While critics will rightly fixate on the significance of not letting the marketing strategy of In Rainbows overshadow the quality of the album, the most important aspect of its legacy is its influence on the music industry. The band had already pushed and redefined boundaries of indie music with overwhelming sonic experimentalism, and In Rainbows was their mid-career apogee that fused multiple features from their timeless discography.
And on this occasion, they saw it fit to play their hand at reimagining the music industry itself. After 2003’s Hail to the Thief, Radiohead’s recording contract with EMI was terminated. Suddenly, they were out in the open with unbridled creative and professional freedom. After sluggish recording sessions and a creative impasse, their efforts finally gathered steam as late as October 2006. But they turned down multi-million record deals in favour of remaining independent. On October 10th 2007, In Rainbows was unveiled to the public as a pay-what-you-want download on their website. It was packaged as a ZIP file containing the album’s ten tracks encoded in 160 kbit/s MP3 format. By the end of 2007, the album was given a physical release on XL Recordings.
This approach was predicated on the idea of testing whether the availability of cheap or free music online would reduce the bands future sales. Several of Radiohead’s confrères animadverted the scheme. Kiss frontman Gene Simmons said ‘that’s not a business model that works.’ Manic Street Preacher’s guitarist even went as far as saying that it ‘demeans music.’
The great irony of Radiohead’s ‘giveaway’ release strategy was its commercial success. Music published Warner Chappell confirmed that ‘Radiohead made more money before In Rainbows was physically released than they made on the previous album.’ The actual percentage of people who paid for the album is spurious but in 2009, Wired reported that Radiohead had garnered £3 million from the album and it topped the UK charts when physically released.
But critics argued at the time that due to Radiohead’s loyal fanbase, they could afford to pull off such a feat while bands in their infancy would fall victim to these giveaway tactics that Radiohead could go and inspire. With the advent of broadband in 2004, you could hardly have predicted the wild inundation of content facilitated by bidirectional digital media today, but at least by 2007, music piracy was already rife with people making use of Limewire and the Pirate Bay. In Rainbows was torrented more times than it was downloaded free and legally. Illegal downloading was always going to be akin to an invasive species for the music moguls.
Therefore, Radiohead were merely soothsayers of the digital era where the value of music would be lessened rather than slayers of the value of music themselves. Vast providers of free music/streaming – namely YouTube and Spotify – may have rendered it difficult for up-and-coming bands to accumulate income. But at the same time, it does make it easier for them to ‘get themselves heard’. Bands can essentially cut out the middle man; avoid having their music filtered through corporate channels as much. Their YouTube views/Spotify plays can be a determinant of worthiness for a record deal rather than the bare opinion of the label.
There are two other ways in which the release of In Rainbows was influential. The gap between albums for Radiohead was unprecedented – 4 years. This could have been a ‘hiatus’ then but a decade on, the average the length of time between albums for popular indie bands is 3-4 years – a negative development where musicians in their peak aren’t producing enough output due to a lack of pressure from recording contracts. Secondly, In Rainbows was announced only 10 days before its release date. Given the unnecessity of promotion for big acts, album releases are increasingly unorthodox. Kendrick Lamar’s DAMN. was unveiled only a week before its release and Beyoncé gave no notice at all before unleashing her two most recent phenomenal albums with visual albums to accompany them.
The shock value of the release strategy of In Rainbows was as shocking as their departure from guitar rock to electronica on Kid A. It was the ‘watercooler moment’ in the shift from physical to digital music consumption, and the creative freedom that the ensuing developments afforded musicians gave Radiohead the status of visionaries, not solely in the field of music-making, but also in its commercial role.
Adam Bielenberg – Music Editor