First of all, I’ll dispense with the normal copy that this record gets: Yes, it used an almost-unprecedented pay-what-you-want system. It was released sight-unseen onto the online market, far before a physical copy was available. The band managed this distribution themselves. They didn’t need a record label, and yet the album’s downloads (and to some extent, the income they generated) were significant. This was a brilliant idea, but somewhat of a dead end. Radiohead moved on, and used a traditional pay structure for their next album’s download.
Many unique distribution methods were dreamt up in the 2000s. With the democratization of content, the proliferation of speedy internet data, and fragmentation of consumer bases into hyphenated sub-subgenres, it was the one new frontier available for innovation. Jack White went to comical lengths to manipulate accessibility, packing some recordings into the upholstery of an unspecified number of couches and literally releasing some pressings tied to high-altitude balloons, some of which were probably lost forever. Others went about this in a more measured, reasonable way. Bjork quietly released a bunch of interactive apps to coincide and meld with Biophilia’s songs, a strategy that cleverly used cutting-edge technology to change music, and of course it was completely ignored by the public. Some event albums were preemptively leaked one song at a time, as a way to create buzz and outdo the inevitable fan-driven leaks that would occur.
Releases were promoted with online content and marketed with every kind of flash-in-the-pan service you can imagine. Viral videos became a huge tool for this kind of product integration. Fan-made crowd-sourcing became a huge boon for artists trying to connect with their base, as it was publicity and media kit all in one for very little cost.
Back to In Rainbows: I’ll always remember the day and week this record was released, because it was perhaps the last event album of our age. The band constructed this “happening” in an ingenious way: by manipulating our very culture of information overload. They kept everything hush-hush, delocated to a secret location to refresh and rewire, and then dropped the bombshell out of nowhere with an internet infrastructure to support it, including the download site, multimedia content and fan-made videos. The public had no choice but to react to the news and the music in the moment, sharing the experience of listening to a carefully constructed sequence of songs for the first time together. (The band did a similar thing with The King Of Limbs, only the inverse: carefully parceling out every aspect of the production, from TV appearances to supplementary materials to singles, so that the hubbub lasted way longer than a typical record cycle.)
Yes, this is sort of an excuse to put one more Radiohead album in my pantheon, but besides this momentous context, it’s just a fabulous, surprisingly rhythmic and soulful LP that shows Radiohead trying out one last evolution. Plus, one could also convincingly make the case that In Rainbows was the death of the “album” (a signifier that could be pinned on basically anything from the last eight years, but we may as well put it here). And in all the time since, nothing else has cropped up to really, truly reclaim the mantle of the full-length record. We’re back to an exclusively singles-based market, the same way things were in the 50s before the Beatles came along. It’s funny how cyclical these things are. I can’t wait to see what comes next.
Key track: “Reckoner”