Radiohead's Big Event

A little blogging inertia seems to have set in over the past few months and it seems a bit late to comment on Radiohead‘s approach to releasing their new album. Instead, now that the dust is settling, it seems a good time to connect it up with some commentary my friend Steve has been offering over on his blog.

Steve has been doing a lot of thinking about things like the emotional connections people make with music and what the change of experience from queuing outside a record shop to freely downloading means for how people value music something that, as an independent musician, is of quite immediate importance to him. When we have a constant flow of free or nearly-free new music washing over us, it suffers from some of the same attention problem that many of us have faced since RSS allowed us to theoretically track many hundreds of web sites but we didn’t have the tools to work out how to prioritise that and what could simply be left behind.

What I find most interesting about Radiohead’s release of In Rainbows is that they made an album release feel like an event for the first time in years. With no promotional copies sent out, there were no leaks, and everyone who wanted to hear the record could do so within a few hours of each other. Some people stayed up all night to be the first to download, others of us were just specially eager to get to our email the next morning, but either way there was a definite buzz around the web on October 10th.

Waiting for the email with download instructions to come in isn’t quite the same as queuing outside a record shop with other fans, but sharing comments on twitter had a little of the same feel. The band aren’t sharing sales statistics, but there’s little doubt they’ll be charting pretty high at last.fm this week even by Radiohead’s usual standards (they’re consistently in the top 5 in the artists’ chart). For musicians who don’t have to worry about exposure and/or are more interested in people connecting with the records than buying them, a high last.fm ranking says a lot more than competing with the latest ringtone-friendly tunes in the sales charts.

That experience/event aspect of Radiohead’s approach seems to me far more important than what they’re doing with pricing. Their adoption of downloads is only unprecedented because Radiohead operate on an entirely different scale from all but a handful of bands; bands have been giving records away for years. Stars beat them to the punch this summer by offering their new album as a “download-only promo”, and there are plenty of other examples. Because of the ‘event’, because the album was the thing of the moment, a thing to connect through, and not just because it was by Radiohead, a lot of people listened to it a lot more than if it had simply slipped out as promo after promo got leaked.

Obviously few bands can make a release quite as much of an event as Radiohead, with their legions of fans amongst music buyers and critics alike. This experiment has been done now and won’t work the same way again, but the band have shown that the cat isn’t entirely out of the bag and that it is still possible for an album release to be a major event for someone other than retailers or a select few able to make it to a launch party. The open question is whether other artists can manage a similar feat without Radiohead’s resources or the aid of what seems like novelty.

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