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 1st, 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 ahold 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."
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 a goat."
With the release of OK Computer critics were quick to canonize Radiohead as the great post-Nirvana rock band, an honorific that, a decade on, feels more apt than ever, even as the group has continued to evolve in wholly unexpected ways. The band's songs, soaring and atmospheric, are spacious enough to fill stadiums, and Radiohead have become one of the best live bands of their generation. At the same time, the more experimental direction the music has taken — the false starts and buried melodies, the messy electronica and avant-garde dissonance — not only complements the overweening sense of dread suffusing Yorke's lyrics but actually feels complementary to our entire damaged era, sounding like a future soundtrack to a documentary about early-twenty-first-century malaise.
After the Hail to the Thief tour ended in 2004, the band members took a year off to spend time with their families. Yorke, who has been with his partner, Rachel Owen, a fine-art printmaker, since they were students at Exeter University, will say very little about his family life. When asked if his children have managed to discover any music that annoys him, he thinks for a moment, then says, "I mean, I like the Chili Peppers. But I hear a lot of it in my house. They haven't really heard our new record yet."
Just because ... I think my missus isn't ready to hear it yet. Having seen me go through the mills making it.
She hasn't listened to it at all?
Not yet. She will. But it's a difficult thing for her to watch me go through the whole process. She doesn't like it. So she's not exactly ready to listen to the music.
Would she rather you'd not make music and just be a happier person?
So working on a record makes you a difficult person?
To live with? That's about a hundred percent true. Yes. She does it, though.
She's an artist, as well. Do you ever ask for feedback on what you're working on?
It's — yeah. Anyway. Next question.
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