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How Radiohead shook up the record industry

Radiohead
(Image credit: Radiohead)

In 2009, as social media took a hold on the world, so Radiohead withdrew somewhat. Amidst swirling rumours that the band were about to pack things in, they gave only one interview to the UK media. Somewhat surprisingly, it was with Prog Magazine...

Radiohead are never going to record another album. In fact, they’re on the verge of spitting up. It is really all over for one of Britain’s most individual of bands.

If you’ve been reading some of the more hysterical headlines in recent weeks, then you’d be forgiven the thought that there are massive problems within the Radiohead camp, and that we may never hear from them again. Of course, it’s a case of people distorting quotes, taking them out of context and making these into a sensationalist case for the demise of a uniquely visionary progressive band.

The comments in question are specifically those made by Thom Yorke to US magazine The Believer. During the interview, Yorke says: “I’m not very interested in the album at the moment.  I mean, I always hated CDs. Me and Stanley [Donwood, Radiohead’s sleeve designer] always hated CDs. Just a fucking nightmare. There’s a process of natural selection going on right now. The music business was waiting to die in its current form about 20 years ago. But then, hallelujah, the CD turned up and kept it going for a bit. But basically, it was dead.”

Later on, Yorke appears to underline his aversion to the idea of recording an album, when he insists: “None of us want to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again. Not straight off. I mean, it’s just become a real drag. It worked with In Rainbows [released in 2007], because we had a real fixed idea about where we were going. But we’ve all said that we can’t possibly dive into that again. It’ll kill us.”

Those are the quotes most people have focused on from the interview – extrapolating from there that Radiohead (Yorke on vocals, piano and guitar, Jonny Greenwood on guitar, keyboards and vocals, Ed O’Brien on guitar, Colin Greenwood on bass and synthesisers and Phil Selway on drums) were about to split after 24 years together, having started out in 1985 as On A Friday, changing the name to Radiohead after signing to EMI in 1991. 

Radiohead's Thom Yorke

(Image credit: Getty)

The reality, though, is a lot more prosaic and less startling. Let’s begin with the fact that Radiohead have no intention of ending it all.

“Ha, ha, no, we’re not going to be splitting up just yet,” says Colin Greenwood. “We’ve never said we were going to do that. But we can’t stop the speculation.”

Greenwood also feels that a lot of Yorke’s comments about not making albums have been taken out of context, and used to suggest something that isn’t true.

“I think that everything is important all the time, when it comes to music. Whatever the format. Downloads are cool, and CDs are still cool. Anything that encourages people to find new music and share it with others is just fantastic. I hope that music still means something to people, and that’s all that matters, really. If what we do is worth anything to people on a musical and emotional level, then that’s all that should matter. How we release things shouldn’t be an issue.”

Greenwood’s carefully chosen words mirror what Yorke says in The Believer, where his dismissal of the album format as a useful tool for the Oxfordshire band is, at the least, a qualified negative, dependant on the circumstances. The bassist is prepared to clarify this position to a further extent.

“Obviously, there’s still something great about the album format. We’re not denying this. But right now, all of us are agreed that we need to get away from it – well, at least for a while. What we did with In Rainbows had a purpose and focus, But, at the moment this isn’t where we are.  That isn’t to say we won’t revisit it in the future.”

What Radiohead now plan is to have the control and freedom to explore the possibilities of releasing music in any form they so choose as being appropriate, be it physically or in a download form. Moreover, they refuse to be tied down by having to record singles, EPs or albums. Whatever works is the path they’ll take. 

“There are times when you want to release a full album of songs,” admits Greenwood. “But there are others when an EP is more sensible. Again, just putting out one song on its own, as we did with Harry Patch (In Memory Of) is the answer.

“It’s really nice to be able to put out releases that aren’t conditional on an album format, to put out music in different ways. It’s great for a band to have different things going on under its name.”

What Radiohead appear to be doing is taking music back to its most instinctual artistic form. Whether consciously, or not, the band are actually striking a blow for the belief that music is not a commodity, but the end product of a creative force, which is especially true in the progressive world.

Radiohead

(Image credit: Danny Clinch)

Think about it. Creativity, by its very nature, must be unpredictable. For any musician to sign a label contract that forces them to deliver a certain number of ‘products’ over a prescribed length of time goes utterly against everything that the artist in question should be doing. It’s the result of commercial and corporate pressures. Record labels cannot be expected to fund artistry without knowing when the end product – releasable music – is going to be available. But, the birth of the music industry as a dominant structure led to the compromising of exactly those qualities the business was set up to promote. 

