Thom Yorke: Why he's glad to have made such a big noise--independent.co.uk
Radiohead have always preferred to stand outside the mainstream. But when they announced that they would allow fans to decide the price of their new album, the implications for the music industry were profound. The band's singer, Thom Yorke, tells Christoph Dallach and Wolfgang Höbel why he's glad to have made such a big noise
Published: 03 January 2008
Thom Yorke: Why he's glad to have made such a big noise Radiohead's Thom Yorke says the band never thought they would create such a fuss
Q: Music critics have described you as either the saviour or gravedigger of the rock'n'roll industry after you released an album on the internet without the help of a record company. Which description do you think is the right one?
Thom Yorke: I've heard it said that we are saving rock music so often over the past few weeks that I'm going to have it printed on toilet paper soon. We would have never thought that the whole thing would create such a fuss. In Britain, it's all over the prime time news on the BBC, 60-year-old stock exchange tycoons are congratulating us on our fabulous business idea, and cynics imply we plotted an ingenious advertising coup. But that's all rubbish.
Q: It's a fact that hundreds of thousands of fans downloaded the latest Radiohead outing In Rainbows from the band's webpage and could decide themselves if and how much they wanted to pay for it. We also did that, but didn't pay a cent for it. Does that bug you?
Yorke: Why should it? Our idea was that everybody paid as much for the music as they felt it was worth to them. If you think our songs are no good after listening to them, that's a pity indeed. But if you enjoyed listening to the songs, it would be fair to pay something for them afterwards.
Q: Is it the beginning of the end of the much-maligned music industry, when a band like Radiohead, selling albums by the million, decides to sell their music without a record company?
Yorke: It is an inevitable step, somebody had to take it. Everybody knew it would happen. We have some famous colleagues who have had similar ideas for quite a while. But these colleagues are contractually bound. We were lucky that our contract with EMI had expired.
Q: Nevertheless, there is fierce speculation that you might be earning a lot less with your new work than with the help of a large company. Was your experiment worth it, financially?
Yorke: We don't discuss figures. But we are not complaining. Anyway, we have the copyright for our songs. All that we published before belongs to EMI. That is unbelievably unsatisfying. After all, we are talking about art and hard work. I believe in the rock album as an artistic form of expression.
In Rainbows is a conscious return to this form of 45-minute statement. Of course, it was possible to make it shorter. But our aim was to describe in 45 minutes, as coherently and conclusively as possible, what moves us. In Rainbows is, at least in our opinion, our classic album – our Transformer, our Revolver, our Hunky Dory.
Q: Lou Reed, The Beatles and David Bowie were at the height of their creative powers when they recorded those albums. What ambition drives a highly successful band like Radiohead, that's existed for 16 years, to work?
Yorke: In previous years, there were times when we didn't know the answer to that question. We started families, brought up our children and everybody was just living their own lives. But then one day it just got us again. You're stuck in traffic on a Friday, the kids are wailing in the back, the supermarket shopping is boiling in the boot, it's summer, the weekend of the Glastonbury Festival. A radio station airs a listeners' poll, asking which band the people associate with their best Glastonbury memories, and 76 per cent are voting for Radiohead. Suddenly things shoot through your mind: what am I doing here? Wouldn't I prefer to be on stage there? Even my family would be happier if I didn't hang out at home, all grumpy, any more. Yes, that's how it was.
Q: Do you regret that there's nothing left of the alleged, or actual, wild and revolutionary spirit that rock music represented in the 1960s and 1970s?
Yorke: No. Music is always a reflection of its time. We are living in a world of consumerism. That's why, first and foremost, the purpose of music is to accommodate demand. For many people, the decision about a particular type of music is a lifestyle commitment, they are kind of associating their existence with the music they are listening to, without being touched by it too deeply.
In addition, there will always be people who interact passionately with music, people for whom there are songs that indeed change lives; songs that open their eyes about the state of the world.
Q: Do you condemn pop fans who acquire your music merely as a consumer product?
Yorke: No, I pity them. For them there is no real satisfaction, they have to gather more and more and more songs, as if the endless accumulation could ensure them immortality.
