What is interesting about In Rainbows is that, for all the talk of it being a bold career move, it kind of isn’t one, or at least, not at this point in Radiohead’s career. It’s the seventh studio record from one of the biggest rock bands of the last 15 years; by now, you probably all ready have an inkling of where you fall on the Thom Yorke love/hate chart. And while the reported 1.2 million downloads were probably not all paid for, it doesn’t even really matter if they were all free. The band can recoup any losses through touring, merchandise and royalties from its big bad Capitol years. Radiohead doesn’t need to sell records; it needs to make music, which some daring souls would say is the point of creating art in the first place.
Elsewhere, though, those with an Internet connection can find dozens of earlier examples of DIY online. Before breaking up (and then reforming…), The Smashing Pumpkins’ supposed 2000 swan song, MACHINA II/the friends & enemies of music, was released online by fans, under order of frontman Billy Corgan himself, with only 25 vinyl copies of the album being created prior. Hundreds of acts premiere their albums online, either through their personal sites (NIN, Weezer, Harvey Danger) or through online communities like MySpace (every emo/pop punk band since like 2004). Some acts have always existed with a free-or-close-it ethic, though. Acts like Bomb the Music Industry! and Songs to Wear Pants to have always made their work available online. BtMI! lives off of donations, while StWPt occasionally sells fans the privilege of co-authoring songs via eBay.
Where Radiohead is a trendsetter, however, is that is arguably the biggest act to push for a primarily online, haggle-style priced record. A deluxe physical copy of the record will ship sometime around December 2007, but for the most part, this is strictly an online beast. Where The Smashing Pumpkins went online because they didn’t give a darn, Radiohead is trying to change the rules of how music is obtained, which is probably a good thing. But it might not be! There could be a downside! And it could be this:
While technically “illegal,” payola in media still exists. Payola is when a company pays a heck of a lot of money to get its songs played on radio, TV, etc. It’s been banned for a while, but there is a third party loophole that allows it to thrive, in which independent promotional companies make offers to media outlets to play specific songs. This is why Audioslave was big in its day, despite no one actually liking Audioslave over, say, Rage Against the Machine or Soundgarden. While Radiohead on its own will be OK, it is doubtful that the band will be able to throw cash at every outlet out there, effectively removing it from various channels. Now, this doesn’t matter for Radiohead. Those guys are rich, famous and adored.
But who will be hurt is the 13-year-old kid who has yet to unplug from the Matrix. Now, this isn’t the kind of Matrix where you can learn kung fu instantaneously, fly like Superman and have sexy make-outs with Carrie-Anne Moss. No, this is the kind of Matrix where your ears are violated by Chris Daughtry, Nickelback and Hinder. Even with the comfort of classic rock, it’s going to be just a little bit harder to find good music, or at least initially.At the same time, though, removing acts like Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails from the mainstream is a good thing. These are high profile artists here; their absence is going to hit Capitol and Interscope pretty hard. The major label industry has continued to use one high selling release to justify hundreds of not-so-good ones, and that’s going to be harder to pull off now. Perhaps this movement from rock bands will force the industry to revamp such a business model. Perhaps it will also force the industry to more seriously consider the viability of online music. High school students today are living in a world that, to them at least, has always had illegal downloading; it’s about time the industry tried to cut them a deal instead of suing them. As per usual, the revolution will not be televised, but you can find online for free.