The Unfilled Promise of Radiohead’s ‘In Rainbows’
Hello, the best part of my week is sending this newsletter. No joke! Anyway, for the second time this month I planned a newsletter but wasn’t able to complete it. Instead, I wrote a brief riff on Radiohead’s In Rainbows and Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book and the possibility of real change within the record industry. A last bit of housekeeping is that at the bottom is an update about the Penny Fractions Patreon that I’m excited to share! Otherwise, let’s jump back to 2007!
Can a Band Change the Record Industry?
I often joke that people nowadays can’t imagine a world without Spotify. The company, to its credit, cemented itself within the music world so firmly this decade that I understand the struggle to disentangle it from the concept of streaming music. Still, only twelve years ago there was little certainty around many parts of the record industry. Album sales were falling and digital downloads weren’t quite at their peak; streaming was limited to Myspace, YouTube, and many nascent other players; and piracy remained the industry’s scapegoat. The music industry, prior to the 2008 economic collapse, was already deep in freefall.
That’s why when Radiohead, the English band that spent their last decade of recording music wrestling with humanity’s relationship with technology, decided, without a major label, to make their album pay-what-you-want there was a collective head turn. The band, self-admittedly, didn’t appear to perceive the same level of boldness that many would project upon them. Time, not wasting any hyperbole, described the album as “the most important release in the recent history of the music business.” Even if other outlets didn’t make such a bold proclamation, the mood was that this single album could shift everything. Reporters correctly identified a decaying industry susceptible to large changes, but Radiohead didn’t, nor claimed to represent a movement of artists and fans ready to shift the system.
In Rainbows was released on the band’s website and though it feels a bit like a comical complaint now, fans only got access to 160kbits MP3s—Trent Reznor really harped on this, not a higher quality 320kbits or even FLAC. Radiohead never released official numbers but Gigwise.com said the band initially sold 1.2 million copies at an average of $2.26 dollars. The band declared the experiment a success, even though artists like Lily Allen and Liam Gallagher of Oasis criticized the band for a perceived arrogance of music’s ruling class, effectively telling all other acts that their music was officially worthless.
This is my inner contrarian but I think Radiohead were absolutely correct in this move, although it lacked any ability to spark real industry-wide change. Artist experimentation with releasing music online for free dates back to the 90s, so there was nothing truly unique there. That’s why once piracy went mainstream with Napster, the record industry’s response was a failed move towards streaming. Control over a catalog, the real value of record labels, suddenly appeared to be in jeopardy. Even the ability to pay what you want is, in a way, a far less interesting version of online fan clubs that I’ve referenced from Nancy Baym’s book Playing to the Crowd. What Throwing Muses in the 1990s created was a community that brought fans and musicians into the same conversation. In Rainbows didn’t do that.
In 2009, Kim Gordon, of Body/Head and Sonic Youth, when speaking to the Guardian, articulated this issue with Radiohead’s decision (emphasis my own):
They did a marketing ploy by themselves and then got someone else to put it out. It seemed really community-oriented, but it wasn't catered towards their musician brothers and sisters, who don't sell as many records as them. It makes everyone else look bad for not offering their music for whatever. It was a good marketing ploy and I wish I'd thought of it! But we're not in that position either. We might not have been able to put out a record for another couple of years if we'd done it ourselves: it's a lot of work. And it takes away from the actual making music.
The release of In Rainbows appeared to prioritize the relationship between Radiohead and their fans without deeply considering either of the communities that the band existed within. Trent Reznor went further with his own fan community the following year with Ghosts I - IV and The Slip, which expanded upon the pay-what-you want model by offering a number of ways for fans to support his project. Still, Gordon’s point about not looking out for other musicians is correct. Radiohead could’ve launched with an independent Bandcamp-like site, which could’ve offered a tangible threat to the status quo. Or maybe they started funding record co-ops explicitly to counter the flailing major label system. I’m just spitballing, but the ultimate takeaway is that industry-wide change cannot be lit by a single artist without larger collective energy behind them.
Apple Music or the World
Nearly nine years after the launch of In Rainbows, Chance the Rapper released his big-budget “mixtape” Coloring Book on Apple Music, as a limited time exclusive, as was the bizarre norm of 2016. In some ways, 2016 wasn’t too distant from 2007 in terms of the options available for fans to consume music. Rather, what was rapidly shifting was the format. Instead of maybe buying CDs or digital downloads, nine years after the launch of the iPhone, music was decoupled from the iPod and simply rested within smartphones alongside the rest of someone’s digital identity.
