I don't often comment on major news stories here, even when they're reasonably related to my interests and my book. You won't read me reporting on things like Amazon launching a DRM-free music download store, because my guess is that people don't come here for breaking news. Other sites do that better and cover such stories more comprehensively and consistently, so I'd be unwise to try and compete with them. And I especially didn't write about In Rainbows last week because, well, everyone was — and I don't much like Radiohead. But perhaps because no one was talking of anything else last week, my publisher asked for my angle on what was going on. This is what I wrote.
It's very unlikely that Radiohead's In Rainbows will be seen, with hindsight and in the cool light of day, as playing a major part in the overhaul of the recording industry. But in its fan-friendly yet commercially unorthodox presentation (in case you hadn't heard, downloaders are invited to choose how much they will pay for the new album), it is a marketing triumph. It eclipses even the rock aristocracy of Paul McCartney, who sold his latest album through Starbucks, and Prince, whose album was given away with the Mail on Sunday, for the amount of buzz generated across the broadsheet media and the blogosphere. Can there be anyone in the chattering classes, who make up Radiohead's target audience, who could have possibly missed the fact that their new album hit the web last Wednesday? And the advertising spend to achieve this blanket coverage in an era of fragmented channels? Virtually nil. Artists like Sandi Thom showed the power of a good story, weaving together Cinderella's virtue and struggle with the fairytale consummation of a new, more intimate connection with an audience. In the murky forest of record industry woes, Radiohead have spun another tale where we all get to go to the ball while the ugly sisters (major labels) are sidelined for the moment. And boy do we all like telling it!
It will be intriguing to see what major label deal Radiohead are able to strike, as apparently they are seeking to do, in the light of reports that they have already shifted 1.3 million paid-for downloads and a further half a million unpaid filesharing copies. When Prince distributed three million copies of his CD, his label's response was to shelve plans to release the CD officially. Radiohead's case is different because they haven't yet produced a CD version of the album, but how many copies need to be out there before the labels consider the market to be saturated?