Hail To The King Of Limbs

(Note: As many of my other entries on this blog make abundantly clear, I’m a pretty big Radiohead fan. I’ve been eagerly anticipating the release of LP8 for a pretty long time. So now, with The King Of Limbs just days away from being unleashed, I offer my thoughts on Radiohead’s new online distribution model after the jump.)

On September 30, 2007, Radiohead took the entire music industry by surprise with a simple blog post by guitarist Jonny Greenwood on the band’s website. “Hello everyone,” he wrote. “Well, the new album is complete, and it’s coming out in 10 days; we’ve called it In Rainbows. Love from us all.” There had been little, if any, indication that In Rainbows was even finished, let alone ready for release… and all of a sudden, there it was.

Ten days later, In Rainbows arrived as promised with an offer that’s kept people talking years after its release – the famous “pay-what-you-want” model. As a big-name band whose last album marked the end of their contract with EMI, Radiohead became “free agents” in a unique position to experiment with how music could be released and promoted. The band said they did it to preempt the efforts of anyone trying to leak it; each of the last four albums associated with them (Kid A, Amnesiac, Hail To The Thief, and Thom Yorke’s solo album The Eraser) had been leaked online, so why not just do it themselves?

“Mouse Dog Bird”

(Yeah, I know… it’s a weird title.)

It’s also interesting to look at the In Rainbows experiment from a more sociological perspective. We live in the age of iTunes and digital piracy, where people are constantly trying to find free downloads of their favorite songs or just buying the songs they like at a buck apiece. And yet here was a band letting you, the consumer, be you a diehard fan or a curious newcomer, decide how much their entire new album was worth – even if you wanted it for free. After all, who gave Apple or Best Buy the right to tell you the value of your favorite music? Power to the people!

Now flash forward to Valentine’s Day, 2011. It looks like Radiohead’s up to their old tricks again – their new album, The King Of Limbs, will be available online this Saturday. The pay-what-you-want model, which the band acknowledged was really just a one-time thing (they even closed the online shop about two months later), has been discarded. In its place, however, is an equally fascinating little experiment that raises its own unique questions.

“The Present Tense”

What seems to be lost in the shuffle amid the media’s “OMG NEW RADIOHEAD ALBUM THIS WEEK” frenzy is that we know absolutely nothing about this record except who made it, what it’s called, and the artwork. We can only speculate what songs will make the cut, or how many songs there will actually be (8 tracks? 10? More?), or even what The King Of Limbs might sound like. All the new material that might be released has only been performed by Thom Yorke solo on piano or guitar. The full-band arrangements remain a mystery, even if you’ve listened to the soundcheck clips of varying audio quality on fan sites. Even with In Rainbows, we knew what songs would be released. Live versions of nearly every song on the album proper and the bonus disc had been kicking around for years – and in the cases of “Nude” and “Last Flowers,” over a decade. But this time we have nothing. And just what the hell is a “newspaper album” anyway?

And really, this is all part of the fun of being a Radiohead fan – how many bands could pull something like this off? How many bands are able to consistently shapeshift their sound enough to keep people guessing time and time again? This is a world where musicians can now grant their fans more access to their lives and studio sessions than ever before through social networking sites and blogs. It’s a world where countless publications are always ready to report on whatever scraps of information come their way and that information is much easier to find. And Radiohead has managed to keep everyone in the dark about everything they’ve been up to.

“Lotus Flower”

Yet despite our total lack of knowledge about The King Of Limbs, there it is… available online for your pre-ordering pleasure as I write this. But you know what? I pre-ordered it anyway. And I’m sure millions of others have done the same. I mean, why not? They’re my favorite band on the planet. They’ve made six great albums in a row. Even the oft-maligned Pablo Honey is still a decent album. And their B-sides are good enough to make for yet another, albeit hypothetical, great album. If any band currently working has earned that kind of blind faith, it’s Radiohead.

Which brings us to the ultimate question that Radiohead poses with the release of The King Of Limbs: How much faith do you have in a brand? And no, that’s not a typo. There is, after all, a reason it’s called the music business. At the end of the day, an artist would like to be able to make a decent living, just like anyone else. To put it another way… oh, how does that Animal Collective song go? They don’t mean to seem like they care about material things, like their social status. They just want four walls and adobe slabs for their girls.

“Super Collider”

To survive in the music business, a band must also think of themselves as a brand. They work hard to create “product,” so to speak, and they promote it and sell it to you with the hope that you’ll like what they have to offer. This is because if they deliver enough quality “products” you’ll probably feel encouraged to support their other endeavors, which in turn is because they will have earned your trust. It’s kind of like buying a Fender Strat, falling in love with it, and then later getting a Telecaster. You’ve put your faith in Fender to keep providing good guitars.

Now along comes Radiohead, a band that has made six great albums in a row, offering you the chance to pre-order their new album. Sounds like a pretty easy call to make, right? But wait – you’ve never heard any of these songs. You have no idea what direction they’re taking this time around. You haven’t heard a single on the radio. You can’t preview any songs on iTunes. You haven’t seen a music video on YouTube. There aren’t even any bizarre animated “blips” featuring clips of King Of Limbs songs, like what they did for Kid A. And you still haven’t been able to figure out what “newspaper album” is supposed to mean.

“Give Up The Ghost”

There’s really no way for you to determine at this point whether or not you’re going to like this album. So do you make the leap of faith? If any other band was making this offer, would you still go for it? Or do you only consider it because you see the big RADIOHEAD logo at the top of the screen and assume they’ll fulfill their end of the bargain?

Or maybe you could just wait until Saturday because everyone’s going to post the songs on YouTube and write reviews and comments analyzing everything. Maybe Radiohead’s just doing this because they thought it was a cool idea, not to make some statement about consumer culture. And maybe I’m just overthinking all of this. That’s Occam’s razor for you.


2 responses

  1. daehoidar

    Great post…they are deff a band that is using every chance they can to self promote thier brand. I will be preordering for sure…the way I look at it is I WANT to give RH my $ vote, and I am willing to bet that I will get more than my moneys worth!!!

    February 16, 2011 at 10:14 am

  2. Pingback: An Old-School Colin’s Collection Post « Listen Up! (with Colin Frattura)

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