Beating the System: Radiohead Gives The Man the Middle Finger

[30 October 2007]

By Rachel Smucker

The topic of illegally downloaded music is a thing of the past. It happens. We all do it. There are too many leaked albums and easy-access file sharing programs to make it even close to difficult. Years after the Napster revolution, those nagging inner voices telling us to buy the CD have begun to subside; the feelings of shame after burning a band’s entire discography have disappeared. As a society, we have become numb to download remorse.

So when Radiohead announced that it would release the digital version of its new album online at a you-name-it price, why should any of us hesitate? In an age where free music is at our fingertips, why pay more if we have the option? Radiohead based this bold marketing scheme on the cult-like devotion of its fans, counting on at least a few of them to pitch in their dollars and cents.

Radiohead has long been a fan of alternative marketing, beginning with their early release of Kid A on Napster in the spring of 2000. Frontman Thom Yorke’s regular blog updates on Dead Air Space keep fans in the know about upcoming albums, tour dates, and basically whatever pops into Yorke’s head at any given moment. But in spite of a good relationship with the Internet, nothing prepared the world for the release of In Rainbows.

“It’s up to you,” the downloading website reads, when it comes to checkout time. Click one more time, and Radiohead will gently remind you: “No really, it’s up to you.”

It’s a psychological experiment if I’ve ever seen one. Toying with guilt and responsibility, Radiohead’s In Rainbows website puts the onus on its fans to make a decision.
Would it be wrong to fill in all zeros? Does Radiohead expect more? We’re given no indication either way. The pressure is on—to pay, or not to pay?

British music site Gigwise.com reported that fans paid an average of £4 for the digital album. Given that In Rainbows sold 1.2 million copies only one day after its release, we can estimate that Radiohead has pulled in a solid £4.8 million. Even if this number is grossly inflated on Gigwise’s behalf—as many critics of the website have claimed—it is still a remarkable figure.

For students and similarly penniless music lovers, the £4 average is not surprising. University student Nicole Confalone, 20, who paid £3 for In Rainbows, admitted that it was her respect for Radiohead that drove her to pay anything at all. “I would have felt too guilty to take it for free, since they aren’t money-grubbing assholes,” she said in an e-mail.

Most of us can probably agree; Radiohead is known more for being the strong, silent type than the loudmouthed attention-seeker. But this under-the-radar status is by no means a cry for funds. Nearly two decades in the running, critically acclaimed, and the center of some of the most devoted fans in the world, Radiohead doesn’t exactly need the money. While some bands rely on record sales to make a profit, Radiohead could potentially give away every copy of In Rainbows and still haul in cash from their gigs. I’ve seen fans pay up to $300 for a single ticket, and that’s without the merch. The digital version of In Rainbows is not about the money. So what’s their motivation?

“People are making a big thing about it being against the industry or trying to change things for people,” lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood said in an interview with New York blog Gothamist. “It’s more about feeling like it was right for us and feeling bored of what we were doing before.”

But like it or not, Radiohead’s new marketing strategy is changing the way people think about digital music. It has evolved from low-quality downloads on Napster to today’s high-speed multiple file transfers, making the accessibility of music of all kinds extremely easy. And with iTunes offering albums for far less than store price, buying music isn’t even all that expensive. A physical copy of music only means extra mp3 conversion time and a spare plastic box. For many, the CD is losing its allure.

In this respect, In Rainbows is not all that different from the millions of digital albums found legally on the internet. It is virus-free, requires a credit card, and involves little more than a few mouse clicks. But its ambiguous price tag forces fans to become active in the purchasing process, as opposed to the passivity with which we allow the music industry to regulate our tunes.

Longtime Radiohead fan Scott Zero, 20, who paid two and half Euros for In Rainbows (“the first music I have paid for in the last three years”), agrees that artists have let record companies become far too much of a dominating force when it comes to regulating music. “I feel like the artist deserves the money for producing music, not the record companies,” he said in an online interview. “I was just as much supporting [Radiohead’s] subversion of the recording industry as I was supporting them.”

And if you think that statement says enough about the state of digital music, consider Gigwise.com’s report that 240,000 copies of In Rainbows were downloaded illegally on 10 October alone, despite the open invitation to obtain the music for free. Something about Radiohead’s painfully acute sense of reality tells me that they predicted this, and didn’t really care. It is the public’s reaction and acceptance (or rejection) of their music that makes all the difference—not sales.

At least the quality of In Rainbows is good enough to make Radiohead’s point quite clear. In fact, it has become one of my favourite of their albums thus far, making me wish that I had spent more than the £2.50 that I did for it. From the best 20 dollar purchase you’ve ever made to your favourite piece of free music, In Rainbows will have you caught.

It opens with “15 Steps”, a song that has nearly all the pump of OK Computer’s “Electioneering”, but with an oddly pleasing mixture of Latin-style rhythm and electronica. (It’s not as scary as it sounds.) It changes pace several tracks later with the throbbing bass and soft crooning of “All I Need”.

“I’m the next act waiting in the wings / I’m an animal trapped in your hot car”, Yorke whines plaintively, telling of a twisted, needy romance. The pace changes again with the soothing waterfall of notes in “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi”, where the mountain lake stillness of the melody eerily contrasts with the unsettling words and harmonies: “Turn me on to phantoms / I follow to the edge of the earth and fall off / Everybody leaves if they get the chance”.

In Rainbows manages to show progression without stepping too far away from its previous albums, achieving something that many multi-album bands can only dream about. Old Radiohead fans won’t be disappointed; new ones will be enamoured. The fact that it is a truly great album makes the psychology of the experiment worthwhile.

Whether or not this will affect the future of the digitial music industry is still up in the air. It goes without saying that not every band would or even could to do something this drastic; it takes a megaband and a whole lot of guts to break the rules, and Radiohead certainly has those both of those bases covered. Take risks, set an example, and keep up the good work—it’s nice to see The Man get slapped around every once in awhile.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/beating-the-system-radiohead-gives-the-man-the-middle-finger/