“In an interstellar burst,” declared Thom Yorke on “Airbag,” the opening track of Radiohead’s seminal 1997 album OK Computer, “I am back to save the universe.” Ten years later, with the radical promotion and delivery of their latest album, In Rainbows, that prophecy seems to have come true.
In case you’ve been high and dry for the last few weeks, here’s the breakdown of what happened: On Oct. 1, one of the members of the band made an announcement on Radiohead’s website that they had just finished their most recent album and would be releasing it nine days later on Oct. 10. Now, they haven’t been on a record label for a couple of years, so the big question became what label were they going to go with? The answer to that question was completely unexpected: None.
Apparently, those weird fishes have been spending the last few months setting up their servers to handle a lot of traffic, because they decided to make the album available in two different ways: as a deluxe, made-to-order box set for 40 pounds (roughly $82) or as a digital download for a price of your own choosing.
Yeah, that’s right. You can download the album for nothing, for five, 10, 100 bucks, whatever dollars and cents you, the consumer, feel the music is worth. (And in case you were wondering, yes, I’m a fan of Radiohead, and, yes, I paid for my copy of the album. It’s awesome. Download it at www.inrainbows.com.)
To say this is unprecedented is a bit of an understatement. Allowing customers to set their own prices for art is the kind of the thing that gives corporate executives the bends, especially music execs. Hookers and blow ain’t cheap, y’know. An example like this is going to end up shaking the industry to the core.
Already bands like Oasis, Nine Inch Nails, and Jamiroquai have said they’ll follow Radiohead’s lead and let fans choose the price for their next albums. If the initial sales of In Rainbows are any indication, then this could be one of the smartest music industry moves ever, though that may be somewhat optimistic. Early reports indicate that 1.2 million copies were downloaded on the first day, with the projected median price people paid ending up somewhere in the neighborhood of one pound. Even so, a million pounds is a pretty hefty payday and one that will probably continue to rise as word circulates about the album’s release.
All of this is really beside the point, however. I don’t think this was an effort to make money. This entire situation appears to be a chance for a band that has always been on the cutting edge to release their music without doing the industry backflips that normally underscore such efforts. They’ve cut out all of the middlemen here — the barriers between band and fan are much thinner than ever before — and, as a result, Thom Yorke and company have made a statement that will not fade away anytime soon.
See, this thing here? It’s called a paradigm shift, and personally, this shift could not have come at a time when it was needed more. It’ll be interesting to see how the paranoid executive androids react to Radiohead’s surprise move. Will they turn on their spin machines of denial or will they once and for all realize that the revolution will be downloaded?