In Rainbows: Four Takes
This month no less than four of our columnists have written about the new Radiohead release, In Rainbows. Here are their thoughts on the recording and the means by which it is being distributed…
Jesse Jarnow- ‘Revolution is a Feeling’
‘Shopping is a feeling,’ David Byrne once said, and so is revolution. Real or perceived, it doesn’t matter: there is a fun in doing something that seems subversive. The difference between the two is, of course, surprisingly little and always shifting. But there’s no arguing with the fact that it’s a mighty good hook. According to Theodor Adorno, nothing having to do with the consumption of popular music can actually be revolutionary, the culture industries being an opiate for the masses, yadda, yadda, yadda.
And, to some extent, of course, he’s totally right, at least in the sense that instead of listening to music and being absorbed in this culture I could probably devote more time to, I dunno, torching Starbucks or reading Marx’s complete correspondence or writing essays about the evils of the culture industries, but Adorno probably never listened to the Beatles, either, so fuck him. But we’re not talking about the revolution itself. We’re talking about feeling.
Accepting the premise that music is a wonderful thing, one also accepts certain basic assumptions, the most basic of which is that there is, in fact, something called music. That, in turn, is the culmination of an infinite series of other rules about what does or doesn’t constitute music: tempo, melody, lyric. The sky might look blue, but there are a lot of gases. Anything can be music, of course. For Frank Zappa, it was all about the frame. Brian Eno once listened to a field recording of street sounds over and over until his brain perceived it as an ordered sequence of events. But this isn’t a place for that debate. We’re all here, we’re all on the same page: music is cool, we find meaning in it, but that meaning comes from rules, some of which we aware of, some of which we aren’t.
One place that music begins to make meaning is in its literal medium. The Sex Pistols were banned from the British charts because, well, they were the Sex Pistols — and that transgression was certainly no small part of their appeal. In the past year, we’ve seen three other artists banned from the charts for various infractions, two in England, one in the States: Radiohead, for selling In Rainbows through their pay-what-you-will plan and Beck, for giving away sheets of stickers to create alternate covers for 2006’s The Information. Prince did it twice: in the US in 2004 for giving away copies of Musicology with concert tickets, in the UK for giving away last year’s Planet Earth to readers of the Guardian.
They all had their reasons, but really the goal was to not only get their music into as many people’s hands as possible, but to create an experience outside the norm of how they usually receive music. When it comes down to it (as Eno proved) anything can be music. What’s important isn’t always how good the music is, but convincing listeners that it is a good idea to listen long enough until they can sing along with the songs, to absorb the album. That’s the hook, right there, the revolution. What makes it feel different?
There are changes in popular music, sure, measurable changes like the introduction of multi-track recording and such, but not as many as one would think, and certainly never as many are as hyped. What most musicians do — even very, very good musicians who make classic albums — is rarely completely or even partially new. Or ‘new.’ Or whatever. But so what? Even novelty is mostly illusory, a trick to get somebody to listen to the total package. I’m gonna go put on In Rainbows again.
Dan Greenhaus- ‘In Rainbows: Why It’s Worth $10’
We’ve been talking about this for a long time, but it’s finally here. We are witnessing one of the first steps in the dismantling of the decades-long music industry monopoly over the consumer. Ironically, everyone saw this coming except the record company executives that this hurts the most. Their ridiculous behavior, fear mongering lawsuits and fool-hearty business practices not only exacerbated the issue but only served to encourage people to want to screw them even more. As a result we now have the first major band using the web and P2P the way it should be used in a new day and a new age. And who better to lead the revolution than Radiohead (maybe Pearl Jam who surely can’t be far behind), the most revolutionary musical act in popular music and a band that has formed an unbreakable bond with their audience through an adherence to their musical purity. To be clear, I am pro-business and previous columns of mine indicate such. I am not rooting for the demise of record labels, nor am I looking for the mass layoffs that have plagued the industry and which will clearly continue. I am, however, rooting for a new way of thinking in an old business that has refused to adapt to changing times. At the end of the day, label executives love music just like the rest of us, they just go about producing and distributing it in a manner that is not designed to promote the best music but the music with the highest chance of selling. They are after the bottom line, and there’s nothing wrong with that. After all an album, for all the blood, sweat and tears that goes into its production, is still a product no different than an iPod. When a band comes to your town, they are playing a market, no different than a commercial for a business and are hoping to sell more albums as a result. But wait; that’s where things have changed. The old business model saw bands touring to support an album, in an effort to drive sales. If a band put on a good concert, showcasing the new songs, fans purchased the new album and the band saw a certain percentage of those album sales. But the interwebs