2007 December 9 | New York Times
Pay What You Want for This Article
Taking chances with commerce as well as art: From left, Ed O’Brien, Colin Greenwood, Thom Yorke, Phil Selway (reflected in the mirror) and Jonny Greenwood of
Steve Forrest/Insight-Visual for The New York Times
By JON PARELES
Published: December 9, 2007
SHORTLY after Radiohead released its album “In Rainbows” online in October, the band misplaced its password for Max/MSP, a geek-oriented music software package that the guitarist Jonny Greenwood uses constantly. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, Mr. Greenwood said over a cup of tea at the venerable Randolph Hotel here. As usual Radiohead contacted Max/MSP’s developers, Cycling ’74, for another password. “They wrote back,” Mr. Greenwood said, “‘Why don’t you pay us what you think it’s worth?’”
Well, Radiohead was asking for it. Those are the exact terms on which the band is selling the downloadable version of “In Rainbows”: Buyers can pay zero or whatever they please up to £99.99 (about $212) for the album in MP3 form. Sixteen years and seven albums into the career that has made Radiohead the most widely pondered band in rock, it is taking chances with its commerce as well as its art. For the beleaguered recording business Radiohead has put in motion the most audacious experiment in years.
Radiohead is not the first act to try what one of its managers, Chris Hufford, calls “virtual busking.” But it’s the first one that can easily fill arenas whenever it tours. “It feels good,” said Thom Yorke, the band’s leader, over a pint of hard cider at his local Oxford pub, the Rose and Crown. “It was a way of letting everybody judge for themselves.”
Radiohead has abandoned major labels.
Radiohead’s pay-what-you-choose gambit didn’t just set off economic debates. It should also establish 2007 as two kinds of tipping point for recorded music. One is as the year of the superstar free agent. After fulfilling its contract in 2003 with its last album for EMI, “Hail to the Thief,” Radiohead turned down multimillion-dollar offers for a new major-label deal, preferring to stay independent.
“It was tough to do anything else,” Mr. Yorke said during Radiohead’s first extensive interviews since the release of the album. “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, la-la-la-la.”
Signing a new major-label contract “would have killed us straight off,” he added. “Money makes you numb, as M.I.A. wrote. 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.”
The Eagles and Madonna, both with sales that dwarf Radiohead’s, also abandoned major labels in 2007, as did songwriters as influential as Joni Mitchell and Paul McCartney, who moved to Hear Music, the independent label partly owned by Starbucks. Meanwhile Prince has followed his own wayward path, from one-album distribution deals through major labels to giving away CDs at concerts or, lately, bound into a British Sunday paper.
The second tipping point is the decisive migration of music to the Internet. Of course that has been anything but sudden. Music has been bouncing around online, sold or shared, since the days of dial-up, and bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Public Enemy gave away full albums online years ago. But the momentum of online music has been accelerating. Apple’s iTunes became the third-largest music retailer in the United States this year. Amazon added MP3 downloads alongside physical album sales. Hip-hop mixtapes, singled out for copyright prosecution by record labels, disappeared from stores and street corners only to thrive online, where the likes of Lil Wayne, Cam’ron and Kanye West release their latest innovations.
And Radiohead was able to draw worldwide attention to “In Rainbows” with no more promotion than a modest 24-word announcement on its Web site on Oct. 1. To the band’s glee, it could release its music almost immediately, without the months of lead time necessary to manufacture discs. Mr. Hufford said “In Rainbows” has been downloaded in places as far-flung — and largely unwired — as North Korea and Afghanistan.
On Nov. 9, as a kind of workaholic lark, Radiohead staged a free, thoroughly informal Webcast called “Thumbs Down,” with real-time performances of new songs and covers of Bjork and the Smiths, from its cluttered studio in Oxford. (Many clips are on YouTube.)
Yet Radiohead’s online choices, band members said, were among the easier decisions made during the protracted recording process of “In Rainbows.” The band and its producer, Nigel Godrich, focused on 16 songs and worked them over in the studio, on the road and in the studio again, for well over two years of torturous rearranging and rewriting.
“We kept on ripping the guts out of it all the time and starting again,” the drummer Phil Selway said in Oxford.
The band chose 10 concise, tuneful songs for the album. In them Mr. Yorke sings about displacement, disorientation, memories and moving on. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” wonders “Why should I stay here?,” imagines decomposing underwater and being eaten by worms, then concludes, “Hit the bottom and escape.”
Throughout “In Rainbows” Mr. Yorke’s lyrics can be mapped onto personal relationships, the state of the world or the state of the band.
Behind much of the album “was a sudden realization of the day-t0-day, tenuous nature of life,” Mr. Yorke said. “Most of the time I was really, really trying not to judge anything that was happening. I was trying to just, not exactly knock it out, but not trying to be clever. That’s all.”
The Internet had already witnessed much of the gestation of “In Rainbows,” as Radiohead tested songs in public, knowing they would be bootlegged immediately. “The first time we ever did ‘All I Need,’ boom! It was up on YouTube,” Mr. Yorke said. “I think it’s fantastic. The instant you finish something, you’re really excited about it, you’re really proud of it, you hope someone’s heard it, and then, by God, they have. It’s O.K. because it’s on a phone or a video recorder. It’s a bogus recording, but the spirit of the song is there, and that’s good. At that stage that’s all you need to worry about.”
The band worried over other things. After releasing “Hail to the Thief” and touring the world, Radiohead took a year off. The members, all in their 30s, turned to raising families as they mulled over the future. Early in 2005 they began rehearsing together tentatively, although, Mr. Selway said, mentioning the word “album” was taboo for a year. They had a list of songs, most of which would appear two years later on “In Rainbows,” by September.
