty of people who bought the album didn't actually receive it for months. Of course, the channels of music distribution have changed a whole lot in the past decade, and it shouldn't be too much trouble for the band to just send the digital album to everyone who bought it on October 10. It might be a bit tougher to ship all the discboxes that they're going to need to send out. I'm sort of dreading the prospect of widespread systems-failure when the release-date gets closer. If the band can't actually get the album out to its audience the way it's said it's going to, they'll to negate a lot of the goodwill they earned with this gesture in the first place. I'm also curious how the new arrangements will affect the music itself. Radiohead have always seemed to function pretty independently of their label. But so did Prince, and Crystal Ball made a pretty convincing case that he needs label guys to give him pointers, and he returned to the major-label world pretty quickly afterwards. In Rainbows will make for an interesting test-case as to whether these guys can really make powerful work completely on their own.
Even if the album turns out to be an absolute turd, though, the band deserves props just for so radically rethinking the album-distribution system. A few months ago, Stars did something similar with In Our Bedroom Before the War, offering the album for paid download months before its street-date and days after its mastering was finished. And on a bigger and slightly less showy scale, Jay-Z just announced the existence of a new album only six weeks before its intended release-date, which should at least make it a bit tougher for the album to leak way before it comes out. But in both of those cases, the record label remains a part of the process, and so they're both still attached to that dying industry. Compared to those guys, Radiohead are hermits in the desert. Their move isn't exactly going to shake the music industry to its core. Radiohead might be an enormously popular cult band, but they're still a cult band, and the industry isn't going to sink any faster without them. (The business would be in a whole lot more trouble if, say, Rascal Flatts tried something like this.) And even if an approach like this works for Radiohead, that doesn't mean it would work for any younger, less established band. Still, the reason the music business is falling to pieces is that the people in charge of it are apparently utterly unable to adjust their thinking to keep up with a changing world. If nothing else, In Rainbows demonstrates some serious creative thinking. I'm as curious to see what effects it has as I am to hear the actual music on the thing.