I admit that I’ve been a Radiohead fan for a long time. I’ve seen their concerts, bought their records, and maybe even had a poster on my wall at some point. Who can remember?
In any event, I have been watching with great interest (like everyone else) the forthcoming release of Radiohead’s In Rainbows on October 10th. I find it amazing that people are considering it some defining moment in pop culture, that a band of Radiohead’s stature and power is willing to release their album and allow you, the listener, to “pay what you like” for it. It’s too late to turn back the clock on this project: the bomb drops tonight at Midnight.
If this plan happens to unfold in the way Radiohead would like, they will be expecting to, and will actually, get people purchasing the album multiple times in multiple formats. The download that comes out will be 160kbps, good enough for people to hear the record but not good enough for people who consider themselves audiophiles to be satisfied. This assures that a percentage of the people who hear the record will re-buy it in a different format that suits their own image of themselves as a music listener — vinyl or cd.
This isn’t some earth-shattering concept if you’re Radiohead. They have a solid, loyal, inter-generational and international fan base who will gladly follow their lead. It’s very smart business, taking control of the pre-release culture and giving people exactly what they want and merely passing the virtual hat.
But at the end of the day, it seems like this can have a damaging after-current on the thousands of struggling indie acts out there whose records are traded, against their will, on P2P networks and torrent sites every day. Pundits will call this impact “The Radiohead Effect” in years to come, depending, of course, on the outcome. A band like Radiohead can afford to place no value whatsoever on their work and sell it for whatever anyone will pay. Thousands of independent artists, most of whom have never been afforded the opportunity to have their work promoted with enormous financial backing during the major label era as Radiohead did, would unlikely be able to afford this luxury.
In reality, it’s all just a very clever way of marketing to thousands of fans who would already pay any amount to have a new Radiohead album. To some degree, it’s a test of the social consciousness of music fans; but mostly it’s a great way for Radiohead to remind us all that no matter whether or not you like their music, you will never be allowed to forget how important and influential they are on modern music. It’s inarguable: Radiohead is one of, if not the, most loved and most enjoyed bands of the 20th and 21st centuries.
I hope that kind of self-important pretension is worth the price of admission.
The first one is that the lower-quality 160kbps release is to combat the oft-maligned OiNK’s requirements that downloads from their site must be of 192kbps quality or higher. I tend to agree that this makes sense, but at the end of the day it’s just about creating multiple revenue streams.
The next one is about their delivery methods. Those who order the record receive an email from W.A.S.T.E. with their confirmation details. To the uninformed or those literature-starved keyboard jockeys, W.A.S.T.E. comes from the novel The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon and is, according to Wikipedia, “an acronym for We Await Silent Tristero’s Empire. I think this means if you want to understand, you should probably buy the book.
This column will be updated further as information warrants.