Before and right after Coloring Book, my imagination kept wondering what would’ve happened if Chance the Rapper had released the album on Bandcamp. He never signed with a major label, most of his best tracks then still existed outside of major streaming platforms, and the relatively new Apple Music and Tidal were still leaning on the popularity of other artists to hasten the death of music ownership. If there was going to be an artist that might’ve let their fans rally behind such a business transaction, it could’ve been Chance. But nope. Again, the individual artist that is positioned best to buck the system just fell back in line.
I write this not to blame individual artists here. Industries, and societies, are not shifted by singular individuals no matter how influential. Instead, it’s worth looking at these moments and assessing the broader industry. If people want real change to occur, it's worth exploring just how much could have changed in these particular moments. New points of inflection will occur that will open up opportunities for emerging ideas and possibilities within the music industry. In Rainbows certainly commanded a moment and likely made it possible for a website like Bandcamp to exist, along with pushing other artists to re-experiment with what is possible to do as a music artist online. However, there are still so many more exciting ideas and horizons that can be reached.
Back in February, I launched a Patreon with the goal of making money to pay my copy editors Mariana Carvalho and Taylor Curry. I can happily say we’ve hit that goal with 52 patreons at $172. However, the other part of that goal is to create content that is worth the money you’ve been putting in. I don’t think I’ve held up that end of the bargain.
That’s why I’m going to be changing up the Patreon going forward. Below are the new tiers:
Tip-Jar $1 - Receive the satisfaction of knowing that you’re helping support a newsletter that you hopefully enjoy. (Dear gawd, I hope you like it if you’re willing to press this button!)
Supporters $3 - Monthly previews of Penny Fractions newsletters, a mid-month “What I’m Reading” column, and I’ll mail you a couple of Penny Fractions stickers.
Stans $6 - All of the aforementioned rewards and maybe I’ll answer your emails faster. But seriously, only do this if you just wanna give a bit more out of the kindness of your heart.
Ultimately, I love doing the monthly check-ins, and a monthly “What I’m Reading” post is both a request I’ve received for over a year and also an exercise that will force me to actually remember everything that I read month-over-month. The introduction of stickers is mostly because I fucking love stickers. I don’t expect to hit my next goal of $300 and, if I do, I’ll probably cap the Patreon at that point, as I’ll be able to fund the newsletter to the degree that feels sustainable. Again, I cannot understate how much I appreciate all of the reader support I’ve gotten over the near two years of doing this, thank you so much!
6 Links 2 Read
Book Excerpt: Inside Spotify’s Ill-Fated Flirtation With TV and Hardware (EXCLUSIVE) - Variety
A couple of months ago in Sweden, a book called Spotify Untold was released that featured interviews with dozens of current and former members of the company and Variety got an expert. I joked with a friend recently how many times Spotify tried and failed at making video work, which is why I’ll guess in 2021 after its podcast efforts fall on its face. A press event about Spotify TV might be back on the table.
YouTube Is a Big Business. Just How Big Is Anyone’s Guess. - The New York Times / Bollywood Rapper Sets Viewer Record YouTube Isn’t Talking About - Bloomberg
How profitable is YouTube? How much money does YouTube make for Google? Should people be concerned no one at Google wants to directly answer these questions? Why are views such a clearly fungible statistic on YouTube? Isn’t YouTube’s entire business model built on massive surveillance state video advertising? Shouldn’t someone be concerned it may or may not be sort of a shame? Just thinking out loud here.
Amazon tests audio ads on Alexa music—and here’s a look at its pitch deck - Ad Age
Normally I’d add a little note about how invasive advertising is and how this only furthers a troubling trend. However, this early run of Alexa-based advertising left advertising executives underwhelmed by its poor execution. I can’t say that doesn’t leave me with a smile.
Japan jumps into the music stream - Japan Times
I’ve leaned back a little on international coverage but I wanted to surface this story on Japanese music streaming from last week. I think it’s fairly easy to see that the streaming model doesn’t work for all kinds of artists. I’d be interested in seeing how streaming ends up developing Japan, where CDs remain dominant.
'Everyone's Being Super Petty': Labels Battle for Credit, Market Share as A-List Collaborations Flourish - Billboard
I could offer additional commentary on how broken it is that the music industry continues to redefine the horrors of a free market system within an art space, but Billboard’s headline already makes that clear.
Rock Stars Form Lobbying Group to Counter Tech Giants’ Power - Bloomberg
That more managers are quoted in this story than artists should be a red flag. The other larger, even redder, flag would be that Irving Azoff did this same thing back in 2009 under the name of the Recording Artists Coalition. Obviously, artists need a greater voice in the decisions made by massive tech companies but I can’t say this looks like an exciting prospect.