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In Rainbows: A Free Album? I Don't Buy It: The Stop Smiling Review

The Stop Smiling Review

The greeting at


Monday, October 15, 2007

By A S H Smyth

Hello everyone.

Well, the new album is finished, and it's coming out in 10 days;

We've called it
In Rainbows.

Love from us all

Since this masterfully understated announcement appeared on Radiohead’s blog two week ago, the media frenzy surrounding In Rainbows has put the album on the evening news, seen the release discussed at the Royal Society of Arts and made Radiohead the focus of a debate over the future of the entire music industry. Not bad for an unsigned band.

Despite months of speculation about an impending seventh album, the band’s website crashed repeatedly last week as fans rushed to the source of the news. The album – Radiohead’s first in four years — would be out on October 10th, available as a download or in a made-to-order box-set.

A couple more days, and even my mother knew about it. In Rainbows was officially A Big Story.

Even bigger, though, was the revelation that the album could be downloaded — legally — for nothing. Rien. Nada. Zip. Sure, you pay a nominal fee for credit-card processing. But apart from that, nothing. “It’s up to you,” says the little red sign on the webpage. “No, really, it’s up to you.”

So, have tens of thousands of fans downloaded the album for nothing? It seems not. Though a few have confessed to (or rejoiced in) paying the absolute minimum, the majority are apparently paying, on average, a little over $10 — about what you’d pay for any of Radiohead’s back catalogue at Virgin Megastore.

Wonderfully non-conformist though it undoubtedly is, Radiohead’s so-called “honesty-box” principle is also a massive double bluff, a smoke-and-mirrors trick that garners them all the kudos for raging against the machine, but with none of the risk.

Delighted by the invitation to ascribe their own value to an album they’ve not heard, fans are falling over themselves to be unnecessarily generous in their outlay. They especially appreciate the idea that the middlemen of the music corporations have been cut out of the loop. (“When I am king you will be first against the wall”?) Out of contract since their deal with EMI/Parlophone expired, Radiohead’s decision to take In Rainbows straight to the consumers is being perceived as a sign of “loyalty” to their fan base. In return, the fans enjoy being able to put money straight into Thom Yorke’s pocket.

[Economic NB, though: I’ll bet our perceptions of value are still close enough to the retail price that no-one has paid more than $30 for the download.]

So far, so noble. But none of this amounts to Radiohead “giving away” their album, or even really “taking a risk.”


Without EMI/Parlophone to pinch most of their earnings, and minus the usual hassles of printing and distributing CDs, Radiohead will pocket the overwhelming majority of the takings from sales of In Rainbows. Having made the download cheaper than a Malaysian pirate copy, they may actually sell (and profit from) more legit copies of this album than of any of the six releases before it.

Prior to the release, Radiohead’s spokesperson said that, in fact, most orders had been for the exorbitantly-priced box-set (two CDs, two vinyl albums, lyrics and artwork). Not unlikely: Most geek fans will seek out the “limited edition” of any album, and most Radiohead fans — emulating the band’s own contrarian standard — are proud geeks. At a little over $80 a throw, sales of this collectors’ edition should absorb the impact of the thousands who choose to pay only $1.

And it’s not just Radiohead fans who hanker after the tangible product. “I own the Radiohead album, but I haven’t got it,” laments Andrew Collins, the Radio Times’ film editor. “I don’t really understand that.” His anxiety is shared by music lovers the world over, who know that a record is an object, not just its contents.

No, Radiohead weren’t ever likely to lose any money on this one. The record companies, on the other hand, are taking a bit of a beating. It’s one thing when start-up bands flirt with YouTube, but when big names start circumventing the record stores, that has stock market repercussions.

The idea that this is “the death of the music industry,” though, is rubbish, churned out by headline-writers who can’t distinguish between the music industry and the record industry. The music industry — classical included — is thriving, with increasing millions being spent on concerts and festivals every year. The record industry may well be on the way out. But why mourn its passing? Have you seen what they charge for a three-disc opera these days?

Some industry pundits see Radiohead’s model as the future of music “sales,” but there’s little point the record fellahs getting their nickers in a twist. Radiohead are one of about 10 living bands who could have pulled off a coup like this without the publicity budget of a major record label behind them. It’s hardly indicative of where the entire system has gone. Not yet, anyway.


Oh. The album? Well, y’know, it’s Radiohead. Thom Yorke’s ethereal, slightly-asthmatic tones still make him sound a little like the world’s most listless avenging angel, complemented as ever by Jonny Greenwood’s knows-no-bounds guitar orchestration.

Stabbing syncopated tracks, just waiting to be remixed (blasphemy, I know); the relentless aggression and adrenaline that made the great singles on OK Computer; a little of that trademark miserable clarity so suited to rainy November evenings. A few tracks seem to ask (ever-so-beautifully) if you’d ever considered suicide in an airport car-park; but a few are pretty invigorating.

Musically, no surprises. But then who hoped there would be? Last time Radiohead fans wanted surprises, they got Kid A, which made for difficult karaoke.

But you don’t need me to tell you about the music. Have a listen for yourself. After all, it’s free.



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