Q: Have you ever downloaded a song from the net yourself, for free?
Yorke: No, I always pay. Well, I got our own album from our webpage free of charge. I wanted to play my mum the new songs and downloaded them on to her computer. A journalist found out. And he announced immediately that I wouldn't pay for music from the internet. But why should I pay for my own possessions, and in practice, just shovel my money from one pocket to the other? That's ridiculous.
Q: What was the highest price that a buyer paid online to download In Rainbows?
Yorke: £99.99. That's the limit we had set beforehand.
Q: And how many buyers were willing to pay that much?
Yorke: Until now, 15. And I swear the band members are not among that 15.
Q: Why do you offer a sumptuous CD and LP box-set for £40 as well as the download? Is this because the compressed music from the internet sounds so poor, causing many fans to complain?
Yorke: MP3 files from the net never sound optimal. We had always planned to release a regular CD and get it into the record stores a bit later. We thought about trying to produce and distribute that CD ourselves – but it seemed too difficult in the end. So we looked for a small record company as a partner.
Q: Is there anything that you'd find sad, should the demise of the music industry come to pass?
Yorke: Of course. For example, these companies are now closing all the beautiful old recording studios. A whole craft gets lost, a valuable tradition. All the acoustic basses and old mics and great instruments get flogged.
We try to buy as much as possible of those to use them for our own work, but it's not the same as if really working in one of the old studios.
Q: It sounds as if you're nostalgic. How much do you use the modern medium of the internet. Do you know your way around Second Life and MySpace?
Yorke: Oh yeah, Second Life, isn't it this world in which you buy land and property and sunglasses for yourself and a second ego, where you go into a virtual bar and say hello? I don't want that. For me it just lays bare the isolation of many internet users, who've got too much time on their hands. Sad. I prefer expressing myself in the real world.
Q: Do you read what's been written about you in internet blogs?
Yorke: No. And we never read what critics write about us. Never. Anyone who does that suddenly hears a lot of strange voices in his head. And there are plenty of those buzzing around in my head already.
Radiohead play Malahide Castle, Dublin, on 6 and 7 June. In Rainbows is available on CD and vinyl now. The single 'Jigsaw Falling Into Place' will be released on 11 January. This interview first appeared in Der Spiegel.
The new world order
It's eight years since Napster was dragged to court to face the music for illegal file-sharing. In 2000, the record and music retail industries feared the worst – that the digital age would spell the end of the recording artist as they knew it. In a way, they were right. The revolution that has been unleashed, courtesy of MySpace, iTunes and Napster imitators like Kazaa, LimeWire and BitTorrent, has seen the record companies cast as unfortunate tsarists. Forced first to watch their profits plummet, the moguls must now stand by as they are cut out of the equation altogether. But very few fans or, indeed, artists will shed a tear for them, not least because the new medium has given those very fans and their heroes a more intimate relationship than ever.
Radiohead, now freed from the shackles of their EMI contract, were early-adopters, one of the first major acts to realise the potential of the internet and harness it for their own ends. Their website has always been impeccably maintained. No surprise then, that they were also the first premier league band to take the logical next step and release an album by download only, using the "suggested donation" method – asking fans to pay only what they wanted to pay. Far from bankrupting them, the band claims it has been a more lucrative endeavour than anyone predicted.
While no official figures have been forthcoming, sources at the time suggested the band sold well over one million In Rainbows downloads before the end of the album's first week online. Estimates as to the average price paid have been pitched anywhere between £2.50 and £5; even a conservative estimate of the profits sounds impressive. The balance sheet will encourage other bands to follow in Radiohead's footsteps.
The Charlatans, for instance, have already announced plans to release their upcoming LP free online via their own website and that of the radio station XFM. Ash claim last year's Twilight of the Innocents will be their last album, and that from now on they will release only singles, in a mixture of online and physical formats. Meanwhile In Rainbows was finally released as a CD on Monday (by the independent XL label) – and who would bet against it making the top five by this weekend?
By Tim Walker