Consequently, Radiohead are actually taking artistry back into the hands of the creators, by refusing to allow those who control the money to dictate terms. In this respect, they’ve embraced the DIY ethic of punk, something that’s also become the norm for so many prog bands in the 21st century. Says Greenwood:

“When we left EMI [after Hail To The Thief in 2003] it felt like a relief. We had a choice: either grab the freedom to release our music in the way we chose, or to chain ourselves to a dinosaur again. But it made no sense to saddle up the dinosaur. The era for big record companies is over.”

Radiohead went into their brave new world by making In Rainbows available for an undisclosed price through their own website on October 10, 2007. Fans could download the whole album, and make the decision themselves as to how much they paid – including getting it for free. 

“That was our manager Chris Hufford’s idea. We all thought at first that he was barmy.” Greenwood explains. “As we were getting the website ready to go live, we were still saying, ‘Are you sure about this?’. But it was a really good move. It released us from something. It wasn’t nihilistic, implying that the music’s not worth anything at all. It was the total opposite, and people took it as it was meant.

“The only reason we could even get away with it, the only reason anyone even gives a shit, is the fact that we’d carefully gone through the whole development process of the business in the first place. But it’s not supposed to be a model for anything else. It was simply a response to one situation. We were out of contract. We had our own studio. We had this new internet server ready for action.”

For Greenwood, the experiment was a success.

“In terms of digital income, we made more money out of this record than out of all the other Radiohead albums put together [over 1.2 million copies of In Rainbows were sold just through the downloads]. Okay, that is a bit misleading. This was mainly because EMI at the time weren’t giving us any money for digital sales. All the contracts signed in the pre-download era obviously never took this into account. Who could predict how everything would change in the 21st century. So, we’re not blaming EMI for this.”

But there was never any intention from the band to set an example.

“I don’t think there’s anything we’re doing that anyone else should copy, other than being in the state of mind that they’re just doing something their own way. We’re not trying to set a lead for other bands. We don’t want to set trends – that’s counterproductive. All artists must find their own niche, one that works for them, and them alone.”

One of the problems that Greenwood feels Radiohead have had recording in the past is that they take too long in the studio, occasionally over-complicating matters to the point where they are loathe to let go. By allowing themselves to get away from this format, they might well be more relaxed about the music.

“Yes, the biggest problem that we’ve had sometimes is that we do take an age in the studio. Sometimes doing one track really quickly actually turns out for the best. You can spend forever reworking songs, and remixing them, and never be satisfied. There’s a sort of self-considered, analytical self-consciousness that we’ve taken on before which can be crippling – although it can act as quality control, too. You have to strike the right balance. To learn when enough is enough. In the past, that’s a lesson we’ve learned the hard way.”

Radiohead

(Image credit: KMazur/WireImage - Getty)

The band continue to hold a unique position on the public consciousness, but remaining steadfastly enigmatic. During mid-August a track called These Are My Twisted Words was mysteriously posted on Radiohead fan site A Tease Web (now defunct). This leaked song subsequently turned up on YouTube, and then on anther site, Wall Of Ice (also defunct), which directly linked to the band’s own official download site. Available as a free download, it was rumoured to be the first track from an EP called Wall Of Ice. This seemed to make some sense, as Radiohead took a similar approach with In Rainbows, launching a specific website. But…

“What EP?” smirks Greenwood. “We decided to make this one song available, because we’re going to play it live soon. There are other songs in various stages of development, but nothing else is ready.”

Yorke recently claimed that the band had now come up with a cunning ideology to market a combination of physical and downloadable product. But Greenwood doesn’t appear too comfortable with the current situation:

“Traditionally we’d be looking for 10 or 11 songs and putting them together, but that doesn’t feel as natural as it used to, so I don’t know what we’ll do. Maybe we’ll find four songs that work together and we’ll call that a release. No one knows how to put out music any more, including us.”

However, the bassist feels confident that the future for Radiohead will take in releases from individual members under the band’s umbrella. Already Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke have done this, and more seem certain to follow.

“It would be great for a band to have different things going on under its name. That’s what releasing downloads and also doing webcasts are starting to engage – the idea of broadcasting different kinds of music in different ways. We no longer feel tied to traditional ways of doing things, but can look at a much bigger picture.”

Where are Radiohead going? The beauty of the currently unpredictable, volatile era for music is that it suits this band more than most. They have a future, but it has yet to be defined – partly, because the five members themselves are following artistic instincts. And who knows where these might take them.

Radiohead might – or might not – have given up the album format. But they will survive and prosper for as long as they wish. That is their destiny – and legacy. 

This article originally featured in issue 4 of Prog Magazine.