This is a transcript from an audio recording of the broadcast. The interview was prerecorded, but might have been taped on the day of the broadcast.
[recording starts here]
Voiceover – Now on BBC Radio 4, it's John Wilson with Front Row
John Wilson: "Hello. Radiohead told their fans to pay whatever they wanted for the latest album. Now the band tell me why new money and the record business can't buy their services. But first, there were three big players in the pop game in 2007. Led Zeppelin proved they were still kings of rock, Amy Winehouse became both queen of the airwaves, and a joker in the headlines, but the unseen hand, perhaps the ace in the pack, was dealt by the band Radiohead, who, in a surprise move, offered their new album for free. After being locked away in secret recording sessions, the band announced in October that In Rainbows, the album, would be initially available for download only with no price tag attached, we could pay whatever we wanted for it. The move sent shockwaves through a music industry which foresaw artists taking control of their careers, and Radiohead were a band for which people had paid good money in the past.
(plays bits of Just, High & Dry, Creep and No Surprises)
John: "That's the sound of old Radiohead, the band which stormed charts and stole the show at festivals. The new album, In Rainbows will become available in conventional format CD on New Year's Eve. Radiohead singer, Thom Yorke and guitarist Ed O'Brien came to the Front Row studio to talk to me, and talk me through the album. I started by asking about the recording sessions, which I'd heard had taken place in a English country mansion
Thom: "A ruined pile
Thom: "Rather than a crumbling mansion
John: "So you weren't recording in Veronial splendour then?
Thom: "Hell, no
John: "It wasn't chandeliers and.......
Thom: "No, it was just a space that we could actually, you know, set up in and not worry about smashing the place up a bit because it would be difficult to smash it up any more than it already was
John: "And you're playing live in the studio......
John: "so in effect what we're hearing is the sound of the room?
Ed: "Yeah, that was the idea, because we'd road tested a lot of these songs, and we thought we were going to record them quite quickly, and get them down in their sort of live form with a few overdubs, and make it work, but it didn't happen like that, because they actually weren't good enough
Thom: "How we imagined it, and how it actually was, you know, it usually takes time to get through those things, and this was no exception
(plays House of Cards)
John: "And thematically, In Rainbows suggests something soft, and beautiful...colourful. The songs are soft and beautiful, and colourful in places, but also mixed up with songs that are very hard and caustic. Was that the idea, to create an album of contrasts?
Thom: "There was definitely an idea of....the notion of going beyond, trying to get away, but it makes my head hurt when I try and think about it
John: "What, there is a theme of escape then, is there? Or wanting to escape?
Thom: "Well, not escape as such, no, more just the impossible (laughs)
John: "The unattainable?
Thom: "The unobtainable, yeah yeah, that's...I would.....I guess that's a good way of putting it. Yeah, there were songs that came while we were in the studio........I often really enjoy the pressure of, you know......we have a tune and it's half done, and it's like "come on, get the words out"
John: "It's a sense of being back against the wall, and you've got to finish it
Thom: "Yeah, and you.......
John: "And yet theres one song on the record, isn't there, Nude
Thom: "Which is ages old
John: "Which to me, to my ears.... well it sounded like vintage Radiohead to me.....
John: "And it is ten years old, isn't it? That's one that you had......
Thom: "It is, but we lost connection with it
John: "So that's a song that could have been on OK Computer then?
Thom: "It could, but we never really.....it didn't ever really fit together until Colin came up with the bassline that starts the tune up. For some reason, that makes it easier to sing
Thom: "With this record, it was about finding a pulse....
John: "But the vocal on that is one of the most challenging, I presume, on the whole record, because you're really pitching quite high
Thom: "It sounds a lot more difficult than it is, which is obviously fantastic
(plays more of Nude)
John: "So that's the music, who decided to rattle the cage of the music industry with this unconventional release?
Ed: "It wasn't really meant to rattle any cages, it was merely a way of getting our music out quickly, which has always been quite a problem for us. You finish something, and then there's this three or four months, five months until the record's released, so we wanted to get past that. We weren't in contract, what do we do, well.....
John: "You can just put it out there
Ed: "We can put it out there, you know
John: "So this wasn't part of the grand plan to challenge the power of the music business?
Ed: "No, I mean.....
John: "Because the way the release of this record has been described is that it's almost the end of civilisation....
Thom: "Woah! (laughs)
Ed: "But that would be an incredibly arrogant thing to presume that, you know, I mean it's like like tilting at windmills.....