and peer-to-peer has changed that way of thinking, even if record companies and many bands are refusing to acknowledge it. While I disagree entirely with the mass distribution of an artist’s work with no compensation to that artist, there is no denying that it is here to stay. You cannot stop it, you cannot police it and Radiohead are the first major band to both realize it and do something about it. Of course, undertaking such an endeavor is much easier for a band of Radioheads size in comparison to, say, Jose Gonzalez who may desperately need the income generated by album sales. What is clear is that Radiohead has given up and given in, while simultaneously taking the boldest step in our lifetimes to deal with the changing landscape in music distribution. There was a window where Metallica could have realized the same thing, and taken steps years ago to deal with an emerging issue with a radical idea: sell your music straight to the fans. At the same time, years later, giving away music is no longer such a radical idea. In fact, it’s probably the sanest idea we’ve heard in a long time. Let the fans decide how much to pay for your music? Somewhere, Clive Davis’s head exploded. The radical ideas are those being pushed by record labels and musicians as they grasp at straws to maintain a business model as outdated as the typewriter. I am amazed at how many bands still do not realize that if given the opportunity to pay the band directly, fans would jump on board to do so, bypassing the industry that has screwed them out of thousands of dollars for decades. But Radiohead realize it. And that’s why In Rainbows is worth $10. The band, regardless of whether or not they end up signing with a label and distributing the album using traditional methods, has taken a risk. They know they have an air tight fan base that wants the album, and they are giving the fans the chance to get their hands on the music straight from them. What they don’t know is if people will pay for the album when a certain percentage has become accustomed to paying nothing. Will they recoup studio costs? Will they have to pay the producer out of their own pocket? While Radiohead as a band surely have the funds to cover these costs, and will obviously make many times their expenses on the road, smaller bands can take neither such comfort. Will smaller, emerging artists undertake a similar distribution method if 90% of Radiohead’s fans pay $1? Probably, but it will make them more hesitant. So I say, let’s pay Radiohead $10 for In Rainbows. I know most people won’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s worth it. Hell, it’s worth $10 just for the effort.
Mike Gruenberg- ‘So, Whats It Worth To You?’
How many times have you bargained with another person over an item to be purchased or a service to be performed and after a long discussion the other guy finally gives you a price? You frown, propose your price, the other guy feigns incredulity and the speaking continues. You talk back and forth; arrive at a price the two of you believes to be fair for both parties and after a period of time an agreement is established. We create those kinds of scenarios multiple times in our every day lives. Even when a list price of an item is on the table, there is always room for negotiation. In many countries throughout the world, the only agreed upon final price is a negotiated one. In those places, lack of bargaining in establishing the final price is considered to be an insult.
The great Babe Ruth after an extraordinary home run year went into management to negotiate a new contract for him for the following year. The amount of money he asked for so astounded the teams general manager who countered by pointing out that Ruth was asking for money than the President of the United States was being paid at the time. Ruth is purported to have said that he had a better year than the President and as such, deserved the amount he was asking.
When groups like the Beatles Led Zeppelin and the Police would release albums, virtually every song was a gem. Every Bowie, Springsteen and Queen album has virtually no filler or substandard songs contained in their offerings. Buying any of their albums even without prior knowledge of all the songs contained on the disc was easy because quality of the material was assured. Somewhere along the way, the record business lost their way. In recent years, more often than not, records were released some with great fanfare with less than stellar material. One or three good cuts were oft times overshadowed by eight or nine not so good cuts. In their rush to release product, record companies forgot to understand that the music buying public has come to the point where we have options. In this age of specialization and technology, people know what music they want and they know how to get it.
First we had sharing. Begun by Napster, the music buying public began to trade songs freely over the internet. Rather than understand the basics of the new phenomenon the record companies sought to kill this mechanism under a flurry of law suits to both the organizers of this process and the actual people who were trading songs with one another. It was a public relations nightmare for the record companies. Nice to see a billion dollar corporate conglomerate suing a 12 year old girl in Iowa for freely downloading a Justin Timberlake tune.
Then the record companies decided that they could use technology to solve the problem of people copying CDs for their friends. Rather than understand the process and work within a system to encourage copying for a fee, they encrypted CDs so that when a person tried to burn a copy, their CD player became damaged. Another brilliant public relations move. That idea was also abandoned. In essence, record companies have continually failed to understand the buying habits of people buying their products.
