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Like ripples on a blank shore: Radiohead’s industry-changing “In Rainbows”, 10 years later


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On October 10, 2007, one rock band gave the music industry a good kick in the trousers with an album called In Rainbows that expanded the boundaries of creative power in music distribution. Exactly 10 years later, the ripples produced from the album’s valor continue to spread.

Since the start, blazing trails and setting trends has been the modus operandi for English alternative rock band Radiohead. Their mid-to-late 1990s catalogue (1995’s The Bends and 1997’s OK Computer) inspired many a fledgling band, indirectly shaping the alternative rock sound of future years. Their drastic shift towards electronic sounds in the early 2000s, while initially polarizing, is retrospectively recognized as one of the boldest moves in music history.

Their first “electronic” album, Kid A (released in October 2000), allowed the band to experiment with unorthodox release methods. For the album, the band eschewed singles and music videos in favor of short films called “blips”, and allowed online streaming. Regardless of their oddball nature, Kid A‘s promotional tactics allowed it to debut at the top of the Billboard 200 chart.

Following a contract termination and a four-year hiatus, Radiohead returned in 2007 with a 100% self-released album titled In Rainbows. 10 days before the album’s release, the band surprised fans by announcing its completion out of nowhere and even providing a pre-order link. However, the pre-order carried a unique perk never before utilized by a major musical act: fans could purchase the album for whatever price they wanted, even for free.

“It was the kind of moment of togetherness you don’t get very often.”

Reactions towards the release were mixed. Positive reactors commended its bravery and tactical avoidance of leaks.

“From their closest friends, to their fans from Preston to Perth, to us at NME…everybody heard the record at the same time as each other,” Dan Martin, journalist for NME, said. “It was the kind of moment of togetherness you don’t get very often.”

Conversely, detractors noted the unpredictability of the move’s impact on sales or its success with other artists.

“[The release] wasn’t catered towards their musician brothers and sisters, who don’t sell as many records as them,” Kim Gordon, former member of alternative rock band Sonic Youth, said. “It makes everyone else look bad for not offering their music for whatever.”

Regardless of skepticism thrown its way, In Rainbows was still a staggering success. Even though many acquired it for free, the album’s pre-order numbers eclipsed the total sales for band’s previous album, Hail to the Thief, and it debuted at the top of the Billboard 200 when it was officially released. “In terms of digital income, we’ve made more money out of this record than out of all the other Radiohead albums put together, forever — in terms of anything on the net,” Thom Yorke, the band’s frontman, said. “And that’s nuts.”

Although the release method was discontinued by the band with future releases, In Rainbows remains a quintessential example of artistic integrity, valor in marketing, and the power of the fanbase. It has become an industry-wide precedent for assumption of creative power in music distribution.

Digital audio-sharing sites have capitalized on this modernization to gives fans a feeling of power in their purchases, as well as an incentive to directly support their favorite artists.. The site NoiseTrade runs on a mutual exchange between artists (who give free music) and fans (who give emails and zip codes), and the site Bandcamp (which premiered the same year as In Rainbows‘ release) also equips a “pay what you want” system.

The release also planted seeds of inspiration that have metamorphosed into different release methods currently being used by modern artists. Chance the Rapper has maintained a bohemian adamance in self-releasing mixtapes; his most recent, Coloring Book, became the first streaming-only album to reach the Billboard 200, as well as win a Grammy Award.

Moreover, Adele, singer, has gone long and far to revitalize the physical album in an era of file-sharing. Her 2015 album 25 was initially released in physical form and didn’t reach digital platforms for seven months. This decision, compounded by the album’s grand success, acted as a saving grace for an industry ravaged by downloads and streams.

It’s astounding how far you can go with a little courage and determination to pursue your individuality. Not only will it help you, but it could potentially be felt by the whole world. Radiohead doesn’t so much depart from a formula as just not have one, and In Rainbows is a great example of where the road less traveled can lead us all. In retrospect, for the music industry, In Rainbows was truly a jigsaw falling into place.

Featured image from Stanley Donwood

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Like ripples on a blank shore: Radiohead’s industry-changing “In Rainbows”, 10 years later