Radiohead experiment continues

Jeffrey Yerger

Leave it to British powerhouse Radiohead to spice things up in a dismal music industry that has become blander than an Amish wedding.

Since their legendary breakthrough album in 1997, “OK Computer,” Radiohead has not only revamped music, but it has recently begun to revolutionize the business itself by making it obsolete.

In October 2007 Radiohead surprised fans on its Web site by suddenly announcing that its long-awaited new album, titled “In Rainbows,” was complete.

And as if that weren’t enough to get people roused, Radiohead also revealed that fans could pay whatever amount they wanted for the new album.

They probably should’ve warned fans to sit down before writing that message, don’t you think? Pay-what-you-want – it sounds like a plot left out of “Forrest Gump.”

Well, stupid is as stupid does, and if that’s the case, Radiohead’s stupidity certainly paid off.

Living up to its name as the most experimental and innovative band in rock, Radiohead has created a masterpiece that is (dare I say it?) better than “OK Computer.”

“In Rainbows” is Radiohead at its rockin’ finest, filled with all the moody atmospheres of “Kid A” and “Amnesiac,” as well as the lyrical embodiment and melodic diction of “OK Computer.” From the frantic “Bodysnatchers” to the serene atmosphere of “House of Cards,” “In Rainbows” surpasses all expectations after the lackluster “Hail to the Theif” in 2003.

Even though most of these songs already made their debut on previous tours, Radiohead worked its magic in the studio by tweaking some things and adding bits, and it has now produced some of its best work in a decade. “Weird Fishes/Arpeggi,” in particular, is a song that Thom Yorke and company have been messing around with for years, originally titled “Weird Fishes,” but the final product is one of beauty as the song builds up to the climax that is “Arpeggi.”

This is just one of the many highlights that makes “In Rainbows” so memorable. So, what was the motive behind Radiohead’s bold decision to give fans the freedom to pay what they want?

Well, for one thing their contract with EMI/Capitol Records expired in 2003, and according to lead singer Thom Yorke, they didn’t need anyone pushing them around.

“I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one,” he told TIME magazine.

The music industry today is a strict machine; they don’t give up-and-coming bands enough time. It’s all about the money these days, and if your music isn’t sellable, record companies will drop you like a hot potato.

What Radiohead has done is avoid being exploited by record companies, giving these companies a reason to worry.

By not signing to a label, Radiohead received all of the profit from “In Rainbows” – that is, if there is any profit at all. Since they are one of the biggest bands in the world without a label chaining them down, Radiohead can get away with not making any money on a highly anticipated album.

As an A&R executive at a major European record label put it, “This feels like yet another death knell. If the best band in the world doesn’t want a part of us, I’m not sure what’s left for this business.”

For guitarist Johnny Greenwood, the idea of giving away their music online was part of a fun experiment.

“It’s fun to make people stop for a few seconds and think about what music is worth, and that’s just an interesting question to ask people,” he told Rolling Stone in October.

But was it worth all the controversy? Apparently so, as Thom Yorke has told the press that “In Rainbows” has outsold all their previous albums, with the amount of money they have raked in so far adding up to $9 million and counting.

The reaction to Radiohead around the music industry is a little mixed, but mostly supportive.

Tom Delonge, formerly of Blink 182 and now fronting his own band Angels and Airwaves, has spoken out recently about the “In Rainbows” experiment, which he says is good because it created “a lot of press for a hurting music industry.”

“It’s cool that they did that, and they were able to do that,” Delonge says. “But for younger bands and smaller bands coming, they need help. They can’t give away their records for free, yet.”

Dominic Howard, drummer of Muse, has also praised Radiohead’s approach, saying that this proves that record companies “are becoming more and more useless.”

However, not everybody’s thrilled with this idea.

Noel Gallagher of Oasis said it would be over his dead body if they would release their next album like Radiohead.

Lily Allen has also made her opinion about Radiohead very clear recently in the press.

“It’s arrogant for them to give their music away for free – they’ve got millions of pounds,” she says.

“It sends a weird message to younger bands who haven’t done as well. You don’t choose how to pay for eggs. Why should it be different for music?”

Soon even the chickens will be letting us pay what we want for their eggs.

Of course, Radiohead will make enough money off concert and merchandise sales, as well as profits from “In Rainbows,” but its pay-what-you-want experiment is nonetheless praiseworthy and could be responsible for starting a wave of change in the future.

Think about it.

If big artists like U2 or even Kanye West follow in Radiohead’s footsteps, record companies could be on the verge of extinction.

Could this be the start of a new era where bands record and perform purely for the music, not the money?

Quite possibly, but only time will tell if Radiohead’s experiment was an act of genius or an act of young rock-and-roll angst.