Wednesday, October 3, 2007

How to reappear completely

After four long years away, the subterranean homesick polymaths collectively known as Radiohead return with a new record, their first since the visionary “Hail to the Thief” (one of the best records we’ve heard in years). The Oxfordshire-based band’s usual doing away with convention will take a new turn this time out. The band with a refreshing disdain for the expected is poised to turn the recording industry financial model on its head.

The new one, “In Rainbows,” is due out on Oct. 10, and will be released both as a regular CD release (if a pricey one; more on that shortly) and as a digital download set to be priced at whatever the prospective buyer is willing to pay. You heard right: you can set the price for the digital download of new music from one of the most important bands in rock.

It hasn’t gone unnoticed. "This is all anybody is talking about in the music industry today," said Bertis Downs, longtime manager of R.E.M. "This is the sort of model that people have been talking about doing, but this is the first time an act of this stature has stepped up and done it. . . . They were a band that could go off the grid, and they did it," Downs told the Web site of the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday.

As a bite-the-hand-that-feeds move, Radiohead’s gambit is hard to top. Bands and the record companies that go a long way to keeping them alive rely on chart placement and unit sales as a kind of EKG to monitor public reaction. By releasing a record solely through downloads, this Brit band undercuts the very mechanism bands and their companies need to see how well they’re doing. “Radiohead has sold close to 9 million albums in the U.S., and three of its CDs have debuted in the top 10 on the Billboard album charts,” reported. “The band has in effect made sure that won't happen with 'In Rainbows' by taking its unorthodox approach.”

This from a band whose biggest radio hit, “Creep,” came out in 1992.

But it might make all the sense in the world. The recording industry has seen other DIY moves in recent years; consider Ani DiFranco's pioneering move with the launch of the Righteous Babe label, or the series of bootleg discs Pearl Jam has been releasing for years, even while they maintain a relationship with a conventional recording company.

Since their contract with EMI expired in 2004, Radiohead has been a free agent. By conducting this experiment independent of the middlemen that are central to big media getting things done, the band could stand to make even more money then they would have with a regular distribution arrangement with one of the corporate heavyweights.

And the group hasn’t abandoned the idea of making a living. For those who relish an actual disc in their hands, the band plans to also release, by year’s end, a deluxe package including a disc with the download release’s content, plus a second disc of eight new tracks, as well as a lyric sheet, artwork, a hardcover book and a slipcase. Price at this writing: 40 pounds, or $80 at the current rate of exchange.

At that price, casual listeners or the merely curious are liable to walk away. But it’s to Radiohead’s credit that they’re willing to conduct this experiment as a way of flexing their creative muscle, and endearing itself to the fans who've bought those 9 million copies of their past work. It’s liable to help them in another way: Remember, since “Hail to the Thief” was released, Radiohead has been a band without a company. Watch the bidding war begin (Virgin, are you listening?).

After years out of the limelight they seem to shun anyway, Radiohead has devised a brilliant way to reappear to its public. In a beautiful world, this is special. It’s so fucking special.
Images: Thom Yorke:; band photomontage by Kollision

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