Retrospective: In Rainbows
Original Online Release Date: 10 October 2007
It may startle some to consider that only a decade ago the idea of a surprise album drop was still quite novel. Yet at the time, on one autumnal day in 2007, Jonny Greenwood’s matter-of-fact, 25 word blog post announcing a new Radiohead album arrived with the tactical precision and combustible impact of a sneak attack from the sky. With a mere ten days notice, In Rainbows was coming.
Defying both traditional distribution methods as well as the emergent models for legal downloading, the British alt-rock band behind groundbreaking records like OK Computer and Kid A took a musty DIY idea to the masses with a fresh coat of digital polish. One could own a copy of In Rainbows in MP3 format directly from the band for nothing, nada, zilch. Fans had the option to give any amount above the zero threshold, were they so inclined, in exchange for the files as well.
Collectors and vinyl purists willing to wait a couple of months had the option of pre-ordering an elaborate “diskbox” edition for £40, featuring an exclusive bonus disc and stylish artwork inserts. The music press, still in the growing pains phase of the online content economy, spread the word ecstatically.
Indeed, though hardly a new concept, Radiohead’s pay-what-you-like proposition posed the right question at the right time. With the record industry still reeling from Napster and the peer-to-peer piracy it subsequently popularised, the straightforward In Rainbows landing page asked the fans directly what they thought music was worth in the digital age.
While no recording artist is an island, Radiohead removed an obvious group of percentage pilfering intermediaries and marketing machinists from the public conversation about commerce and its burgeoning subset, e-commerce. At least to a certain extent, it was the purest artist-to-fan transaction this side of a band selling homemade t-shirts and cassettes out on a folding table in a nightclub.
Radiohead had every incentive to challenge the music industry norms of 2007. Apple’s iTunes store was just four years old, stinking of monopolistic entitlement thanks to an iPod revolution driven, ironically enough, by illegal downloading. Record store chains like Sam Goody and Tower Records had gone bankrupt one year before, sending capitalist chills up music retailers’ spines on both sides of the Atlantic. Major label artists who could count on album royalty payments a decade earlier were left reeling as traditional sales shrunk, replaced with the cold comfort of contractually smaller digital royalties. Creative solutions seemed in short supply.
What made Radiohead’s In Rainbows gambit pay off was that they had a desirable product. As one of the most critically acclaimed rock acts of their generation, with millions of records already sold prior to 2007, extraordinary demand existed for the band’s new music. A lesser known indie band would hardly have garnered the sort of attention and discussion that Radiohead’s move did, to say nothing of the institutional barriers of hosting and bandwidth that was then still very much out of reach for most artists.
The ramifications of In Rainbows were notably complex. According to Wired, around 40% of those who consumed the downloadable version paid something for it, on average around $6. The band reportedly sold 100,000 copies of the diskbox edition within the first year. Radiohead actually owned the album masters, which meant not only would they receive the bulk of money from these sales but that they could profitably negotiate a conventional wide release, making it available to retailers online and off. In January of 2008, the band did exactly that, partnering with XL Recordings in the UK and TBD in the US for a standard CD issue.
Still, Radiohead’s democratic experiment didn’t take hold as some might have hoped. Sure, groups like Bloc Party and Nine Inch Nails followed suit with their own takes on surprise drops through dedicated websites, but those were anomalies. Over the years, frontman Thom Yorke would continue to tamper with commercial conventions, releasing solo material via BitTorrent and limiting availability of his music to select platforms. Even if pay-what-you-like proved no match for the eventual rise of unlimited streaming, it became a core tenet of the artist-friendly business model at Bandcamp, which launched its online store a year later.
Assuredly, Radiohead had no intention of enriching the major labels and technology corporations with their experiment. As CD sales continued to spiral down, record companies eventually caught on that digital-first was the way to go, bringing us to our current period of iTunes premieres and TIDAL exclusives. But if we survey the landscape of the music industry in 2017, big business’ dominance of the digital industry runs about as distant in spirit from the promised In Rainbows coup as possible.