Radiohead had become a moving target by OK Computer their third release. After that drastic change in style more stylistic changes seemed to follow with each release afterward. Suddenly sounding like Radiohead was becoming more difficult thanks to the band rapid sonic evolution.
The record industry itself would experience rapid disruptive change. With the release of Radiohead’s seventh studio album In Rainbows, a new distrubution model would take shape. Self released after the band’s contract with EMI, In Rainbows represented a new and frightening development for major record companies: direct to customer distrubition and name your own price. While letting consumers decide what price to pay may have seem like a gimmick, even the most modest fair price would have been more profitable than the standard big record company distribution deal.
In Rainbows charms went well beyond the $10 I paid for my copy, it was once again another musically adventurous album from the leading rock band of the moment. There were four singles each of them showing a different side of a new sound that was made richer by the inclusion of exotic instruments.
Produced by Nigel Godrich, the so-called ‘sixth member’ of the band, In Rainbows was recorded over a two-year period, between concert dates. The prolonged span of time is heard in the attention to detail in the song writing and recording process. There were also a series of cutting edge videos, especially for the song “House of Cards” that were featured prominitly on MTV (when they were playing music).
Like a familiar melody from the ’60s it reminded me of OK Computer in many ways but not as adventuresome. One of the albums best tracks “House of Cards”, features a haunting chorus with a melody made sharper by the big echos of Thom Yorks voice.
Another song “All I Need” featured a Moog bass like keyboard sound that could have been taken from any number of ’70s prog rock albums. The dramatic layered effect building up to a climax was not unlike a late ’80s U2 song.
In Rainbows was a smash success both commercially and critically. It forced record companies to take note of possible digital distribution channels and foreshadowed further disruptions on a business model created in the 1930s. As Radiohead albums go, In Rainbows is firmly in my top 3. A lot of critics thought the same putting it at the top of the best of lists of the year.
Its importance to the music industry was in showing that even the biggest and most popular of bands could benifit from a business model used by bootleggers. Suprisingly the direct digital download model was not replicated by other high profile artist (without the same level of success). Prince tried a similar tactic, but he was reaching out mostly to his devoted fan club.I guess I’m a bit old-fashioned in that I will buy a physical copy of my favorite artist music. Many of whom are on indie labels or sell directly from their websites anyway.
For me the thrill of having physical artwork, liner notes and uncompressed sound trumps the convience of a digital download. My original download of In Rainbows was only 192 kbps. I ended up buying it again on physical media about a year later once it was distributed as either a CD or LP.
If getting good music directly to fans requires more digital self distribution, I’m all for it as longs as the results sound as good as In Rainbows.