The price of Radiohead
Only Radiohead’s decision to offer their 7th album In Rainbows from 10 October through the internet, by which the downloader is allowed to decide for himself how many he/she wants to pay for it, was enough to make 2007 a historical pop year. With that, the pentad from Oxford had excluded (temporarily?) the by the pop world so often revenged record industry.
[It was] a brilliant manoeuvre according to some, a clever marketing trick to others. Or is the truth still a little bit different? [I was] in conversation with singer Thom Yorke and bass player Colin Greenwood about the strategy’s behind In Rainbows… but above all about the music itself.
In the boiling hot and musty corridors of the expensive Landmark Hotel in London it is “business as usual”. Journalists from European countries, a number of them came by train on request from the environmental aware band, are quickly and nervously reading through their notes before the girl from the record company Beggars Banquet (who’s subdivision XL will release In Rainbows on the 31st of December on a normal CD) pushes them into a chamber. It is almost like the work in a factory, in which it is important for her to make the right combinations of journalists and musicians and separate them again after 25 minutes or so. Over there guitar player Jonny Greenwood just rushed into a hotel chamber. Its tree-tall colleague Ed O’Brien is there at the corridor now. The girl from XL says: ‘Ed meets Manuel … O sorry, Ed meets Anders.’ Oh well, what does it matter if the Spaniard has been regarded as a Dane, or the opposite. “Don’t get any big ideas”, to start with a citation from Radiohead’s “Nude”. Thom Yorke appears in the corridor now. He theatrically walks crippled and goes through his knees. He’s a remarkably small man, evidently weary from a whole day of interviews. The girl from the record company pushes my shoulder: ‘Thom meets Tom.’ ‘Without H’, I added. Inside the room the air-conditioning is on full power. Thank God it’s cool inside here. The singer (little beard, ala Vincent van Gogh with a bad eye) is casual but decently clothed, with a pullover above a shirt and he’s relaxed and friendly.
I wanted to let him see the results of the OOR-poll, as I on the morning of my departure to London have printed and translated it for him to read:
For the new Radiohead-pay what you’d like download, which did you choose?
(2562 votes total)
ZERO EURO: 25% (882 votes)
AT THE MOST FIVE EUROS: 26% (942 votes)
I SUPPORT THE BAND AND PAID A NORMAL CD-PRICE: 27% votes (967)
I DON’T NEED THAT RECORD: 22% votes (771)
Thom (laughing): "Over the last category I don’t have to worry about being nice."
Is that the same result that you tallied?
Thom: "But is it true? Maybe not."
Bassist Colin Greenwood comes in. He has been wrapped in black, frequently uses the stoplap, it's cool, he has a nice strange face, talks a little drawling (many 'oh really's), and makes a gentle and pleasant impression. Thom puts the OOR-poll under his nose: "Decode this!"
Thom (to me): Approximately half of people have paid. That turns out better than expected, because we were well under the impression that entirely nobody would pay. Panic!
There will be a lot to be counted at the headquarters. The number of downloads, the incoming amounts for paid downloads, the number of orders for the special box with a second CD. We know nevertheless that the pictures and artwork must be put in those boxes somehow.
Thom: "Yes we certainly have someone we need, to do that."
Colin: "Our parents ... They are now working at home. They have retired and have nothing to do with their hands. No, joking. But it is the best that it can be. I spoke last night with our manager and he said that the download CD is approximately equal to where we were as the CD through a store would have sold. 60% of the downloads came within in the first week, but there are still new network picking people that want the record. It is cool."
Thom: "We are well over one million downloads."
Thom: "Yes, but a lot of countries do not participate because of the language barrier. This is a bit annoying. Japan in particular."
Colin: "Yes, what’s strange is that if we had put it on the net in twenty different languages, it would be an entirely different story. We know that now. eBay and Amazon offered their assistance to us."
So they jumped on top of it immediately?
Thom: "No, it was not a jump. They said, "we will help you.” They wanted to perfect it through us."
Colin: 'But we said no, keep it."
Thom: "Keep the shit."
Did you make the record with the thought of putting it online for free?
Thom: No, every time our manager came by and wanted to talk about it, we said: we’re not done with the music yet. It only became an interesting concept, something we wanted to participate in, when the record was completely finished and we were satisfied with it. Before that, it was: there’ll be no talking. We had no idea what to expect.
You can’t possibly overlook the consequences when you make a move like that. At a certain moment, you knew that you were going to put ten songs online, and eight others were kept behind on purpose.
Thom: No, the ten songs that are on the internet will form the actual record.
What about the eight bonus tracks?
Thom: They’re in the box.
Colin: Last weekend, I listened to the bonus tracks again.
Thom: CD 2...
Colin: Yes, and I think we’ve made a good selection for the main record and the bonus record. Not that I want to discard the bonus disc, because one of my two favourite songs is on that one.
What’s it called?
Colin: "4 Minute Warning".
Thom: And "Down Is The New Up" is my favourite.
