Friday, October 19, 2007

Radiohead: Breaking Records and Labels

RADIOHEAD. The most influential band in the world today. THE cutting edge. By turns, profound. Timeless. Experimental. Provocative. Innovative. And unpredictable. Ya just never know what they'll do next. Like give away their latest album.

It's like a thumb to the eye of the recording industry, as they bounce the studios' heads off of the turnbuckle, and prepare for the Atomic Knee Drop, head butt, and coup de grace piledriver bodyslam, taking the tasteless record execs, greedy opportunists, and useless sycophants of the music business to the mat for a final submission hold.

You've heard us rail about it- the great bands that labor in obscurity, who can't get airplay because they don't have a single, a record deal with label that supports them, or have somebody cute enough to sell "product" in a sufficient number of "units" to compete with the American Idol pre-fab crowd of canned, calculated, and coached performances, packaged for market along with a signature line of clothes, hair and grooming supplies, tabloid headlines, and colognes.

Finally somebody with some pull is actually doing something about it- and a lot of other artists may take a cue from them, and start cutting out the middle man this way, too. Radiohead will provide you a link to download their new album, In Rainbows, for however much you wish to pay. So you can get it for a penny, plus the obligatory $1 download cost. However, there are a couple of catches:

1. The deluxe edition, which will contain both a 2 CD and a 2 LP set, pictures, artwork, lyrics, and other goodies runs a steep £40.00 (that's about $82.00 American at the current rate of exchange). A complimentary copy of the download is also included, so you don't have to wait until December 3rd to hear the album.
2. The deluxe edition also contains 8 more songs that are not part of the download, including a number of songs that they've featured in live performances in various renditions, under various names, for as much as ten years.
3. The mp3 download edition may not be playable on all equipment. I had to download an mp3 converter that would translate the album to WAV files, so that it would play on my CD/DVD player and laptop. Well, I actually downloaded 3 before I found one that would work. Many of the freeware/shareware downloads out there only work for a limited number of songs or files, before you're obliged to buy the licensed version. (I used the EASE Audio Converter, which will only let you do up to five songs at a time, save them to your hard drive, get the rest of the tracks, and then convert and copy to your burning program.) The whole process should take less than an hour, unless you're even more technology challenged than me, in which case, good luck!
4. Some people had problems seeing the download links and accessing the music, and there were reported complaints due to the initial rush from fans that tied up servers when the album was released on October 10. I used Firefox, and I had no problems.

So there are still a few bugs and glitches in the system, but it seems to be a step in the right direction. The artists actually can get the income directly from their fans, which, even after recovering their production costs ought to work out a whole lot better for many of them. With more bands recording live shows while on tour, many having the capability to sell copies of the show that night to appreciative fans, the same kind of grass roots, do-it-yourself ethic could easily be adopted for studio projects as well. Bands stand to reap a lot more from purchases made directly through their own websites than from royalties doled out by a monolithic conglomerate that only rewards artists selling multi-platinum, and won't support new talent.

You don't have to be Radiohead to break the cycle and do this, but it sure doesn't hurt. However, even bands that don't have the established reputation or following can have this work for them, too. But, perhaps the best part of it is that this album's on a par with some of their best work. Reckoner and Jigsaw Falling Into Place struck me right away, while Weird Fishes/Arpeggi and House of Cards have a more delicate, lilting sound, evoking moments from The Bends' Fake Plastic Trees, High and Dry, or even Exit Music (For a Film), but with the swirling ambience of There There or Where I End and You Begin, from Hail to the Thief, thrown in for good measure. The more raw sound of Bodysnatchers could have fit somewhere in between Kid A and Amnesiac. The production here is a little more spare than on those records, and suits the material. Not to say that Radiohead has lost their interest in experimentation. Some of the soundscapes over which Yorke lays his trademark haunting vocals are spectacular, and different than anything I've ever heard them do before. The newly recorded songs should seem familiar, as they have been played live and appeared on countless bootlegs over the last several years.

The technology is there. The band continues to grow and evolve with each new release. So long as Radiohead maintains the continually high standard of quality, unique style, and thoughtful insights that set them apart from the pack, I'll gladly pick up anything they put their name on, sight unseen. And, oh yeah, I did spring for that deluxe edition, and will be counting the days until it arrives. But you probably already knew that.

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