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.
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.
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.