But as 2005 ended, Radiohead still had not regained its momentum. Mr. Yorke, a prolific songwriter, made his own album, “The Eraser,” working mostly alone with his computer and samples.
Mr. Godrich was busy recording Beck, so the band tried some sessions with Spike Stent, who had worked with Bjork, at the beginning of 2006. It was disappointed with the results. Then it decided that performing might put the songs into shape. It booked a summer tour in 2006, playing half a dozen new songs at every show. Soon, thanks to bootlegged recordings online, fans were clearly recognizing each one. After the tour Radiohead returned to the studio, only to decide that the songs weren’t ready yet.
“To be brutally honest,” the guitarist Ed O’Brien said over lunch at Shoreditch House in London, “the problem about playing these songs live is that we were bored with them. We played them 80 times live or so, and we’d rehearsed them to death. It just didn’t happen when we got back into the studio initially.”
Once again the band began tinkering. “We have a song and we’ve got lots of different ways we can try it, but we don’t know what’s going to work, and that’s why it still sort of feels a bit weirdly amateur,” Mr. Greenwood said. “You’d think by now we’d know what’s going to work, and what’s still frustrating, or kind of encouraging in a way, is that we don’t know whether it’s going to work on a laptop or whether it has to be a piano or. ...”
He half-smiled. “It’s got so twisted,” he added. “What we’ve learned is that you can’t repeat a method that you’ve already used for a song when it did work.”
The sound of “In Rainbows” often seems straightforward, almost like a live band; it is Radiohead’s most gracefully melodic album in a decade. But Radiohead arrived at the music circuitously, and there’s often more tucked into a track than is apparent at first. “Videotape,” with lyrics about recording a happy moment in a tape to be viewed posthumously, has a tolling piano and a beat so elusive that “we spent about a year in rehearsal on that song actually all trying to agree on where the one was,” Mr. Selway said. “Each of us, over the course of a year, we’d all lose it.”
The “Reckoner” that was part of the band’s live sets sounds nothing like the “Reckoner” on the album, which includes the lyrics “in rainbows.” When the band returned from touring, it decided the song needed a second part, and then a third one; eventually it discarded the original. For “All I Need,” Mr. Greenwood said, he wanted to recapture the white noise generated by a band playing loudly in a room, when “all this chaos kicks up.” That sound never materializes in the more analytical confines of a studio. His solution was to have a string section, and his own overdubbed violas, sustaining every note of the scale, blanketing the frequencies.
Mr. Yorke worked on many of the songs in the Rose and Crown. “I sit there, on the way in, because it’s a really nice little table,” he said, pointing. “And then I get out my scraps of paper and I line them up. I need to put them into my book because they’re just scraps of paper, and I’m going to lose them unless I do it. So am I writing here? Probably. I don’t know yet. I’m just collating information. This is a nice, relaxing thing to do, and it also keeps your mind tuned in to the whole thing. And you see things you didn’t know.”
The band and its managers are not releasing the download’s sales figures or average price, and may never do so. “It’s our linen,” Mr. Hufford said. “We don’t want to wash it in public.” A statement from the band rejected estimates by the online survey company ComScore that during October about three-fifths of worldwide downloaders took the album free, while the rest paid an average of $6.
Factoring in free downloads, ComScore said the average price per download was $2.26. But it did not specify a total number of downloads, saying only that a “significant percentage” of the 1.2 million people who visited the Radiohead Web site, inrainbows.com, in October downloaded the album. Under a typical recording contract, a band receives royalties of about 15 percent of an album’s wholesale price after expenses are recovered. Without middlemen, and with zero material costs for a download, $2.26 per album would work out to Radiohead’s advantage — not to mention the worldwide publicity.
Both Mr. Hufford and the members of Radiohead said the strategy had been a success. “People made their choice to actually pay money,” Mr. Hufford said. “It’s people saying, ‘We want to be part of this thing.’ If it’s good enough, people will put a penny in the pot.”
“This was a solution to a series of issues,” Mr. Hufford added. “I doubt it would work the same way ever again.”
Radiohead has not abandoned the physical disc. A mail-order deluxe version of “In Rainbows” — the album and a bonus CD, two vinyl albums, artwork and a fancy package for $80 — went on sale alongside the downloaded version on Oct. 10, directly from the band’s own mail-order merchandising company, W.A.S.T.E., and was shipped to the first buyers last week.
Mr. Hufford said that he and Bryce Edge, Radiohead’s other manager, had come up with the pay-what-you-want plan during a stoned philosophical conversation about the value of music. They had initially proposed releasing only the download and the deluxe box, but the band overruled them, noting that many of its fans are neither downloaders nor elite collectors. On Jan. 1 — a day when few albums are usually released — the single-disc “In Rainbows” is due as a retail CD and vinyl LP, in joint ventures with the independent labels TBD (part of ATO Records, partly owned by Dave Matthews) in the United States and XL in most other countries.
Will Botwin, the president and chief executive of ATO Records Group, optimistically described the download as “the world’s largest listening party,” drawing attention to the album among Radiohead’s core fans. The label plans to market to a broader audience with everything from television advertisements to in-store displays. Radio stations have already been sent the bruising rocker “Bodysnatchers” — a song, Mr. Yorke said, inspired by Victorian ghost stories, “The Stepford Wives” and his own feeling of “your physical consciousness trapped without being able to connect fully with anything else” — and the tense folk-rocker “Jigsaw Falling Into Place.”
The music business awaits results on how the worldwide downloads of “In Rainbows” will affect disc sales. “The record company doesn’t know,” said a grinning Colin Greenwood, Radiohead’s bassist, over tea in London. “They called our office and said, ‘We’ve made this amount of records, is it enough?’ And our manager’s office said, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s great, isn’t it?” For Radiohead, uncertainty is home turf.