The Future According to Radiohead

How they ditched the record business and still topped the charts

February 7, 2008
Thom Yorke of Radiohead on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Thom Yorke of Radiohead on the cover of Rolling Stone.
James Dimmock

Sunday afternoons, Thom Yorke enjoys taking his kids to Oxford University's Museum of Natural History, a stately, neo-Gothic building on the outskirts of the city center. They wander around the grand atrium, past the skull of the humpback whale, propped up like a massive bear trap, and the stuffed dodo bird behind glass, and the creepy statues of Great Men of Science. The statues are extremely life-like except for their eyeballs, which, thanks to some odd sculptorial decision, have been rendered as entirely blank orbs, giving boyish, pensive Newton and bearded, stoic Darwin and an unreasonably furious-looking Aristotle all terrifying dead-eyed stares. And, of course, Yorke's kids love the enormous dinosaur skeletons, which dominate the room, rearing up in fearsome poses.

Approximately 150 years earlier, a sickly, stuttering Oxford mathematician named Charles Dodgson would come to the museum with his college dean's young daughter, Alice Liddell; to entertain her, he would make up fantastic stories about the dodo and various other animals, which he eventually published under his pen name, Lewis Carroll, as Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Yorke, who is thirty-nine – he has a three-year-old daughter and a six-year- old son – also occasionally writes about animals, though not in a way meant to delight children. "Myxomatosis," from the 2003 Radiohead album, Hail to the Thief, is named for a horrible disease that kills rabbits and opens with the line "The mongrel cat came home holding half a head . . . ." Then there is "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi," a track on the most recent Radiohead album, In Rainbows, in which Yorke imagines himself at the bottom of the ocean being nibbled upon by fish and worms. Pluralizing "fish" as "fishes" is an unusual choice, and whenever Yorke howls the words "weird fishes," the questionable grammar makes him sound like a demented schoolboy.

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The rest of the song has a muffled, underwater quality, with the titular arpeggio underlaid by a spare, insistent percussion and the guitar notes occasionally warping to sound like a steel drum might be buried deep in the mix. In another strange turn of phrase, Yorke croons, "Your eyes, they turn me," creating an interesting tension by never adding the expected "on." With all of the references to freedom – "why should I stay here"; "everybody leaves if they get a chance" – the song could almost pass for a morbid parody of early Springsteen, as if the protagonists of "Thunder Road" had busted loose from small-town Jersey by throwing themselves off a bridge.

"Hit the bottom," Yorke sings in the final lines, "and escape."

A few blocks from the natural-history museum, Yorke arrives for an interview at the Old Parsonage, a centuries-old building – Oscar Wilde lived here as a student – since turned into a quaintly cluttered inn. Yorke's face is furrowed and unshaven, and though he certainly looks his age, perhaps older, he's also the most boyish member of Radiohead, small, fidgety and, this morning, wearing jeans, a gray hooded sweatshirt and a knapsack with the straps stretched over both shoulders. (When guitarist Ed O'Brien shows up an hour later and sits beside Yorke, it's like a study in contrasts, stark examples for schoolchildren on how good and bad boys should behave: There's Yorke, squirming, hair a spiky mess, occasionally putting his head down or wiping his nose with his sleeve, while O'Brien, at six-five nearly a foot taller than Yorke, demonstrates unnervingly perfect posture, barely even moving his head as he speaks in precise tones.)

We're in a side room off the lobby. A Japanese businessman is sitting at a table in the corner, typing silently on a laptop as he waits to check in, while flames crackle in the hearth. "Big fire," Yorke notes, then murmurs, "They should use a stove. More efficient." Yorke's left eye is damaged from a series of operations he had as a child and is now stuck in a permanent downward list. But this morning both eyes are nearly squinted shut, and he has a sleepy grin. His daughter has a cough, and he's been up all night.

In Rainbows, Radiohead's seventh album, was released in October, and any talk of its content was immediately overshadowed by its method of delivery. As everyone knows, the band, in a surprise announcement, decided to release the album as a download on its Web site, where fans could pay whatever they wished, anywhere from nothing to £99.99 (about $212). Though Radiohead have refused all requests to release official numbers, even the estimates of the online survey group comScore – estimates that the band dismisses as low – would make the experiment a success. According to comScore, a "significant percentage" of the 1.2 million visitors to Radiohead's Web site in October downloaded the album, and while comScore claims only two out of five downloaders paid anything at all, the payers averaged $6 per album – which, factoring in the freeloaders, works out to about $2.26 per album, more than Radiohead would have made in a traditional label deal. And that's just downloads: Released on January Ist, the CD version debuted at Number One in the U.S. and Britain.

The download plan was hatched by Radiohead's managers Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge ("when they were a bit stoned," notes guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood) during the long gap between Hail to the Thief, which marked the end of the band's major-label recording contract, and In Rainbows. "Poor guys," Yorke says, "they have a lot of time to think." Hufford and Edge have managed Radiohead from the beginning, when the band was still called On a Friday and playing Oxford pubs; the download idea was partly a response to the fact that every Radiohead album since Kid A, in 2000, had leaked in some form online.

"There's a compliment there," Yorke acknowledges, speaking in a low, unhurried voice, "the fact that people want to get a hold of what you've done. But if it's not the definitive version, if the ends are chopped off, if you haven't made the choice to do it yourself, it's a bit unfair. Bad karma. So it felt very liberating to take complete control.

"If I die tomorrow, I'll be happy that we didn't carry on working within this huge industry that I don't feel any connection with," he continues. "But the idea wasn't to make a big, significant statement. I mean, we knew it would be messing with things a little bit. But we just wanted to get the album to people who'd been waiting patiently for four years. I really thought it would be a splash in a little pond, and I was surprised at how much the media picked up on it." Adds Greenwood, "Unlike a lot of Radiohead stuff, this idea really was boredom-driven. Just about avoiding the old."

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There were complaints in certain online circles about the sound quality of the In Rainbows downloads, but surprisingly, considering the sonic complexity of their own records, none of the members of Radiohead are audio geeks. "That sort of hi-fi sound-quality thing really annoys me," says Jonny Greenwood. "I was in London talking to a label guy once, and we got on to this subject, and I said hi-fi is just about middle-aged men trying to make music sound as good as it did when they were teenagers, and it never will. They'll never be as excited as they were when they first heard that music coming out of just one speaker. They'll never get that close to it again." Greenwood smiles sheepishly. "Later, I found out he's got this amazing record player and spends all of his time upgrading his system."

It's suggested that the pay-what-you-like plan forced people to make an ethical choice about consumption – to actually stop and think, "OK, what is this piece of art, made by someone I feel some sort of connection with, worth to me?" But, Yorke says, "In a way, that was an afterthought. We knew that if we put it out for nothing at all, it would end up costing us an absolute fortune. Simply because you end up having to pay every time someone downloads it. But there's always been an integrity to the community of people on the Net who follow what we do. 'Ethical choice'? I don't know about that." He smiles. "Maybe if they were buying goat."

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