What If Radiohead never released a pay-what-you-want album?
'In Rainbows' was a revolution... for better or for worse?
This week HitFix is revisiting some of the key turning points in recent entertainment history and considering what would have happened if history had turned a bit differently. What if...?
By the time Radiohead had prepared and released their October 2007 album “In Rainbows,” the band had released six albums prior. All but one reached platinum status and they’d earned three top 3 albums on The Billboard 200. Radiohead had split with their record home EMI after 2003’s “Hail to the Thief” and yet continued to dominate on tour. Various members including Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood had also released solo and soundtrack projects: it was prime time to realize their value as an indie, thus time for some independent thinking. The British band released their next album “In Rainbows” digitally through their own website via a “pay-what-you-want” scheme. Fans could buy for $0.00. And Radiohead announced it only 10 days ahead of time. They later sold the album by licensing it to various labels, after the world poured out critical acclaim for the pay model (oh, and for the sound of it, too).
What if Radiohead never released a pay-what-you-want album?
Three things that might not have happened:
1. The level of curiosity and enthusiasm for Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want model was nothing short of bonkers. No band similar in scale and reach of Radiohead had ever tried such a scheme before, and so even with the short launch period, the hysteria likely propelled digital and physical sales and tens of thousands of orders for the deluxe discbox of “In Rainbows.” Pre-sales for the pay-what-you-want period alone (Oct. 10–Dec. 10 in 2007) made more money for the band than all of the sales of “Hail to the Thief,” thanks to the deafening word-of-mouth. In January 2008, the band still managed to earn No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with the release of an album they essentially put up for free three months prior -- and without a record label’s marketing division... or radio play or a traditional single or the usual three-month album promotion cycle.
2. No doubt, “In Rainbows” is an excellent Radiohead album by any standard. They hadn’t been exactly ignored by the Recording Academy, but the Grammys haven’t always been kind to indies. The most nominations any Radiohead album received prior to their noble experiment? Two in a year. For the 2009 awards: five, including one win. Innovation is its own reward, but it was more than just critical glow that pushed Radiohead into the ballot box over 2008.
3. Radiohead’s pay-what-you-want model was a re-thinking of the value of a simple download (“$0 or $100, who cares!”), and putting more emphasis on the physical and limited edition releases. Additionally, had “In Rainbows” dropped in the usual way, there wouldn’t have been the same rush of “me firsties” to their website and into the larger marketplace, which put a higher value on being first in line to hear the water cooler album of the year. Had the band not tried what they tried, the conversation on what a download should cost in the American marketplace might sound very different today.
Three things we predict might have happened:
1. Had the band simply self-released “In Rainbows” as an independent in the usual iTunes/Amazon/Best Buy way, that thing would have leaked. You know this. The critical discussion of it would be altered from “look what they did” to “welcome back after 4 years” then a little extra talk on that Kanye “Graduation” album.
2. Radiohead might have started splitting up their albums and output into EPs and singles, or at least try it a lot earlier. Yorke noted around the time of “Rainbows,” they were tired of the traditional method of releasing albums after their contract with EMI was done. Perhaps there’d be more music from the band and its members a lot sooner, if in less quantity.
3. Other pay-what-you-want, free or crowd-funded “sales” styles would have taken a lot longer to warm up. The great demand for a good new Radiohead album was, luckily, in supply; its success helped fuel the discussion on Nine Inch Nails’ (so-so) “Ghosts I-IV” and “The Slip,” for instance. “In Rainbows” wasn’t Kickstarter, but it was crowd-supported -- if only labels could bottle that up and sell it. It was such a rare, singular and spectacular occurrence, it was proof that it could be done: that one could piss off retailers and still yet empower other indies.
Did history work out for the best?
Despite the creative rut the band endured in creating “In Rainbows,” the album didn’t have to get final approval from a label, nor did its sales model have to sift down through the fingers of company shareholders. Radiohead found their feet and an updated sonic palate to make the album that they wanted, when they wanted, and get to keep most of the money afterward. If it weren’t for their indie revolution, they may not have sounded the same on spontaneous (and short) album “King of Limbs,” indulged in remix albums, one-off singles, new blood in the studio and on tour and given a whirl to projects like Atoms for Peace. At the same time, Yorke has said even as recently as last week that music looks, on paper, may look like it’s worthless. Redefining “worth” through one visionary act may be worthwhile to the band, but for other bands who can’t afford or trust pay-what-you-want as a norm, it's now a harder sell to music lovers who only paid a buck for that Radiohead set.