In Rainbows – the Radiohead hand grenade

jolly good chaps!

Take a deep breath everyone.

I, like everyone else, was floored by last week’s stunning announcement that Radiohead’s new album In Rainbows is being released this Wednesday exclusively through the band’s website, without a record deal or a physical album in record stores. There’s no question that Radiohead’s move is an important one, but is it truly a revolutionary one, as much of the Internets have declared?

In some ways, no. The band announced later in the week that they are in negotiations with major record labels to put a physical copy of the album into stores sometime in early 2008. This approach was what industry insiders expected Radiohead to do from the beginning, so while it’s perhaps a smart decision, there’s something about it that takes the wind out of In Rainbows’ mystique.

Not to mention that Radiohead’s Internet release is hardly a business strategy that would work for the entire record industry. In fact, it’s a strategy that just happens to fit Radiohead perfectly. They’re a band with an intensely loyal following, global appeal, a renowned live show, a tech-savvy audience, and one who hasn’t relied on video or radio play in years. Hell, in 20/20 hindsight we should have seen this coming long ago.

Still, Radiohead have thrown a grenade into the record industry’s business model, and while it’s hardly a fatal explosion, the blast should still have significant repercussions.

It’s fitting that Radiohead’s announcement came the same week that Jammie Thomas, a mother from Minnesota, was found liable by a federal jury of copyright infringement for sharing music online. Since 2003, record labels have brought legal action against 26,000 people, but Ms. Thomas is the first to actually turn down a settlement and fight the lawsuit in a court of law. She lost, to the tune of $220,000. The lawsuits are the most glaring example – though hardly the only one – of a record industry who has completely failed to find a new business model after its previous model collapsed, and is instead doing everything in its power to put seal Pandora’s box up again.

The record industry’s strategy throughout the CD era had been built on a structure of control. They controlled which songs made the radio, by choosing singles and by imposing a payola structure to push the bands they wanted to push. They controlled their pop artists, building fabricated sensations designed to last just long enough to last through their audience’s puberty. They controlled the recording process, since making a record required technical knowledge and equipment out-of-reach to the average person. And they controlled the publicity machine, the public relations and marketing tools needed to get a band’s music to their potential fans.

The Internet wrenched that control out of the record industry’s hands. They used to control the means of production, distribution and promotion. Now, although they still play an important role in all three, their necessity in each area is non-existent. An artist can make an album with a home studio, release it through the Internet and promote it through the web’s plethora of available tools, like MySpace and blogs. While the record labels are still largely in command of their industry, they are no longer in control.

Radiohead are in control. They’re hardly the first band to make their music available through the Internet, but they are the biggest, most significant band to leave the record industry almost entirely behind in doing so. Yes, they will be pairing with a label to get the album into stores eventually, but the release date that matters is Wednesday. If anything, the band whom I credited with releasing the last genuine ‘event’ album has found a way to resurrect the concept for the new digital age. This Wednesday (well, Tuesday night for us North Americans), Radiohead’s new album will be heard outside of the band’s inner circle for the very first time. No leaks, no press reviews, just a new album that everyone gets to hear at the same time.

When speaking to Time Magazine about all this, an unnamed record executive said, “This feels like yet another death knell. If the best band in the world doesn’t want a part of us, I’m not sure what’s left for this business.” The question of whether Radiohead are actually the best band in the world is up for debate – talk to me on Wednesday about that – but, to steal a line from Larry Mullen Jr., they are “the biggest little cult band in the world.” They’re a band that’s able to survive the changing tide because they’ve built a small army of people who believe in them and their music, not because of the record industry but in spite of it.

Now, Radiohead are hardly a top-selling artist that is going to make or break the record industry. Also, like most major artists, Radiohead got to their current position through the industry’s support, and the business model they’re pushing is completely unproven for a band starting from scratch. But they are the kind of successful, respected band whom the record industry depends on for legitimacy. The labels may rely on the disposable pop acts for the bottom line, but they need to be able to show artists and consumers alike that they can also nurture a long-term successful, integrity-driven career. Fans need to believe that their favourite band could become the next Beatles, the next Zeppelin, the next U2, or the next Radiohead.

When the most respected band of their generation breaks away on their own, what reason is there for anyone to trust the system anymore?

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