Colin: But these songs would never have fit on the main disc.
The first thing I saw when arriving at St. Pancras Station in London –at your request, to spare the environment- was a rainbow.
Thom: Well, seems like He Up There (??) has kept to our deal then, haha.
Why did you name the record In Rainbows?
Colin: It was one of many suggestions, but it sounds cool, like it has an open ending. I immediately liked it, because it has lots of possible meanings. It has nothing of a slogan, nothing provoking...
Thom: Nothing polarising. It’s related to the artwork as well. That’s so weird. It happens a lot that the artwork gives you ideas... Stan was doing this wicked ink explosion thing.
Stan is your designer?
Thom: Stanley Donwood. It all started with him dropping a candle.
Colin: Seriously, when he was working at home one night.
Thom: That’s how the Big Fire(???) in London started. He scanned the wax, which looked amazing. It fit very well with the rainbow idea. I started focusing on the words In Rainbows. The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to go with the idea of trying to reach something you can’t. It’s there, but you can’t reach it.
A number of songs seemed to be about nature, and the human being, as a part of it, who doesn’t realise what he’s doing.
Thom: Wow! I haven’t heard it put like that yet, but it sounds great.
For example, the song about fish, "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi". People are poisoning the sea, you’re singing, where do the poor fish have to go?
Thom: You know what it is? The entire time I was busy writing, I wanted to get away from these things. I was worried about those themes entering my work. But it was just there, whether I wanted it or not. To me, the most important line on this record is the word denial in "House of Cards", because that’s what it all comes from. Denial in every possible meaning. It was the only time I was aware of that.
What you’re talking about. At the end of the song, you sing 'your ears should be burning'. Burning with shame, no? The human race should be thoroughly ashamed.
Thom: Yeah, you could say that. But of all the lyrics I’ve ever written, I hope that the ones on this record will deliver the widest range of interpretations.
In almost every song you constantly change perspectives: actor(???), victim, hunter, prey, polluter and threatened (???) species.
Thom: Bonkers! Fascinating interpretation, I hope everyone sees it like that.
You could interpret In Rainbows as a portrait of the 21st century man, who – despite trying to do what’s right – can’t fight the system. ‘You can fight it like a dog and they brought me to my knees.’ The Bodysnatchers will get you in the end.
Thom: Well, the lyrics of "Bodysnatchers" came from cutting and pasting lines fom The Stepford Wives. So there you go. I got obsessed with The Stepford Wives. I wrote lots and lots of excerpts from the book next to each other and started cutting.
Colin: It’s a book from the seventies. There’s a movie now, too. It’s written by Ira Levin, who recently passed away. He also wrote The Boys From Brazil [and, more famous: the horror story Rosemary’s Baby (1967)].’
Thom: The idea that you can be captured by something external, a ghost, comes from The Stepford Wives. At the end of the movie you see a new conscience entering someone’s body.
The first song, "15 Step", starts with ‘How come I end up where I started? How come I end up where I went wrong?’. This seems to fit you guys. Every idealism dies in the cynicism of reality. For example, when I arrived here I started thinking: Oh God, these guys are no logo, but gosh, there’s a label on my T-shirt and one on my jacket as well. Then I started looking around and the only thing I saw was logos.
Thom (pointing at his own white trainers): Here, a logo as well! You can’t escape it. I wrote this album from a very harmonious thought. I didn’t want to fight anything, but at the same time I didn’t want to be apathetic. That kind of mood. The others caught up on it as well – that it was a personal record, or at least a human one. It felt good not to attack in any way for once. I didn’t want to judge everything, just sing like how I am, like what I’m feeling. (???)
Is it hard not to judge yourself as well?
Thom: I’m only human, so... it’s about me, but... [long sighing] I’ll let this question pass.
Alright, "Nude" is an old song. What changed that made you get it right?
Thom: That’s the classical case of a song that hasn’t made sense for years, don’t you think, Colin?
Colin: One of the frustrating things of being a member of a band is that some songs mean everything to one person, but not to all of us. So one of us keeps going on and on about it, while the others try and look away. But that’s cool, you know.
Thom: I also felt very insecure about the way I had to sing "Nude". I didn’t know in what pitch. And the lyrics were too intimate, but too sweet as well. It’s only when Colin started knocking about with the bassline, that I could figure out how to sing it and get away with it. Also, the lyrics have fallen into place, while at the time... Nothing has changed about them, but still. They didn’t seem to make sense, and now they do.
It makes me think of a story where one band member wants to leave with a groupie, and the other saying: don’t do that, don’t get any big ideas, don’t give in to the temptation.
Thom: I don’t remember for sure, but "Nude" was written in the OK Computer era. It was more something like: 'Don’t play up your imagination, boy. Watch out so you don’t become something you aren’t.'
You didn't answer my question about judging yourself in your songs, but is it mere coincidence that Faust ("Faust Arp") as well as Mephistopholes ("Videotape") get a mention? The devil and the man who sold his soul to the devil?
