Just when record company executives and the eager music community could wait no longer for Radiohead’s next album, the quintet without a record label did something challenging, unexpected and completely groundbreaking.
“Hello everyone,” wrote lead guitarist Jonny Greenwood. “Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days; We’ve called it In Rainbows. Love from us all. Jonny.”
It was as simple as that.
As soon as those four sentences hit Radiohead’s official webpage, fans jumped onto the band’s message boards. Music publications went ballistic. Music labels and executives panicked. Mass hysteria ensued.
Although the triple-platinum band began working on “In Rainbows” in 2005 after fulfilling a six-album recording contract with EMI, the release date was never publicized – or even established – until Greenwood’s statement on Oct. 1.
In an official press release, Radiohead’s PR company, Nasty Little Man, stated that there would be absolutely no promotion for the new album.
“There will be no advances, promotional copies, digital streams, media sites, etc. of Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows,’“ the release said. “Everyone in the world will be getting the music at the same time: Oct. 10. That includes us. We don’t have anything to play anyone in the nine days until the record is available.”
But the real coup – the shocking truth of the act – is that Radiohead sold this album digitally, via web link, with tracks free from Digital Rights Management (DRM) coding. For donation.
Fans choose the price they’re willing to pay for the album, be it $100 or nothing at all. By submitting only a street address, email address and payment information – if buyers paid anything to begin with – excited fans could pre-order the album and receive a link to the album in the mass email sent yesterday with Radiohead’s latest release.
“In Rainbows,” which consists almost entirely of material that has only been performed live, is an album over two years in the making – the three years between 2004’s “Hail to the Thief” and “In Rainbows” represent the longest between-album gap in the band’s history.
Radiohead is also releasing a box set of the album through their website on Dec. 3, which will include a physical copy of the album on compact disc as well as vinyl for the steep U.S. equivalent of around $82.
Also included in the “discbox” are extra songs not available through the digital download, album art, photographs and lyrics booklets.
An official spokesperson for the band stated that Radiohead is looking at options for a mass CD release in early 2008, but band members are in no rush to sign to another label.
The big worry in the industry isn’t the fact that a major recording act is releasing their highly-anticipated album for whatever the fans want to pay. It isn’t the lack of publicity and the effect that might have on an album or the way albums are publicized in the future.
Radiohead seems to be sticking it to the record industry in a big way by releasing an album without a label, without a decided mass physical album release date for stores or even a separate, more-established web browser or outlet like iTunes.
If a triple-platinum act can release an album without attachment to a record label, what does this mean for an industry already plagued by illegal downloading, legal single-song downloads and streaming audio over the Internet?
“This feels like yet another death knell,” emailed an unnamed A&R executive at a major European label to Time magazine. “If the best band in the world doesn’t want a part of us, I’m not sure what’s left for this business.”
While Radiohead’s “In Rainbows” has made a splash in the public eye, it has made a spectacle of the record label-artist hierarchy. And while major artists can pull off a stunt for a statement like this, all that is yet to be determined is who’s next.