WELCOME TO THE REVOLUTION
Last week Radiohead made an announcement that changed the music world in a stroke. This is the story behind one website posting and the waves it created
“We’re very relieved to have finished recording, now we have to decide what we should do with it.” Said Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood on September 7.
What they did decide to do with the album – their seventh – that fans will be able to hear for the first time today (Wednesday, October 10), is to challenge the way we consume our music, potentially revolutionising the entire music industry in the process. So how did it all happen?
Three weeks ago, a series of emoticon-style doodles began appearing without warning on www.radiohead.com. They were quickly dubbed “worm buffets” after similar-looking characters who appeared on an old Radiohead T-shirt design saying. “Hello, my name is Worm Buffet” (the phrase ‘worm buffet’, meaning ‘dead meat’ was originally taken from the Chuck Palahniuk novel Fight Club), Soon it became evident that the sketches were actually coded messages. The first was deciphered as YES WE ARE STILL ALIVE but subsequent worm buffets revealed typically enigmatic communiqués such as CONSIDERING DISSEMINATION, which hinted at an imminent announcement.
At the same time a mysterious countdown appeared at www.radioheadlp7.com. When the timer hit zero at 8am “Oxford time” on September 28, watchers were merely directed to a YouTube video of ‘80s pop loser Rick Astley, a popular internet prank known as ‘Rickrolling’.
Just a false alarm, then.
But Radiohead chose to make their real announcement 48 hours later. No code this time, rather a simple message from Jonny on the official site telling us the album was called ‘In Rainbows’ and would be coming out in 10 days.
Ten days! And there were further revelations: the album would only be available from that one site and you could choose how much you wanted to pay for it. A physical Discbox version costing £40 is also available for pre-order, shipping on or before December 3. It features CD and vinyl versions of the album, plus an enhanced CD with eight more new tracks. So was this a spontaneous choice on the part of the band?
“The decision to make it available this way was made some time ago, but the final dates were just sorted in mid-September,” a band spokesperson told NME. “It was done for two reasons – the band are very excited by the music and wanted to make it available as soon as possible, and also they were interested in the idea that everyone could get the record at the same time.”
It’s something Radiohead have had in mind throughout the album’s making, according to Yorke.
“It’s getting away from the preciousness of the whole thing,” he explained to NME in March last year. “No fucking song and dance, it’s not a fucking big deal, it’s just a piece of music. We’re not part of this big empire, it’s trying to get away from that because it’s the death of anything creative.”
However, they’ve now gone a stage further, with optional pricing already leaving the music industry looking nervously over its shoulder (see page 12).
“The price idea is really just an experiment.” explained the spokesperson. “It’s asking people to think about how they value music which, since the advent of downloading and file-sharing, has become increasingly difficult to value in monetary terms.”
To add to the maelstrom, the band are looking to sign a deal so the album can also come out as a conventional CD release early next year. “We’ve got about seven days to sort it out,” explained their manager Chris Hutton. “We tend to fly by the seat of our pants.”
YOUR GUIDE TO ‘IN RAINBOWS’
Radiohead’s surprise new album comes out today (Wed, October 10). Despite being rush-released, it’s actually taken them four years to make. Here’s your ultimate guide to the stories behind the tracks…
A regular fixture on the band’s last tour, where its heavy rhythms, syncopated drumming and handclaps verged on R&B. Back then it proved weirdly, hypnotically, danceable with cryptic lyrics: “You used be alright/What happened/Etcetera etcetera/Facts for wbatever/I5 steps/Then a sheer drop”. It’s a fascinating choice of opener.
First played live in 2006, its name was a permanent fixture on the blackboard lists posted by the band on their blog during the recording of the album. Early versions saw ‘Bodysnatchers’ mark a slight return to Radiohead’s guitar roots but, naturally, not in an obvious, simplistic way. Built around a driving, relentless rhythm and scratchy slashes of bluesy guitar, it was more accessible than many other new songs, but still dramatically skewed.
One of Radiohead’s fabled forgotten classics, resurrected over 10 years after it first came into existence. ‘Nude’ used to be known as ‘Big Ideas (Don’t Get Any)’ and made its first live appearance during the latter stages of the band’s ‘OK Computer’ tour in 1998. It also featured briefly in the tour documentary Meeting People Is Easy. This minimalist slow-burner has been a contender for every Radiohead album since, but the band have never been sure of how best to approach it. Recent versions have seen its old keyboard-heavy sound elbowed out in place of a dub-influenced bassline with a ghostly electric guitar picking out the chorus to haunting and gorgeous effect.
One of the first new songs to be played live, Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood premiered this at the Roya1 Festival Hall, backed by an orchestra, in March 2005. Since then Radiohead have played it live on tour, where it developed an upbeat dancey vibe, despite being lyrically, as black as they come. Live performances have seen Thom detailing a drowning in lather graphic detail, “This is my chance/I get eaten by the worms/And weird fishes/Get towed by the worms/And weird fishes/I hit the bottom”.
