Years ago Radiohead reached the point where they could operate with near-complete autonomy. Their fruitful relationship with Parlophone/EMI came to a close in 2004, right around the time it started to become apparent that being fruitful did not necessarily require a contractual tether to a major label. Thus untethered, Radiohead recorded 2007’s In Rainbows. Without an established distribution network, and tired of having their material leaked before its release, the band “leaked” it themselves, making it available for download on their Web site via the first large-scale implementation of a “pay-what-you-want” system. Fans and foes alike could download the entire album for free, if they so chose. Most people, however, paid somewhere between a few dollars and near-full retail price. The album sold very well online (various figures cited have proven unreliable) and, once a deal was struck with respected indie powerhouse XL Recordings, the physical release of In Rainbows appeared not to have suffered from the pre-release experiment. It reached Number 1 on the Billboard 200 and was the top-selling vinyl release of 2008—a big success, by any reasonable measure.
Skipping forward to present-day, we find the record industry still in flux, to put it mildly, but having felt the repercussions of the In Rainbows model. The concept of what recorded music is worth is increasingly a source of debate and ever-changing ideas. The commercially-minded and forward-thinking among us try to identify alternative sources of revenue for artists. Those with a more philosophical bent ponder whether art has meaning or value if an original work can be copied exactly and distributed an infinite number of times. Now, having made their contribution to this compelling state of chaos, why has Radiohead jettisoned the “pay-what-you-want” model for their 2011 release The King of Limbs?
Radiohead manager Chris Hufford has said that this is simply a “logical progression.” What Radiohead is concerned about is what’s good for Radiohead—a natural and healthy attitude, for certain. For them, the take-away from the In Rainbows venture was not that they challenged perceptions of art and commerce, but that they got their music out into the world without going through what Hufford called “the gatekeepers” who would impose a pre-set business plan and encumber the release process. For the band, getting the album out while it was fresh and exciting was the true success of the In Rainbows release.
With The King of Limbs, they took that piece and ran with it. On February 14th, Radiohead announced the impending release, a mere five days before it was scheduled…. then they released it a day early (again digitally, but at a fixed—though competitive—price). This maneuver, coupled with a beautifully strange and minimalist video for the single “Lotus Flower,” set the music world abuzz. From the pages of The New York Times to the walls of Facebook, the new album was being declared the most exciting, poetic, groundbreaking, boring, piece-of-shit trash ever heard.
This is what Radiohead does, and what artists need to pay attention to: they buck expectations and they create excitement in an environment where it is very difficult to inspire a yawn about a 20-year-old rock band releasing their eighth studio album. They do this by means of the strategic maneuvers described above, and with the innovative music they create. But whatever the specifics are with Radiohead, artists (and labels, managers…all of us) should step back and take the larger view. Don’t try to do what they did, just try something different. Subvert the expectations, create excitement and make it enjoyable.
As an aside, let it be clear that Radiohead is not a band un-interested in the cultural ramifications of their tradition-breaking modus operandi or the upheaval occurring in the way we consume media. They call the physical release The King of Limbs a “newspaper album.” Subtle.