Radiohead’s In Rainbows is digitally released within 24 hours from this point. Let’s hope it’s not in 64kbps mono format. The last thing the blogosphere needs right now is another clueless outsider blundering in with their personal opinions, but waste not want not.
Since Johnny Greenwood passed on his cheery note at the start of the month the release has been used for anything but musical worth, coming to represent a cipher for the death of something, anything – of the compact disc, of the major label, of download pricing, of the entire infrastructure of the recording industry as we know it. Or just of calm, coherent debate, whichever. For people more excited about the sound then how it’s presented – an alien concept, we know - the greater thing, especially if you’ve grown up in the last ten years of leaking music, record industry panic and consequent advance giveaways and expansion of promo mailing lists, is that here we are one day away from the release of a new album by one of Britain’s most successful band, and more concretely Britain’s most cussedly admired, and outside their inner circle nobody knows what it sounds like bar a few old demos and live performances on YouTube that for all we know could have been reworked as songs the band have previewed live before have been. No press reviews, no stray mp3s, no blogger smugness, nothing. It’s going to be the great shared experience resuscitated, no matter what it supposedly kills off in the interim.
We know plenty of people who have proudly never bought a download. We’re not in that category, but we still value our physical record collection well above our digital one – the permanence, the resonance, the sense that you’ve made the extra effort to support your band/label, the fact your CD collection cannot wipe itself or have a memory to crash. Perhaps this is why it was reported that the discbox was outselling the downloads on day one, if helped by the box’s extra CD and the download site’s inevitable crash, as their official site did when it sold tickets for their last UK tour.
Radiohead, on the other hand, are openly keen on all forms of new technology. When Kid A leaked Johnny Greenwood stopped just short of condoning advance downloading, and that didn’t seem to stop anyone buying the CD on either side of the Atlantic. Radiohead are a special case, though. They have a larger than most army of followers keen to get their hands on anything, and while the sales will be understandably bumped by the publicity and ease of use it’ll be interesting to see by how much, especially if album chatter has it as a less superior product. The Charlatans’ Alan McGee-guided decision to give away their own new album, announced on the same day, is slightly difference - the Charlatans, you’d guess, have said all they’re likely to say musically, and given they sell out large venue tours as a matter of course you have to wonder where McGee got the idea in his statement from that they can make up the shortfall from increased ticket and merchandise sales. Also, Radiohead, the Charlatans, Prince… these are all well off bands (the Charlatans signed a new deal and had their greatest sustained success during the advance-friendly mid-90s) with well established fervent fanbases. By contrast The Crimea, a band who had a small amount of deserved press hype a couple of years ago but most had probably forgotten about by the time they made their second album downloadable for free, didn’t seem to get the same push out of it, failing to come close to selling out the next time they played by us. And there’s another rub - all this hinges on the miracle economy of the live scene, which is already quietly pricing itself out at the top level as much in merchandise (Bat For Lashes’ T-shirts were £12 at the start of the year, after the critical reception but well before the commercial push started) as in ticket price – the press attitude to Led Zeppelin’s £140 tickets seems to be that this is fair enough in The New Musical Climate - and surely cannot continue forever. If venues fall, as they’re starting to in the way of independent record shops due to increased rent from gold nugget-citing landlords, then we’re all in trouble. Radiohead, by the way, have no current touring plans.
What we do wonder is how this squares with the development that’s been going on for the last few years where bands have made their demos freely available and then stood back and waited for fans and labels to pick up. The Arctic Monkeys, yes, but they only started picking up a hardcore fanbase outside Sheffield when the self-funded Five Minutes With… single received airplay and belated NME attention. They still needed a label and records to pay for (they underachieve in the download-only sales chart). Independent markets outside the big four have only one real case study to show they can commercially survive at the moment, and we doubt Enter Shikari managed to fund a widely distributed number four album and a number of national tours on their own solely through word of mouth.
Incidentally, Radiohead’s management told Radio 4 last week that they are now looking for an established label to issue the single CD version of In Rainbows, possibly before the end of the year, when no doubt a decent number of downloaders will upgrade. The cosmic ballet goes on.