Radiohead's In Rainbows
Still As Relevant As the Day It Was Released
by Michael Morgan
When a band you admire goes on a four-years-plus-long break in between releasing albums, there's one thing you think: oh shit, they lost it. After Radiohead took 53 months to follow up Hail to the Thief, an album built of half-hearted compromises, I thought an era had passed. I thought another group of rock gods had slipped into the ether of the past tense.
When In Rainbows finally dropped, I was hesitant even to download it. This was Radiohead, after all. These were they guys who gave us Kid A, the album that shifted a generation of musical output, the album that altered us to our post-'90's musical boredom. If they were indeed fading into cultural irrelevance, I couldn't bare to witness it. I preferred to plug my ears and pretend otherwise.
Like heaps of music fans the world over, the only reason In Rainbows caught my attention was its stunning release strategy. To speak nothing of the music within the album, it was obvious that Radiohead was once-again reinventing itself. On October 1st 2007, the band revealed it had secretly and without the help of a record label completed an album; on October 10th, In Rainbows was released via a proprietary website as a radical pay-what-you-want digital download (including paying nothing as an opton). While this concept seems banal in the context of 2017, it was nothing less than revolutionary a decade ago. The veritable media shitstorm that followed drove millions to their computers that October alone.
The hard numbers are impossible to know. Radiohead has exercised their right keep private how many people downloaded the album from their website and how much they paid. Speaking to Dave Fanning1 six months after the release, frontman Thom Yorke and guitarist and effects man Ed O'Brian insisted that their shift away from corporate backing wasn't financially motivated, but an attempt to avoid a "rationalized" product meant solely for sale. Rather than squeezing their record through the time-tested and proven protocol of major record label releases, In Rainbows was to be about "the spirit of the thing." It was a hyper-successful, hyper-talented group of musicians exercising their right to act autonomously and to provide their fans with a farm-to-table artistic output.
The result was ten tracks that feel unlike anything Radiohead had produced before 2007. Three-and-a-half years of working in isolation, outside the protective but obscuring umbrella of their long-time record label EMI, they created the most stripped and polished product in their repertoire. Most of the glitch of their previous three albums was forgotten and tracks feature fewer layers, fewer instruments. Lyrics were uncluttered and honest – agonizingly honest. It is a 43-minute collection of the type of self-conscious fears that menace our alone hours.
In Rainbows thrives on the ambivalence inherent in the daily choices that amount to a lifetime. "Nude," which has all the sonic trappings of a love song, is actually a cautionary tale: "You'll go to hell for what your dirty mind is thinking," Yorke warns. "Videotape" is the creepy confession you'd rather die with, the secret you avoid and that makes you sick to your stomach whenever you're reminded of it. Lyrically, In Rainbows time and again undermines any bit of confidence you fake when you're out in public. Yet the whole thing is packaged in beautifully sedated bedroom music, a safe atmosphere where these worries can live without growing too large to manage.
Going out on a limb, I'd rate In Rainbows as a stroke of musical perfection that can stand alone against the annals of time with confidence. If Radiohead had re-signed with EMI and released their album traditionally, it would still be remembered as one of their most powerful products. That they (once again) executed such a coup when a stale music marketplace needed it most only lifts its position in the pantheon of music history.
It should be mentioned that while fans were overwhelmingly supportive of In Rainbows' wallet-friendly release strategy, not all industry insiders shared the sentiment. Some condemned it for devaluing music, others for displaying a lack of industry camaraderie. "Spare a thought for the thousands upon thousands of bands and singers who, nowhere near Radiohead's levels of fame and fortune, now have pretty much no chance of ever making a living from their music," wrote Will Hodgkindson via The Guardian2 nine days after the album's release. Trent Reznor and Liam Gallagher weighed in as well (no surprises there), commenting on ingenuineness3 and bad business4.
In the same interview mentioned earlier, Dave Fanning (in a much more optimistic tone) asked Ed O'Brian if he thought Radiohead had inadvertently "opened a whole new virtual world," one in which the value of art would be forever subjective. "No," O'Brian spasmed instinctively. "No, no, no." Only in retrospect is it clear how wrong he was.
In Rainbows' release not only had severe consequences on the music industry, but on media distribution of all types. But rather than sullying the marketplace in the way their detractors insinuated, Radiohead's innovative venture proved a valuable new economic model: direct-to-consumer distribution. And the world took note immediately.
In 2008, Bandcamp5, a popular platform where musicians of any status can upload their work and allow customers to decide its value, was launched. By 2015, Forbes reported6 that it had already paid the small independent artists it represents more than 100 million dollars. In 2009, Kickstarter was born, and since then, countless independent projects spanning the gamut of art have received crowd-sourced funding.
The now-disgraced Louis C.K. took it a step further when he launched LouisCK.net in 2011. On his website, fans are able to buy affordable, high-quality digital copies of many of his most recent shows, plus tickets to see him live. C.K. claims that this model gives him more artistic freedom, the ability to publish his work the day its ready and (most importantly) the power to personally decide the price of his tickets. Direct-ticket distribution has allowed him to personally combat scalpers by rendering illegally re-sold tickets invalid7 severely reducing the average price-per-seat. And he's not even the only comedian8 going down this road.
It's not to suggest that these example couldn't have been conceived without In Rainbow's pioneering splashdown, but the fanfare it kicked up in 2007 certainly lubricated the market for future artists. It was the first major release of its kind and the benchmark against which so many current experiments are still measured.
And then, in the middle of the data-storm that hasn't yet seemed to cease, there's Radiohead themselves. While the band was obviously aware of the originality and potential of the album's release, it hadn't been their intention to (once again) change the face music forever. Rather, the strategy surrounding In Rainbows' release was a reaction to one band's uncontented relationship with the record business at large. It was meant to be "a solution for Radiohead, not the industry", said their managers9.
While in 2007 Radiohead was asking "What's the point of instruments?" on "Jigsaw Falling into Place," Ed O'Brian confessed in a 2010 interview with MIDEM10 that their break from EMI and resultant self-reliance "rejuvenated us as a band." So not only did In Rainbows shift our focus away from the traditional marketplace of mainstream music, it very likely also saved the life of one of the most important bands on the planet.
1) Dave Fanning interview with Thom Yorke, Ed O'Brien
2) Will Hodgkinson "Thanks, Radiohead, for making it ever harder for new acts to survive" (Guardian, October 19, 2007)
3) Greg Sandoval "Trent Reznor: Radiohead's 'In Rainbows' promotion was 'insincere'" (CNET, March 15, 2008)
4) Daniel Kreps "Lily Allen, Oasis, Gene Simmons Criticize Radiohead's 'Rainbows'" (Rolling Stone, November 14, 2007)
6) Hugh McIntyre "Direct-To-Fan Platform Bandcamp Has Now Paid Artists $100 Million" (Forbes, March 10, 2015)
7) Alex Young "Louis C.K. announces 22-city world tour, and he promises to fuck over scalpers" (Consequence of Sound, May 16, 2016 )
8) Sandy Cohen "Aziz Ansari releases comedy special online for $5" (San Diego Union Tribune, March 20, 2012)
9) Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson "Radiohead MP3 release a tactic to lift CD sales" (Financial Times, (October 11, 2007)
10) Radiohead's Ed O'Brien interview (MIDEM, September 17, 2010)
See Michael Morgan's other work at his website
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