/All I Need/
Probably one of the last songs to be confirmed, given its non-appearance on many of the song lists that the band posted previously, its live debut was in June last year. In that incarnation, sparse, minimalist: waves of sound and pounding drums announced the arrival of this slow-buming, semi-love song, with Thom declaring that “I’m a cloud of moths/Who just wants to share your light/I’m just an insect/Trying to get out of the night” before concluding that “You only stick with me/Because there are no others”.
A bit of a mystery, this one: its name has cropped up on band messages online, but, speaking to NME, a spokesperson confirmed it has not been played live before and is not a retitled old song. An experimental, electronic effort maybe?
Pre-dating the ‘Hail To The Thief’ sessions, ‘Reckoner’ has been resurrected for ‘In Rainbows’. When played live, it has been known to come close to heavy metal in places. Structured around a monstrous-looping guitar riff that’s almost reminiscent of Led Zeppelin. Lyrically, it caught the band in frenzied and decidedly pissed-off mood, with Thom “Feeling pulled apart by horses” – this line was also a working title.
/House of Cards/
Debuted hack in 2005 by just Thom and an acoustic guitar. One of their most laid-back new songs, back then ‘House Of Cards’ found Radiohead in a decidedly horny mood. Working versions opened with the lines “I don’t want to be your friend/I just want to be your lover/No matter how it ends/No matter how it starts” set against melodic, semi-stoned near-reggae.
/Jigsaw Falling Into Place/
Ahead of the album’s release, many fans knew this song as ‘Open Pick’, as it was first aired on the band’s 2006 tour. It started off slow but soon evolved into a juttering, frenzied post-punk workout with Thom singing “What’s the point of instruments?/Words are a sawn-off shotgun”. Ouch.
Also performed publicly for the first time on Radiohead’s 2006 tour. ‘Videotape’ started live with somber, disjointed piano chords not a million miles away from ‘Pyramid Song’ before gradually morphing into something more frantic via Phil Selway’s fractured drums. Meanwhile, the lyrics could be interpreted as an ode to nostalgia and mortality, with Thom morosely declaring, “When I’m at the pearly gates/This’ll be on my videotape” and “This is one for good days/And I have it all here”. A Radiohead classic in the making
DISCBOX BONUS SONGS
Little is known about several of the songs that comprise the Discbox version of the album’s bonus disc. Speculation surrounds the identities of the songs ‘MK1’ and ‘MK2’, with fans postulating on whether or not they could be songs such as ‘Spooks’ or ‘A Pig’s Ear’ under a different title.
‘Down Is The New Up’, meanwhile, has been played live in two forms. One is a sparse solo version featuring Thom at the piano which shares similarities with live rarity and fan-favourite ‘True Love Waits’, while the second – and by far the most interesting – is an oddball psych-pop masterpiece featuring a clunking childlike guitar riff that wouldn’t have sounded out of p1ace alongside ‘Hail To The Thief’s weirder moments.
Like ‘Nude’, ‘Last Flowers’ dates way back to the ‘OK Computer’ sessions, and used to be known as ‘Last Flowers Till The Hospital’. It has been played live very few times, but in its solo acoustic form is as beautiful as anything the band have come up with since the achingly wonderful ‘Exist Music (For A Film)’.
‘Up On The Ladder’ has gone through many musical and lyrical re-arrangements since it was first written for the ‘Kid A’ sessions and most recently the band seemed to have settled on a scratchy, guitar-heavy version that sounds like a close cousin of their heavier moments, such as ‘Optimistic’.
Those longing for the hand’s return to more conventional ways, meanwhile, will find much to rejoice over in ‘Bangers And Mash’ – the song which Thom played drums on during their 2006 European tour, and one which captured the snarling, guitar-driven swagger of the band’s first two albums, with some classic Jonny Greenwood riffage thrown in for good measure.
Finally, ‘4 Minute Warning’ – so called after the British government’s theory in the 1960s that four minutes would be all it would take for Soviet nukes to reach us – is done a great injustice by not being on the album proper, this piano-led song is one of their finest moments of recent years and will bring things to a suitably anthemic close.
/”IT’S FORCING PEOPLE TO QUESTION HOW MUCH MUSIC IS WORTH”/
No labels, downloads first and naming your own price? We delve into Thom Yorke and co’s vision of the future
What does the revelation that Radiohead will sell ‘In Rainbows’ directly to fans from their own website mean for the music industry?
Not only were the band able to get the album to fans just days after they finished the record – rather than being forced into a record company’s release schedule – but they let fans name their own price for the download. Will we ever he able to look at a priced-up CD the same way again?
“This feels like yet another death knell,” an A&R executive at a major European label wrote in Time magazine last week, reacting to Radiohead’s new way of doing things. “If the best band in the world doesn’t want a part of us, I’m not sure what’s left for this business.”
However Nicola Slade, editor of music industry newsletter Record Of The Day, doesn’t think record company staff should be clearing their desks just yet.
