Wednesday marked a pivotal step forward for music as an art form, courtesy of Radiohead. The U.K. band released its much-anticipated album, “In Rainbows,” with an unexpected marketing twist. Typically, modern music is leaked weeks and even months before the album is officially released, mostly through illegal means, when record labels and PR firms send music to publications to be reviewed. With “In Rainbows,” this was not the case. At exactly midnight on Wednesday, the album was released online as an MP3 download. It marked the first time in years that the music community - critics, pirates and fans alike - collectively experienced a musical phenomenon.
And it certainly is a phenomenon. Four years have gone by since Radiohead released its last album, “Hail to the Thief.” After touring in 2004, the band went on an unofficial hiatus. In 2005, lead vocalist Thom Yorke and guitarist Jonny Greenwood played a new song, “Arpeggi,” at the London Ether Festival. Later that year Yorke played an acoustic set at the Trade Justice Rally and debuted never-recorded tracks. In 2006, Yorke released his solo LP, “The Eraser,” and sent Radiohead fans into a tizzy, as many suspected that the release of the album signaled the band’s breakup. When September came around, Radiohead buckled down, assured fans it wasn’t breaking up and began recording with Nigel Godrich, who produced “The Bends,” “Kid A” and “Hail to the Thief.” By the end of the year, the band wrapped up its third month of recording alongside Godrich at several locales in rural England, and it wasn’t until August 2007 that the album was mastered in New York City.
On Oct. 1, Radiohead mysteriously posted an announcement on its blog revealing the title, track list and release dates of “In Rainbows,” its seventh studio album. With its release, Radiohead has not associated with any record label and had complete control of not only when the album was going to be released, but also the method of release. What is even stranger about the album’s MP3 release is that the buyer decides the price. When purchasing “In Rainbows,” one is forced to declare their desired price in addition to a credit card transaction fee, which sums up to $0.91, and if one does not wish to pay a single cent for the album, the fee is waived.
Those who yearn for a traditional CD copy of “In Rainbows” will have to wait until early 2008. In the box, buyers will find a physical copy of the album along with two 12 inch heavyweight vinyl records with an accompanying artwork and lyric booklet, as well as a second enhanced CD that will contain eight additional tracks with digital photos and art. Discboxes will arrive packaged in a hardcover book and slipcase and will cost buyers $82.
After four years of recording, the group clearly isn’t insecure about its work, at least enough to offer “In Rainbows” to the mass marketplace for any value one wants. Confidence is something Radiohead rightfully possesses, as its albums “Pablo Honey,” “The Bends” and “Kid A” went platinum, and “OK Computer” did so twice. Regardless, this is a potentially hazardous experiment. But if Radiohead’s marketing strategy for “In Rainbows” turns out to be a success, the band will have authored a revolutionary approach to releasing music.