CONFIDENCE: The content of In Rainbows has been overshadowed by the method of its release — too bad, it’s pretty good.
At 7 pm a week ago Tuesday — midnight in the UK — the growing gap between the shabby, brick-and-mortar world we all inhabit and the sleek, digital one we’ve all been promised widened just a bit, as Radiohead released their seventh album, In Rainbows, to anyone with an e-mail address, a credit card, and some spare change. The British band had let their Capitol/EMI deal run its course, and rather than signing to a new label, they opted to make a 10-track version of In Rainbows available at www.inrainbows.com, for as much — or as little — as fans were willing to pay. By Friday, according to what guitarist Jonny Greenwood told the UK press, more than a million of those fans had “purchased” the disc, assuring the credit-card companies of their processing fee. And you figure the band were in good shape too, because Radiohead are the kind of outfit fans just don’t want to let down. As one friend joked when the issue of how much to pay came up, “Remember: Thom Yorke is watching — and judging — you.”
Exploiting the good faith of fans is nothing new. Bands and record labels have been doing that with repackaged greatest-hits collections and merch ever since making music became big business. But by Wednesday afternoon, it was clear that Radiohead were breaking new ground by offering the downloadable version of the album as a teaser for a much bigger purchase: a “discbox” with In Rainbows on CD and on two 12-inch heavyweight vinyl LPs, as well a bonus-enhanced CD featuring “more new songs along with digital photographs and artwork,” all encased in a “hardback book and slipcase.” There’s a handsome photo of the discbox, which will go for £40 (or a little over $80), up at www.inrainbows.com, as well as the promise that it will ship “on or before December 3.”
This all makes good sense. CDs have to be manufactured and shipped all over the world; it’s the rare artist who gets rich on royalties from the label. Whatever Radiohead receive directly from those million fans who’ve downloaded In Rainbows won’t be chicken feed. It will, however, be icing on the big, tall cake of the discbox, since the $80 will also go directly to the band. It’s also worth noting that at 160 kilobytes per second (kbps), the downloadable In Rainbows MP3s aren’t of the highest sound quality — just one more reason to shell out for the discbox. Or you can wait for In Rainbows to turn up in stores on CD sometime next year, once Radiohead have negotiated a deal with a new label. Before all this is over, the band will have had their virtual cake and eaten it, too. They may appear to be giving In Rainbows away, but they’ll be collecting plenty of cash.
The downloading plan was framed as a fairness issue — Radiohead’s way of ensuring that the album leaked in the form they want it leaked, to everyone at the same time. It didn’t quite work out that way: by the time people got the official e-mail link, there were plenty of other places to download the tracks, and at that point you didn’t have to bother paying that credit-card processing fee.