British art-rockers Radiohead made history Wednesday when they issued their
seventh album, "In Rainbows," as a "pay what you think it's worth" digital
download, challenging the way the mainstream music industry has done
business since 1894, when a German company first began marketing gramophone
There's no denying this was a revolutionary act. The only
question is whether the correct analogy is to the Boston Tea Party, a
defiant rebellion signaling the start of a long and difficult fight, or the
storming of the Bastille, the final nail in the coffin of the old regime.
Distinguished by bandleader Thom Yorke's slippery falsetto, Radiohead
formed in Oxfordshire and first made its mark with the 1992 single "Creep."
That grungy hit and much of its first two albums, "Pablo Honey" (1993) and
"The Bends" (1995), sounded very much in step with the alternative times,
albeit with more of a psychedelic swirl. But with "OK Computer" (1997), the
group crafted a futuristic epic contrasting the promise of online
communications with the encroaching alienation of the digital age. From that
point through "Hail to the Thief" (2003), it has stood as one of the most
creative forces in rock, with 20 million albums sold worldwide.
With its last release, the band fulfilled its contract with Capitol/EMI,
and many observers assumed it would simply sign a new record deal. Instead,
after two years in the studio, the musicians have made their new music
available via www.radio head.com under an ''honesty box'' policy
whereby listeners pay whatever they think is fair.
This means people can download the 10 songs for free -- and many are. But
according to the band, two-thirds of the nearly 1 million fans who've
accessed the music have chosen to pay an average price of about $10.
For years, many major-label artists have complained that record companies
unfairly inflate the price of new CDs, with most of the profit going to the
corporations instead of the musicians. Concerned about the future of that
business model, the labels have aggressively fought online file-sharing,
going so far as to sue thousands of their own customers. Meanwhile, artists
have increasingly questioned why they need a record company at all when
technological advancements have eliminated the major problem of
distribution: Where CDs once had to be trucked to stores, new music is now
just a mouse click away.
Radiohead hasn't entirely abandoned the business as usual: It's still
represented by a New York publicity firm trumpeting its sounds; its Web site
is also selling an $80 deluxe boxed version of "In Rainbows" due in early
December, and the group is planning a conventional CD release in January.
But it is the first platinum-selling band to gamble its financial future and
artistic reputation on file-sharing, and if it succeeds, it will be the
clearest evidence yet that downloads soon will replace conventional album
releases -- and that musicians may themselves take on much of the work
currently done by record companies.
As noted earlier, the cultural upheaval caused by technology has always
been the major theme of Radiohead's music. Yet while I appreciated the
impressionistic lyrics championing humanism and deriding globalization, and
understood how the music reflected those issues by contrasting organic
stadium rock with computer-driven electronic bleeps and gurgles, Yorke's
vocals were a major stumbling block: His singing just sounded like one more
alien element in an already harsh Martian soundscape.
Thankfully, Yorke's vocals began to mellow and grow much more nuanced on
his first solo album, "The Eraser" (2006), and on "In Rainbows," he sounds
more soulful and human than ever. What's more, the occasional bombast of
Jonny Greenwood and Ed O'Brien's guitars and Phil Selway's drums has been
dialed back, providing for a more effective counterpoint to the electronic
accents and the most noticeable new addition: beautiful orchestration from
what producer Nigel Godrich describes as "specially fabricated
electro-acoustic" strings and woodwinds employed in arrangements influenced
by the 19th century composer Hector Berlioz.
As a result, songs such as the rollicking "Bodysnatchers," "Faust ARP,"
"Jigsaw Falling Into Place" and the lovely "House of Cards" are the most
instantly accessible Radiohead tunes since "Creep," while "In Rainbows"
plays as the group's freshest-sounding and most innovative disc since "OK
And it's fitting, given the back story of this release, that it all
builds to a song called "Videotape," a surreally optimistic suicide note (or
is it?) named for another once-futuristic but soon-to-be-extinct format.
"No matter what happens now/I won't be afraid," Yorke sings. "Because
I know today has been the most perfect day I've ever seen."