Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood: Set yourself free
Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood explains why the band released their last album direct to their fans
13 Sep 10

Radiohead’s Colin Greenwood explains why the band released their last album direct to their fans

It’s been nearly three years since we announced our “pay what you think it’s worth” scheme for the launch of our last record In Rainbows. I remember the excitement of it all, not least because the release date was my wife’s birthday, 10 October. The idea came from a friend of our manager, who proposed an “honesty box”, placing the onus on people to ask themselves how much they valued our music. Last summer, as we finished some more recordings, we started to think and talk about how to release them. So it seemed a good moment to take stock of the technological and cultural changes that have happened in the meantime.

In August 2007, we had finished our first record after the end of our deal with EMI. Previously, we would have given it to our record company at least three months up front, and then gone through the protracted round of meetings to decide on videos and singles — experiences we’d had for the previous six records. This time there was no EMI, and no one to decide anything but ourselves. We owned it outright, and could do whatever we wanted with it. This coincided with the growth of the internet as a medium to discover and share music, something we had used to reach fans while we made In Rainbows. This desire to use the technology was driven by distrust and frustration with trying to broadcast our music via traditional media, such as radio and television. Music on television is scarce, and hard to do well. Radio has such regulated playlists that disc jockeys are lucky to have one free play per show. Why go exclusively through such straitened formats when you could broadcast directly to people who are interested in you, in that moment?

The other attraction for us was the conjuring up of an event, a way of marking our releases and performances as special, unique times. The internet makes it easier for everything to be live, and that’s what we do. While we were in our studio, making the last few records, we would schedule last-minute “web casts”, and, at short notice, make small, spontaneous and impromptu programmes where we would play our favourite records, talk to fans, play new and old songs live, and even cover versions of songs from bands that had inspired us. It was stitched together on old Sony cams and video editors from eBay. It did feel like a Ruritanian broadcast, but it was thrilling to be sharing a live moment with our fans that wasn’t mediated by anyone except the internet service provider, and a live show that could be created ten minutes from home. I’d like to think the equivalent of this in broadcasting history would be the mom and pop radio stations that set up in America between the wars, when the excitement of a new medium was explored through the immediate community. In the same way, we saw the internet as a chance to treat the global constituency of Radiohead fans as our community. Also, it helped break up the studio tension, and made us feel less cloistered and isolated while we finished recording.

Against all this positive experience of using net technology, we’d had a bad experience on the previous record, when someone had taken some of the songs from a computer and put them online, well ahead of the official release. Everyone became very careful about carrying songs around, in the car, on CDs, music players and computers. It made you realise how easy it is to store and transmit music once it’s digitised, and that the fundamental thing about music is its destiny to be broadcast or shared. Part of the process of making a record involves listening to new songs or ideas in lots of different places: the car, the kitchen, with friends late at night. Having feelings of mild anxiety about music escaping onto the web wasn’t conducive to that, and there were a few panics. Fortunately, we managed to keep everything unreleased until the online download of In Rainbows.

The success of keeping the music off the net until release proved very powerful. A pre-digital album launch would involve some shows perhaps, record shop queues if you were lucky, and plans by the record company to mark the release as an event. In the digital world, with the ease of music escaping online, that sense of an event is diminished.

With In Rainbows, we were able to be the first people to digitally release our record, directly to people’s personal computers, at 7.30am GMT on 10 October 2007. I was having breakfast, and watched as the file appeared in my email, and the album streamed onto my desktop. I spent the next day and night monitoring people’s reactions online, both to the music and the means of delivery. Journalists in America had stayed up overnight to write the first review as they received the music – again, in the pre-digital age they would have had advance copies up to three weeks before. On the torrent site bulletin boards, people were arguing over whether they should be downloading and paying for the record from our site, rather than the free torrents. Various online pundits and pamphleteers were pronouncing the end of the record business, or of Radiohead, or of both.

For all the giddy prognostications, the most important reason for the success of In Rainbows was the quality of the music. I think this was overlooked, but without the great songs that we were proud of, the online release would have counted for nothing. I am optimistic that if you make good work you can secure the patronage of your fans.

Three years later, we have just finished another group of songs, and have begun to wonder about how to release them in a digital landscape that has changed again. It seems to have become harder to own music in the traditional way, on a physical object like a CD, and instead music appears the poor cousin of software, streamed or locked into a portable device like a phone or iPod. I buy hardly any CDs now and get my music from many different sources: Spotify, iTunes, blog playlists, podcasts, online streaming – reviewing this makes me realise that my appetite for music now is just as strong as when I was 13, and how dependent I am upon digital delivery. At the same time, I find a lot of the technology very frustrating and counter-intuitive. I spend a lot of time using music production software, but iTunes feels clunky. I wish it was as simple and elegant as Apple’s hardware. I understand that we have become our own broadcasters and distributors, but I miss the editorialisation of music, the curatorial influences of people like John Peel or a good record label. I liked being on a record label that had us on it, along with Blur, the Beastie Boys and the Beatles.

I’m unconvinced that the internet has replaced the club or the concert hall as a forum for people to share ideas and passions about music. Social networking models such as Twitter and foursquare are early efforts at this but have some way to go to emulate the ecosystem that labels such as Island drew upon, the interconnected club and studio worlds of managers, musicians, artists and record company mavericks, let alone pay for such a fertile environment. Shoreditch, in east London, has a vibrant scene right now, with independent labels such as Wichita, Bella Union and distribution companies like The Co-op, alongside the busy Strongroom studio. I spoke to a friend, Dan Grech-Marguerat, about the scene. He is a busy mixer and producer, and told me that he could just sit at home and work on the computer but would miss the social buzz and benefits of working at the Strongroom and other studios.

There are signs that the net is moving out of its adolescence, and preparing to leave its bedroom. I have noticed on the fan message sites that a lot of the content and conversations have grown up, moved away from staccato chat and trolling, to discussions about artists, taste and trends, closer to writing found in music magazines.

There is less interest in the technological side of the net, and more focus on what services the web can deliver, like any other media. People are using touch and gesture-controlled devices such as the iPad to see through those objects to get to the content they want. This transparency and immediacy is exciting for us as artists, because it brings us closer to our audience.

We have yet to decide how to release our next record, but I hope these partial impressions will help give some idea of the conversations we’ve been having. Traditional marketplaces and media are feeling stale – supermarkets account for around 70 per cent of CDs sold in the UK, the charts are dominated by TV talent-show acts – and we are trying to find ways to put out our music that feel as good as the music itself. The ability to have a say in its release, through the new technologies, is the most empowering thing of all.

Colin Greenwood is Radiohead’s bassist

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