Thom: Such literary references on this record! No, seriously, before today's interview sessions it hadn't crossed my mind for one second. [Half laughing, half surprised:] So weird.
Colin: Don't pay attention to that.
"Reckoner's" on the record. One of the most beautiful songs. What is "Reckoner" about?
Colin: About nature and what we discussed about that earlier. A friend of ours is making a video for "Reckoner". He's filming a lane, from up on the hill all the way down. He asked biologists to write down the names of all the different animals and insects living around this lane. He's filming from last summer to the start of this winter. He expected a few hundred species, but apparently it's more like a few thousand.
What exactly is a "Reckoner"?
Thom (with a difficult expression on his face): Actually I don’t know what it is.
Colin: Jonny and Phil know what it is. It's an old word from the Bible for Peter at the Gates of Heaven.
Colin: Yes, the one that makes the Last Judgement, who weighs your good deeds against your bad ones.
Thom (citing himself): 'Reckoner, you can’t take it with you.' You see how bad I am as a writer, haha! I’ve spent a long time writing these words. I desperately tried to let the melody write the words, even if I had to play it to myself a thousand times before words came out. I’d rather do it like that than take a notebook and write pages and pages full of words to choose a few appropriate ones. It was such a nice, fresh song. Riffs kicking around. We had already made a demo and everyone wanted to finish it. The same happened with "Pyramid Song". It was like: ‘Bong bong bong, you’ve got to do it now! This is such a beautiful song, do you have the lyrics? Give me ten minutes!’ And we recorded it. That’s it. Sometimes I think about the way Neil Young writes his lyrics. He never rewrites them. He never changes anything. While I fill notebook after notebook, endlessly. I enjoy it, too, but I’ve learned that sometimes it’s bad for the end product. Sometimes you just have to say: alright, I’m just going to write whatever feels right, without thinking about the consequences. "Reckoner" was created in this automatic process. And it just got more beautiful that way. If I had sat down to write it step by step, it would never have happened.
A cynic could say: by giving away their music on the internet, Radiohead are actually stating that music isn’t worth anything anymore.
Colin: It’s not that music isn’t worth anything these days. The question is: why is music, an art product that has become very common, always worth the same? If you go to a record shop, the records are always priced more or less the same. But is all this music equally valuable? Is this music worth as much as a Neil Young or a Roxette record?
Thom: The downloading story needs not to be seen as a way to devaluate music, but as a part of the general debate on how much music is worth. I don’t see how anyone can complain about it. Artists do sometimes whine along a bit, but the people who complain the most are people working at record companies, because they are trying to protect their profit. Because they get the largest chunk of the income. I would like to say to artists who complain that they should go complain to their record company. You’re all a bunch of losers anyway, ‘cause they aren’t paying you shit anyway! If your manager hasn’t told you yet, fire him.
Your contract with EMI ended after six records, which gave you the opportunity to make this move. But what’s going on now, practically? For the discbox you’ve basically become your own record company and for the regular cd release of In Rainbows you’re going to a new record company, XL Records in Europe. There’s been some stirring, but eventually everything more or less stays the same.
Thom: That’s right. It all boils down to you trying to get your music out. The question is: what kind of platform do you use? That’s the essence.
Don’t you think that people who have every Radiohead album on their shelf would find it annoying to have In Rainbows only in mp3 format on their computer or iPod?
Thom: Yes, of course people will keep asking for the physical thing.
Did you have endless meetings deciding this? Were there people against? Were there ashtrays flying across the room?
Colin: No, it was a very harmonious thing, actually. We did have meetings, but the last two months have been extremely exciting. Finally we could decide ourselves how and when the music would be released. It was micromanagement, but not in a frustrating way. Compare that to the three hour marketing meetings we had with EMI, where we had to talk to every department, even the graphic designers. This way it’s much more direct.
Thom: We’re in the dark the entire time. The exciting part is that we’re trying to find out what’s going on ourselves.
Colin: Last week we did a webcast. We played a few covers and improvised some parts. There were a few shabby moments, but some parts were genious. Unexpected parts. Like the way we played the end of Reckoner, that was really cool. You strip the act of making music down to a creative process people can watch and listen to. Some things they’re going to like, others maybe less. They can decide themselves. That’s cool. Makes me think of my favourite artists from the seventies: Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne and Neil Young, from the Geffen label. They did exactly what they wanted. One moment a mass of people would be interested, the other only a few. But that didn’t matter. Both options were good. The good thing about our time is that the internet gives you the possibility to see how a work is created. It’s like gigging. And it’s lots more fun than releasing a single four weeks before the record comes out and hoping that it’ll become a success. It’s all worrying about the wrong things. So again: it was very liberating.
Thom: Most of all, there’s sort of a momentum. It’s very important to keep it going, to keep people listening. But no longer through this monstrous mechanism of a record company. Now it’s ‘press return, let’s do something else’. Wicked.
Colin: It’s cool.
Thanks to Trui76, Regime Change, Piacoa and Unaided FlipFlop for the translations.