May 10, 2016


Radiohead’s Self-Sufficient Revolution: How ‘In Rainbows’ Shaped Their Latest Release

Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images
Brill/ullstein bild via Getty Images

If there’s one thing Radiohead has gifted the music industry over the course of its majestic career, it’s the idea that an album release can be a fully-fledged theatrical event. This year alone has seen a barrage of surprise albums rain down upon the internet like a pop music hailstorm, transfixing the cultural conversation for days or weeks at a time. It’s been hard to ignore the clamoring that followed Beyoncé’s Lemonade, Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo, Rihanna’s ANTI or even James Blake’s The Colour in Anything.

There’s a certain awestruck factor that occurs when a record descends from the sky unprovoked. They often feel like gifts materializing at random, and the frequency at which they’ve appeared lately gives one the impression of holidays come early. But lurking behind the idea of “pulling a Beyoncé,” which refers to the out-of-nowhere release of Bey’s self-titled album in 2013, is the band that pioneered the surprise album drop almost a decade ago. The rollout of Radiohead’s newest endeavor, the lucid 11-track LP A Moon Shaped Pool, offered just a taste of what happened in 2007, when the band sent a jolt down the music industry’s spine.

That year, the band self-released the album In Rainbows on a pay-what-you-want, direct-to-consumer model via download on their website, and the stunt—a first of its kind at the time—lit the wick of an industry-wide pipe bomb. When Radiohead initially charted their own course, uploading In Rainbows to the masses without a price tag, the move was a direct affront to the mainstream. Radiohead had recently parted ways with their longtime label, EMI, after it had been sold off to a private equity firm, and the general consensus among band members was to eschew the industry’s riches in favor of creative control. Frontman Thom Yorke told the New York Times in 2007: 

“The worst-case scenario would have been: Sign another deal, take a load of money, and then have the machinery waiting semi-patiently for you to deliver your product, which they can add to the list of products that make up the myth.”

Radiohead wasn’t keen on an outside source embellishing their latest record with any “myth,” as Yorke put it, but in his mind, the situation was far more dire. To him, another major label deal would have been tantamount to Radiohead’s death sentence. “Money makes you numb,” he told the Times. “I mean, it’s tempting to have someone say to you, ‘You will never have to worry about money ever again,’ but no matter how much money someone gives you — what, you’re not going to spend it? You’re not going to find stupid ways to get rid of it? Of course you are. It’s like building roads and expecting there to be less traffic.”

It was obvious that the band tried something brash with In Rainbows, uploading the entire album to the internet with only an opaque warning of the record nine days before its release. At first, the prospect of a preeminent band throwing their record into the ether without a safety-net was met with alarm and criticism: Industry luminaries, from Bono to Gene Simmons to Trent Reznor aired their takes on it, with Simmons even surmising that Radiohead must have been “on crack” to devise such a reckless scheme. But as Eric Garland, CEO of internet and media tracking company Big Champagne, told NPR in 2009, Simmons’ bluster was all for nought. "This was a band that recognized realities of the marketplace at a moment when the industry was having a really difficult time doing just that," he said.

In truth, money couldn’t have been less of an impediment to the eventual success of In Rainbows. Even though it was heavily pirated—Comscore noted in a 2007 report that 62 percent of total downloaders obtained the digital album for free—it still reaped something of a financial windfall for Yorke and co. The frontman told Wired that year: “In terms of digital income, we've made more money out of this record than out of all the other Radiohead albums put together, forever—in terms of anything on the Net.”

Radiohead walked away with nearly $3 million after putting forward no promotion for the record, proving that traditional marketing methods employed by labels were kaput—or, at least, rendered invisible by reams of steadily flowing cash. The band also created something of an escape route by licensing the record for a traditional CD release and as a special edition box set in January 2008. The physical releases sold 1.75 million and 100,000 copies within a year, respectively.

Maybe Radiohead's war is over, but the theatrics of 2007 are now clearly woven into the fabric of 2016.

Granted, the internet was a very different place in 2007, but a few hard facts made In Rainbows a formidable experiment, and one that lives on in perpetuity today. There was no record label, no executive’s salary hanging in the balance, or any intermediary meddling with the record beaming straight to your hard drive. As it broke down all barriers between artist and audience, it was Radiohead’s sly attempt at waging guerrilla warfare on a music industry besieged with outdated methods and a growing number of streaming services.  

"When we did the In Rainbows thing what was most exciting was the idea you could have a direct connection between you as a musician and your audience. You cut all of it out, it's just that and that,” Yorke said in 2013.

After the furor over In Rainbows began to settle—and Radiohead’s members became more involved with solo projects—Yorke’s antipathy for the industry began to take center stage, subsuming much of his public persona. He was always critical of the music business, but for someone whose band had released six records on a major label, he hadn’t yet crept into the territory of industry-renegade. The success of In Rainbows seemed to imbue him with the air of a total contrarian, though, someone who closely associated tech and streaming giants with pure evil. 

For Yorke, the music industry was run by a bunch of grifters, many of whom kneeled at the whims of Google and YouTube. As recently as last year, Yorke likened both companies to a band of marauding Nazi art-thieves, saying that they “make money from the work of artists who do not get any benefit.” 

Two years earlier, he delivered one of his most memorable firebrand quips when he called Spotify “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” At the time, Yorke’s side project, Atoms for Peace, had released its debut album eight months earlier—another direct download offering—and he was feeling empowered, set in his path of rectifying the industry’s wrongs. In the same interview, he further called Spotify out for making one-sided alliances with record labels that threw musicians by the wayside:

"We don't need you to do it. No artists needs you to do it. We can build the shit ourselves, so fuck off. But because they're using old music, because they're using the majors ... the majors are all over it because they see a way of re-selling all their old stuff for free, make a fortune, and not die."

It’d be one thing if Yorke had caved in the intervening years and released In Rainbows and Atoms for Peace albums on Spotify, but his words were far from hollow: In Rainbows, along with every Atoms for Peace and Thom Yorke solo release, still haven’t appeared on the streaming service’s catalog, and likely won’t anytime soon. Moving forward a few years from those acrimonious interviews, the sentiment behind Yorke’s vitriol seems to have withered, or at least been lost on the legions of artists who have followed in Radiohead’s footsteps. 

The band’s newest record, A Moon Shaped Pool, was teased out—albeit for a week—with the help of YouTube and Spotify, so it’s unclear if Radiohead necessarily cares about flying their own independent flag anymore. Maybe their war is over, but the theatrics of 2007 are now clearly woven into the fabric of 2016. Some saw In Rainbows as nihilistic, but the record’s release could just as easily pit Thom Yorke as industry sage as opposed to gasoline-wielding destructor: It proved, for one thing, that Radiohead understood the internet better than anyone nine years ago, and that they might still to this day. That knowledge has steamrolled into something else, and allowed new releases to become major cultural touchstones that unfold without warning. It might have been unintentional, but it’s still a pretty worthwhile legacy to have attached to your name, even if it all began from an experiment deemed crazy from the start.