“It’s a great thing for Radiohead, but I’d hate to think there are other bands out there who think this model might apply to them,” she told NME. “Bands need a certain amount of investment and Radiohead wouldn’t have been in a position to do this without the investment of EMI over the last 15 years.”
Other major labels expressed surprised at Radiohead’s move, but agreed that only a few bands would attempt to emulate it.
“Being the second band to do this is worth almost nothing,” one senior major label executive told NME. There are few other bands in the world who could generate this level of publicity and interest with one simple website announcement. Oasis are the only other big British band in a comparable position to Radiohead, having seen out their original record contract. They’re releasing ‘Lord Don’t Slow Me Down’ as a digital single without a label, but rumours suggest the band are on the verge of signing a deal with a major label to release their next album conventionally.
What’s really got the industry buzzing is the decision to leave the cost up to the fans. Adam Benzine of Music Week reckons it will “force people to question how much music is actually worth”, dealing a further blow to struggling retail outlets who have already been cut out of the loop on ‘In Rainbows’.
No-one believes Radiohead themselves will end up out of pocket, especially with many hardcore fans opting for the deluxe £40 Discbox physical release on CD and vinyl. As for the download, it seems fans aren’t ripping the band off. “Most people are deciding on a normal retail price, with very few trying to buy it for a penny,” said Radiohead’s spokesman. NME’s poll revealed the average donation was £7 (see right), although financial bible The Wall Street Journal provocatively suggested that, with manufacturing, distribution, label overheads and marketing costs largely removed, Radiohead should have been able to sell ‘In Rainbows’ for ‘‘as little as $3.40 a copy” (around £1.701)
However, not everything has gone smoothly for Radiohead. Fans attempting to pre-order ‘In Rainbows’ were ejected from the site last Monday due to high traffic and Jonny Greenwood was forced to issue an apology on Radiohead’s official site. Additionally, few buyers are confident of getting the album this morning (October 10) due to the high number of simultaneous digital mail-outs and the downloads they will generate.
“Why didn’t they make a deal with Amazon, SOMEBODY WITH ENOUGH INFRASTRUCTURE?!” ranted industry blogger Bob Lefsetz. “Radiohead should not be doing this themselves. Sure, they’re breaking the mould, but they appear to be AMATEURS!”
Thom Yorke admitted to NME during the recording of ‘In Rainbows’ that without a record company applying pressure, “You just start fucklng about, which is what we did for ages.” Nevertheless, a question mark remains over which label they’ll use for the conventional CD release next year. They are rumoured to be talking to indie label XL, who released Thom Yorke’s solo album ‘The Eraser’ in 2006.
XL boss Richard Russell chose not to be drawn on that topic, but praised Radiohead’s bravery. “I’m inspired by anyone who puts themselves on the line in order to innovate,” he told NME. “No-one knows how the release of this album will work out – that’s because it’s an experiment, and experimentation is necessary if we’re going to discover m anything new.”
RADIOHEAD ‘IN RAINBOWS’ – HOW MUCH WOULD YOU PAY?
We asked NME.COM users how much they would pay for Radiohead’s seventh album. After a quick go on the office calculator, it’s emerged that the average price you’re paying is £7.19, very close to the usual iTunes album price of £7.99. However, that doesn’t tell the full story, with prices ranging from over £20 to a big fat nothing. Here’s what you think Radiohead ale worth:
ROB THOTH: “Even a million pounds, because Radiohead means music. They are simply one of the best and most creative bands nowadays. So, to be real, I guess paying £9.99 would just do. It’s just brilliant that they came up with something revolutionary.”
ADAM WILLIAMS: “I am gunning for the £40 Discbox set because, as a true Radiohead fan, I really want this limited-edition album. With the way technology is these days I am so surprised more bands aren’t dealing directly with their fans.”
TOM BROWN: “I paid £1... I will probably buy the real CD when it is released, so it isn’t going to make much difference. Much respect to Jonny, Thom and the guys for thinking outside the box.”
STUART PATERSON: “I paid 50p for the download. This is in fact the first bit of music I have downloaded from a website. I will be spending the £10 or so on the actual CD.”
DAVID HOLT: “I paid £5 for the download. I figure I want a copy, so I should pay for it, but I’ll also want a copy of the traditional CD release when that happens, so I will in effect be paying for it twice.”
DIONISIS THEODOSIS: “Nothing. It’s a cheap marketing trick trying to capture all the teen angst around it and fall into the anti-commercialism trend... I won’t pay for that.”
DEAN HEWITT: “Nothing. The record industry has not ‘suffered’. It’s the ‘fat-cats’ who can’t afford to pay their limo drivers any more! Revenge!”
CHRIS PEATY: “I’m going to pay £9 the going rate for a CD in the shops. I want to help prove the theory that bands can release music via the website and make money. We can start a revolution here!”
TOM HANNAH: “I’ve paid £0.00 for the album because I like having my music as a hard copy, so I’ll hear it at the same time as everyone else but buy the CD version when it’s released next year.”
JOHN MCELHERON: “I forked out 15 quid. Honour is not a lost art.”