I'd be crazy not to follow, follow where you lead

My In Rainbows discbox finally arrived on Friday, after much redirection over Christmas. It’s a work of art in itself, a book-in-box like the Folio Society produces, with two 45rpm, 12″ vinyls bookending a padded gatefold sleeve. Inside there’s two CDs—the album and a set of bonus tracks which form an EP in themselves—a tall lyrics booklet and a 12″x12″ replica of the recent album release’s lyrics booklet, only without lyrics and with more of Stanley Donwood’s Pollockian artwork.

I must confess here that, along with downloading the mp3s beforehand (for nothing, so erroneously reducing the average amount quoted by the band by the merest smidgeon) I’ve also bought an actual over-the-counter copy of the album: firstly because the charts will almost inevitably punish the innovation of the discbox and not let it register as a purchase; secondly because the gatefold will only take so much handling before being that little less beautiful; thirdly because those cheery-miserable, experimental-hummable, ugly-beautiful Abingdonians deserve it. I’ve written elsewhere about how Radiohead have changed everything with this release. Having Lily Allen, Noel Gallagher, Gene Simmonds and Guy Hands line up against your business model is a bit like having Noam Chomsky, George Monbiot and Al Gore cheering your socioeconomic model: you may not have it exactly right, but you’re certainly moving in the right direction.

Imagine: you give your album away for potentially free, release an expensive discbox that’s on its way to being completely sold out, and be set to have the hit album of January, shifting units like billy-o in a period that’s normally quiet for record shops. There’s a lot to be read from the fact alone that, free from EMI, Radiohead have made more money with their honesty-box experiment than on any of their other album’s online sales. How much were the label bleeding them of in the past, if their finances were far healthier without it?

Some suggest this as something for artists to be fearful of: if multimillionaires are giving away music like a charity—“they can afforrrrrrd it, though, can’t they?”—then where does that leave the lone, penniless troubadour? But such small-scale musicians are already in a bind: paid-for music has to compete with MySpace, videos with YouTube, live performances with a lot of other bands that stylists have made look and act in a similar way. They have to cope with electronic sales being eaten up by the label that deigns to sign them.

Piracy—strictly defined as obtaining the music for free—has always been there, but Radiohead’s system at least quantifies what the beleagured Ass of America has always wanted to keep as an elusive, indeterminate bogeyman: and, along the way, converts it into good will. It also lets us compare side by side the cost of piracy and the cost of being signed to EMI. Regardless of whether anyone else will adopt precisely the same method that they’ve tried, Radiohead have at least broken the deadlock that existed between the Big Four (are there still four?) record labels and the rest of the content-provision industry: now everyone knows that you can make at least some money, even if you do it all yourself and make all the mistakes a trailblazer can make.

And it’s easy (© all papers and magazines) to neglect the actual songs amidst all this technical innovation. But there lies the most astonishing chapter of this whole saga: despite the success that the marketing coup would’ve brought them anyway, the songs on In Rainbows are beautiful. The album is the paean that was always struggling to pour forth from Kid A; the angst of The Bends left to mature and ripen; the euphoria trickling out of the pores of every Radiohead release since OK Computer distilled, bottled and splashed headily all over the canvas.

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6 Responses to I'd be crazy not to follow, follow where you lead

  1. argle says:

    I’m not sure that it’s really RH who have changed anything—it’s more that they’ve made a virtue of necessity. I read an interview somewhere (which I can’t find at the moment) in which Thom basically said that they knew the album would leak, so they decided the sensible thing would be to leak it themselves, and at least that way they could make some money out of it in the process.

    P.S. There are still 4: SonyBMG, EMI, Universal, Warner.

  2. sbalb says:

    Hm. That sounds more like Thom’s puckish sense of humour than anything else. They’d done a rather good job of keeping it quiet by pretending to be Phil Collins, Kula Shaker and The Eagles, and if they’d wanted to go a specifically digital route to avoid the leakages inherent in the CD supply chain then they certainly had other options. The fact that they’ve picked something so contrary to the industry’s culture as an honesty box, put together by themselves with twigs and spit and bailing twine, is what’s suddenly given everything the possibility of becoming more fluid without losing integrity or being castigated for not having a business case.

    (Weren’t two of the four going to merge at some point? Ah, like there’s actually four anyway: it’s just some twisted, evil, monadic quaternity anyway, isn’t it?)

  3. argle says:

    EMI and Warner keep considering a merger/takeover. EMI is quite vulnerable as it’s the only 1 of the 4 which isn’t owned by a much larger and more profitable entity (SonyBMG is part of Sony, Warner part of AOL Time Warner, Universal is part of Vivendi).

  4. Quinn says:

    The discbox is a thing of great beauty, but the silly foamy pegs that hold the CD’s are a fiddly pain, so I may well join you in buying an over-the-counter copy. And the bonus CD is great; I’d certainly swap most of the songs on it for (my) album low point “House Of Cards”, even if that song does sound a little like Goffin & King’s “Goin’ Back”.

    As for Lily Allen criticising Radiohead for having a disrespectful attitude towards “music”; certainly truth is stranger than satire.

  5. sbalb says:

    Quinn: I’m glad I’m not alone among my acquaintances in buying the discbox, and in my overdelicate treatment of it. An alternative to actually buying another copy – I did so because the packaging for the standard, unplasticboxed album is a treat in itself – is burning copies of the two CDs.

    And, yes, the bonus CD is brilliant. It actually riffs, or maybe fugues, on a lot of themes in the original album, sometimes I think getting as close as sampling them as if they were random R&B records in DJ Shadow’s collection.

  6. Pingback: Small Beds and Large Bears » Blog Archive » My very first paid-for music download

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