Radiohead: Freedom-Lovers or Publicity Exploiters?

On Thursday, Radiohead released a live video album exclusively on iTunes. The album — called In Rainbows - From the Basement — features the band playing various tracks from its new album In Rainbows at the Hospital Studio in Covent Gardens in the U.K.

This comes as the latest in a string of brand-altering moves for Radiohead –- for better or for worse. Depending on what side of the fence you’re on, this is a band that is always searching for a new creative approach to business, music, and socially responsible music and business — or this is a band, like any other, that is exploitive and simply in the game to make a buck.

Three weeks ago, Radiohead finally "gave in" and agreed to sell their songs individually on iTunes. Until then, the band had refused to offer their songs as singles; like The Beatles, their philosophical approach to recording was holistic, believing that, together, the songs on an album form a "gestalt" — something more than the sum of its parts. Jay-Z had also taken the concept album approach — like that of Ziggy Stardust and Tommy — to his album American Gangster (inspired by the film), declining to sell singles on iTunes.

The motivation behind the Radiohead’s acquiescence seems due in part to the radical alteration of their approach to music management.

The transformation began in 2003, when the band opted not to re-sign with EMI after Hail to the Thief and the completion of their 6-record contract. According to Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s frontman, the band simply wanted "more control" over their own work and how EMI would use their material in the future. So they did what anyone in their position would do: they left. Seems simple enough, but this move was truly paradigm shifting for the music industry, inspiring many bands to follow suit.

Then, last fall, Radiohead shocked the music industry by proffering In Rainbows on a Radiohead-affiliated website, allowing fans to pay as much or as little as they wanted. Naturally, this innovative new business model was touted as revolutionary. Since then, Radiohead has not only begun offering singles and a live video album on iTunes, they’ve also established a music video contest and an open source remix competition.

As part of the remix competition, Radiohead granted fans access to the stems — or the parts of a multitrack recording, e.g. the bassline or vocals — of "Nude" (a song from In Rainbows), for a small fee and allowed them to remix the song with their own equipment. The remixes could be added to the site, where fans could then vote on their favorite re-takes. Over 2,200 remixes were uploaded in the first week and hundreds of thousands of fans placed votes. (One art student missed the deadline but made this video of old singing hardware and was subsequently inundated with job offers.)

For the video contest (which began in April and is still ongoing), Radiohead invited fans to make animated videos for any of the songs on In Rainbows — no expertise necessary. Again, fans voted on the videos to pick their ten favorites, and three additional videos were chosen by judges. The thirteen finalists will be given $1000 to create a one-minute concept-short. From those, the band will then pick the winner, who will receive $10K and will be chosen to direct the band’s next music video.

It seems that Radiohead, now that they have full control over their brand and artistic content, has the ability to open their material to collaborative interaction with their fans. The ethos behind their new self-management strategy appears to be the democratization of music, right? Of course, these contests — and simply the fact that Radiohead originally offered In Rainbows for free — has given the band an enormous amount of exposure and marketing power. Some are no doubt wondering if the band is actually using these "democratic phenomena" to make more money. And some claim that Thom Yorke has even gone so far as to suggest that the whole event was simply a publicity stunt. I cannot confirm or deny this, though I will say, I hope for Radiohead’s sake there is something more behind it than cold, calculating greed.

Naturally, some musicians aren’t too happy about Radiohead's metamorphosis. Face-paint enthusiasts like Gene Simmons of Kiss insist that Radiohead — along with music fans — have helped to murder the music industry with their free-loving ways: "[Radiohead’s] decision is contributing to the demise of the record industry… It’s six feet underground and unfortunately the fans have done this. They’ve decided to download and file share. [Right now,] there is no record industry around so we’re going to wait until everybody settles down and becomes civilised."

Stunt or no stunt, Radiohead has taken leaps and bounds toward democratizing music. More and more bands are joining in the chorus-of-free-music. It's almost an exodus. Record labels beware, fans have tasted the fruit and no doubt they’ll be wanting more. Much more.

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