The bottom line is that today the music buying public is not only more sophisticated, but now has the technology to get the artists and the specific songs of those artists that they want in any number of ways. The genesis of the decline in sales of CDs in the music industry is due primarily to people buying only what they want through the internet and ignoring substandard material on albums they dont want. If there are only one or two good songs on the album, then the purchaser only wants those two tunes and not the other eight. There was a time when you could not choose which songs you wanted, but now we can.
I was therefore not entirely surprised to hear that the group Radiohead has invited people to download their seventh and latest album, In Rainbows from their website at whatever price each person decides to pay for it. Talk about putting your money where you mouth is. In a move away from their record company (Parlophone), the group is releasing their album independently on their website to their fans with optional pricing. If you like it, you pay for it. Many other rock stars (Prince, Paul McCartney and Nine Inch Nails) have or are in the process of abandoning their record companies to go direct to the record-buying public.
On Radioheads site, there is no price listed as a cost to download. The buyer makes the choice. There are choices as far as buying the basic album or getting a more deluxe set, but the choice of payment amount is clearly the buyers which is based on liking the album or not.. What a concept!
The reality is that people will buy quality products. Whatever the type of music that a person favors, there are albums galore for everyones taste. Whether its one song or twelve, the proof lies in the music presented.
Record companies are facing the reality of decreasing sales. Whose fault it is now is irrelevant. What is relevant for them is figuring out how to solve the problem. Whatever the success of the Radiohead experiment, it is sure to be followed by others. With the music industrys inability to cope with file sharing, this new venture by Radiohead may be the beginning of the end for traditional sales of albums by the major record companies. The best antidote to pumping up sales is to release albums with many fine tunes so that the entire album is worth purchasing.
Its Worth A Lot, If Its a Quality Product
Pat Buzby- ‘In Rainbows‘
If there is one good thing about this year in music, its this I have found myself thinking quite a bit more about how artists gets paid for their work.
A few weeks ago, two news items brought the issue home, for the umpteenth time in this era of download controversies. First came the news that the RIAA had won a six-figure sum from a single mother who was sharing files of 20 or so popular, officially-released songs. Then, as a welcome corrective but with its own set of complexities, came the news that Radiohead was offering its new album, In Rainbows, as a download for whatever price one chose. Their wording (its really up to you) suggested that taking it for free was an acceptable option.
Both events produced sharp differences of opinion. Or, at least, I can verify that the Radiohead decision did, since the RIAAs lawsuit produced few reactions in the blogosphere and other non-executive areas of anything other than the RIAA is headed for extinction variety.
However, on Sunday morning I read two reactions to Radiohead in quick succession. I am on the e-mail list of a local professional jazz musician (who I interviewed in this column four years ago), and his message that day said that anyone who downloaded the Radiohead album without paying was a thief. Shortly after reading that, I saw a New York Times editorial saying that only people vulnerable to touchy-feely thoughts would pay for the download.
Now, in my opinion, it is wrong to suggest that people should feel bad about taking an option that Radiohead not only offers but implicitly condones. On the other hand, I wouldnt mind if their actions prompted an outbreak of touchy-feely feelings about musicians, which seems to have been a result so far.
As for the RIAA, I hope and except that the decision will rank with Jethro Tulls 1988 best heavy metal album Grammy in the list of meaningful music victories. On the other hand, I think that some responses to this event have overlooked the notion that musicians, songwriters, even, in most cases, producers deserve financial reward for their work. A common response is let them make their money playing live, but, for me, many of the moving musical experiences of recent decades (including, for instance, most Radiohead albums) simply couldnt have happened if the studio wasnt a viable option.
Until now, Ive never bought a Radiohead album. Ive found that some of the musical experiences theyve offered, especially Kid A, have been powerful enough to make me consider forking over my Benjamins, or whatever the hip-hoppers call them, to experience them repeatedly at will. However, the urge hasnt struck me hard enough when I was in the right place, physically and financially, to act on it.
This changed last Sunday. I paid Radiohead three pounds (plus a fifty pence credit card fee) to buy their compressed files of In Rainbows. My initial impulse was to pay two and a half pounds, but my wife objected.
In listening to it so far, I like it, but Im not sure whether its an experience on par with Kid A. As with their other recent albums, it seems to shuffle through the terrain opened up by that album and OK Computer, sometimes very attractively. In any case, it is the first Radiohead album I will have the chance to examine multiple times. And I suspect that this, plus my three and a half pounds, is enough for them to feel like theyve won over this touchy-feely music consumer.