The music industry in freefall. Or: The lesser-noted point about Radiohead

Posted by: Helen Walters on January 7, 2008

One thing that should be noted which seems to have been missed in all the excitement about Radiohead’s pay-what-you-will experiment, is that the band hasn’t eschewed the music industry altogether. In contrast, it’s partnered with labels XL and TBD for the physical release of In Rainbows.

But looks like the amicable break-up with EMI hasn’t lasted, and the vitriolic sparks are beginning to fly.

A recent article in the Times of London catalogued complaints from EMI and new boss Guy Hands, head of private equity firm Terra Firma, regarding Radiohead’s demands for “an extraordinary amount of money” before releasing another album. Yorke and co were greedy, unreasonable and irresponsible, the story went.

Well, in the new era of open response, Yorke and co promptly took issue and the singer has used the band blog as a way to respond: “we did not ask for a load of cash from our old record label EMI to re- sign. that is a L I E. The Times in the UK should check its facts before it prints such dirt,” he writes. “whAT we WANTED WAS some control over OUR WOrK and how it was used in the future by them-that seemed REASONAblE to us, as we cared about it a great deal. Mr Hands was not interested. So neither were we.”

Here’s the kicker: “we took no ‘BRead-HEAd’ advances at all from both independent labels XL and TBD for our new record… AND we are really excited to be working with them. SHock! AT least they do not behave like confused bulls in a china shop.”

Confused bulls in a china shop. Ouch. That’s got to hurt. The problem for the music business is that this is clearly just a high-profile beginning of a whole new era. The industry needs a far-reaching business model revolution… and fast.

PS This was all prompted by a weekend spent catching up on Radiohead’s New Year’s Eve album/video presentation of In Rainbows, which enhances the band’s attitude perfectly. Simple visual design, no fuss, no frills, the lean, pared-down, ultra-focused visual approach is a great antidote to the bloat. And a continued evolution from a band which has traditionally invested a lot of time, effort and money in its video presentations (just one example is the still-extraordinary Street Spirit, shot by Jonathan Glazer, who went on to direct films such as Sexy Beast — I embedded the file after the jump and it’s WELL worth a look if you’ve never seen it before.)

Here's Street Spirit:

Reader Comments

Pete Mortensen

January 8, 2008 1:54 AM

Now this is a post I can get into. I think your analysis is spot on. Radiohead never meant for pay what you wish to be the whole of their income from "In Rainbows." It was just their way to make some money off of the inevitable leak to the Internet, which happened with their previous two records.

Interestingly, their agreements with TBD and XL is identical to the model pioneered by the Arcade Fire prior to signing with Merge in 2004. The band owns the masters, but enjoys the benefits of having someone else handle the channel and distribution. What Radiohead's home proves is that it works for both complete unknowns (Arcade Fire) and huge, established groups (Radiohead).

The way that the labels used to do record deals makes less and less sense. David Byrne writes about this -- and the four other business models in music right now -- in the most recent Wired. I think it's the best article about entertainment in the file-sharing age yet published. Essential reading: http://www.wired.com/entertainment/music/magazine/16-01/ff_byrne

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Meanwhile onto videos: Ah, "Street Spirit." When I was in college, the video collection "Seven Television Commercials" was in constant rotation in my dorm room. The video for "Just" is still my favorite clip ever; Jamie Thraves is brilliant, and that video stuck with me in high school. And, like Glazer, he's finally making his first feature, "Cry of the Owl," due next year. Just: http://youtube.com/watch?v=R5X7HKxpiQA

My favorite Radiohead-related Glazer video has always been "Rabbit in Your Headlights" from UNKLE's Psyence Fiction record. Thom Yorke singing with DJ Shadow and an absolutely brilliant concept. Thinking about the end gives me chills. For anyone who's not seen it: http://youtube.com/watch?v=Z3ClCwcCvdQ

The band's recent videos don't do much for me. I liked the intent behind the social media blips thing they did for "Kid A," but I think it derailed the most fertile interplay between visual and auditory media we had seen since the hey-day of the Talking Heads. Ah, the good old days...

Helen Walters

January 8, 2008 10:18 AM

Hi Pete, A fan, I see ;)

Thanks for the great links and the reminders of some really amazing videos. Radiohead really pushed the boundaries of what was expected (and possible) with some of their early audio-visual work. I love the fact that they're really going back to basics now, even as I enjoyed a nostalgic moment for the golden era of the pop promo (Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham also knocked it out of the park back then.)

Did you read this quorum hosted in the Times last year? Also an interesting take on the goings on of the record industry. I'm particularly interested in Peter Rojas' experiments with Rcrdlbl.com: http://freakonomics.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/09/20/whats-the-future-of-the-music-industry-a-freakonomics-quorum/

Finally, did you see There Will Be Blood? I am currently embroiled in various fights with friends over the score. I didn't know who'd written it til I hung around for the credits -- and deliberately did so because it had annoyed me so much. To me, the score was so histrionic, so bombastic, it overwhelmed the visuals and I found it hard to concentrate on the amazing film unfolding in front of me. It was beautiful, powerful music -- inappropriate in the context. So imagine my horror and conflicted feelings as an unabashed Radiohead fan to find that much was written by one Jonny 'Radiohead' Greenwood.

I find myself in a minority of one on this matter currently -- everyone else I know loved the soundtrack, with one friend describing it as its own character in the film, which I liked as a description even as I disagree with that as a filmic strategy. Anyway, a good reminder of how powerful and important the intangible can be, and a brilliant film all the same. Have you seen it? Love to know what you thought...

Pete Mortensen

January 8, 2008 2:30 PM

Haven't seen there will be blood yet -- definitely high on my list, though. I love PTA and, usually, Jonny. Will definitely let you know my thoughts on the score.

I'd also missed the Times quorom -- added it to my del.icio.us reading. Good for a rainy day.

michael

January 8, 2008 6:04 PM

Radiohead could have AT LEAST doubled their profit just by having a decent and usable website from which to sell the initial release of In Rainbows. I got the album for free only because I didn't trust that amateurish piece of crap with my Credit Card number.

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