John: "But it's one thing to release the record on the internet, to make it available immediately, it's another thing altogether to say you can pay what you like. Was there any argument within the band over the honesty box approach?
Thom: "No, everyone was sort of like into the idea. The hardest bit of the whole thing was actually trying to like sort of explain it succinctly without it turning into some sort of essay about where you think music is valued and la la la
Thom: "And we went through all that sort of whole thing, of trying to explain, and then just scrapped all of it, and just said "pay what you like"
John: "But it's a very bold experiment, isn't it?
Ed: "But it's......
Thom: "But you know, it's in context of like....we were excited about it, you know, we knew that some people just wanted to hear it immediately, and so the pay what you like thing, or whatever, it was just "well, if you value this thing, and you want to pay, then that's great", you know, if you don't value it, and you're just curious, or you want to pass it around, that's also great too, you can copy it, you can.....you know....
John: "So you don't feel personally offended if one of your fans admitted that they'd paid 20p for it?
Thom: "Not at all, no. It's a distribution thing. Our problem has always been we don't ever fit the format for radio, we're not very press friendly, but after years of doing it, and sort of getting a bit tired of the sort of history and nonsense around the way people see our music, it was really positive to throw all that out, knowing that there's people out there who want to hear it, and just leave it as pure as that, you know
John: "But are you happy with the way it's worked? It's said, I know you haven't released the actual sales figures, but something like two thirds of the people have downloaded the album for free, because if you're offered something for free, many people......
Thom: "That's not true
John: "It's not true? I mean, there was some survey done by a web consultancy.......
Thom: "That was spurious nonsense
John: "Ah, right, and are you happy with the way that it's gone, or do you look back and think "maybe we could have done it slightly differently"?
Thom: "No, it was pretty wicked (laughs)
Ed: "Yeah. The only thing I'd do differently.....we'd do differently, is probably put.....rather than having just English on the website...
Ed: "It would have been.....
Ed: "Japanese, French, Spanish, Portugese
Thom: "Yeah, absolutely
John: "Now, recently on this programme, I was discussing the new ownership of EMI, that's been bought out by a company called Terra Firma, and it's run......
Thom: "Go for it, Ed! (laughs)
John: "You're already raring to go on this one are you?
Thom: "We're already in trouble (laughs)
Ed: "No, no, I'm not, go on
John: "No, because what I was going to say was that Guy Hans, who is the boss of this company....
John: "And now effectively owns EMI, has brought in the ex director general of the BBC, John Burt to do a survey of the artists, and the relationship between artists and the company, and it's suggested that Terra Firma, EMI want the artists to do a bit more work promoting albums in the future, you need to pull your socks up. Looking at that possible relationship, and the power structure there, are you glad to be out of that deal with EMI?
Ed: "We.......I tell you what, we miss the people that we worked with on a day to day....
Ed: "All the people at Parlophone, those are the people we really miss. The rest of the stuff, about not understanding maybe about the music industry....Terra Firma don't fully understand.....because one of the great things about the music industry is it's not an industry, it's just a collective of a series of relationships between people.....
John: "But Terra Firma are a private equity firm
John: "Did you know about that take over deal?
Ed: "Yeah, we did
John: "Was that the root of the discontent? Was that why you didn't sign a new deal, do you think?
Ed: "No, because we just didn't get what we wanted, so it couldn't be offered......
Thom: "They just didn't seem very interested, and neither were we
Ed: "No. It just wasn't....I think it was at too early a stage. They didn't understand where a band like us sat on a label like EMI, so they weren't able to give us what we needed
Thom: "The interesting thing was that it made us realise that we'd been, to EMI's credit, the old EMI at least, they had us on a very very long leash for a very long time, and that was because they have had a series of artists that they've allowed to do that, like the Floyd, and Queen and everybody, and it's really worked, and now, when you're in a situation like Ed said, with whatever the business model, with like shareholders, etc etc, private equity firms, it looks at music as something to buy and then sell on, that it's inorganic, that it's something that can be valued or devalued, which......
John: "And you don't accept that's the new reality of the record business?
Thom: "No, the reality of music is that it will always be valued, because we all need it. Companies buying and selling themselves and seeing the artists work as simply just part of their stock is devaluing music, and if anybody's responsible for devaluing music, it's them
John: "Thom Yorke and Ed O'Brien of Radiohead. The CD version of the album In Rainbows is released on December 31st