10/10/2007 may very well be remembered as the day the music industry changed forever. It was the day that Radiohead, one of the most popular bands in the world, released their 7th LP. They did so by making the album available on their own private website, inviting their audience to pay whatever price they wanted to download DRM-free mp3s of the album. Having seen the state of the corporate music industry, the band decided (wisely, as it turned out) to take distribution into their own hands and see what happened. What happened was the band made a lot of money, gained a lot of exposure and delivered what I now consider to be their finest album ever.
Radiohead did so much right with this album. They took their time recording it independently, making sure every single note was exactly as they wanted it to be. They did not put out any advertising for this album until 10 days before it was online, making the announcement of impending release a shock to the fans. They showed respect and trust in their fans by instituting a pay-what-you-can system for the digital release. It was something completely new and completely Radiohead.
I had been loosely following the rumors of the band’s studio work, but had decided that the most likely scenario was that they would release a CD in 2008. When news broke that the release was 10 days away and a website had appeared with cryptic information about it, I was incredulous. I didn’t think it was possible in this digital age to keep something like this so secret. But really, the only way to prevent an album from leaking before it’s release date is to not tell ANYONE that the album is coming out until it does. Most bands feel they can’t do this because it’s the advertising buzz that helps sell the album. Radiohead had the luxury of already commanding a rapid fanbase that didn’t need lead single to tell them to buy the music. I loved that Radiohead, a band that is known for experimentation, chose to experiment on their business model as well as their music.
I’ve come to the conclusion that In Rainbows is my favorite Radiohead album. The release model plays into that, but the music itself is also extremely good. “Nude” is probably the most beautiful song the band has ever recorded. The swelling strings and tender falsetto vocals are too lovely for words.
I actually bought the full discbox from the band, which contained a CD of the album, a CD of bonus tracks and the entire album on two vinyl records. It’s a very cool memento of a watershed event in rock music history. When I think of the growing pains the industry has experienced in the last ten years, I’ll always think of how Radiohead took a quantum leap forward all on their own. And I hope they don’t wait for the rest of the world to catch up before making their next leap.