You might have heard: Radiohead have erased themselves from the internet. Well, not entirely; gone are the band’s website, tweets, Facebook posts, and even their Google+ page (you won’t have noticed that one), and all images replaced with white, but you’ll still find their music on Spotify, YouTube and other streaming services. Also, in the last few hours they’ve set up an Instagram account and posted a couple of short clips of an upcoming video.
The blackout – or should I say whiteout – happened on May 1. People on Reddit and the Atease Radiohead forum reported that the opacity of the band’s website was oscillating as it slowly began to “fade out”. A couple of hours later it had gone entirely, as had other traces of the band’s activity around the web.
So what does it all mean? A new album, of course. The band’s ninth LP is expected to drop any day now, but with Radiohead having finally taught themselves how to disappear (almost) completely, the question isn’t just when but how?
Radiohead have had an interesting, sometimes difficult, relationship with the web, the most significant milestone being the pay-what-you-want release of In Rainbows in 2007. 10 days after it was announced, the album was offered online via a system that asked people to decide the value of the music they were downloading; if you wanted to, you could download it for no charge at all. Whether the honesty box idea was a commercial success or not didn’t matter for a band privileged enough to pull it off. It was making a point about the industry at large.
At the time, Radiohead decided against internet-only distribution for fear that some fans would not have internet access, and so the album was also put on CD, as well as on limited edition vinyl. In an interview with Pitchfork a year before, following the release of his first solo album The Eraser, Thom Yorke said:
“Some people talk about the internet, but we’ve always had a problem with [it], because it will always essentially be exclusive one way or the other. To assume that this technology is worldwide is kind of bollocks, y’know? It’s not there in the same way. So, I mean, I also personally am one of these luddites. I want physically to have things. I want 12″s, and anyway, iTunes never has what I want.”
The King of Limbs, released as a download in February 2011, was also made available as a CD and vinyl a month later, along with a special ‘newspaper’ format. Whatever Radiohead are planning for their new album, we can safely expect it to surface in physical form at some point.
The Spotify spat
You can’t really talk about Radiohead’s relationship with the internet without mentioning Spotify. In July 2013, Thom Yorke pulled The Eraser and his supergroup’s (Atom For Peace’s) album AMOK off Spotify and other streaming services, a move that he later explained in an interview with Mexican website Sopitas.
“I feel like as musicians we need to fight the Spotify thing,” said Yorke. “I feel that in some ways what’s happening in the mainstream is the last gasp of the old industry. Once that does finally die, which it will, something else will happen.”
“But it’s all about how we change the way we listen to music, it’s all about what happens next in terms of technology, in terms of how people talk to each other about music, and a lot of it could be really fucking bad.”
Yorke’s comments – in interviews and tweets – whipped up a media frenzy over artist royalties and streaming transparency. It’s something Radiohead manager Brian Message addressed again in a Q&A panel last month.
“Where Thom was coming from actually wasn’t a million miles away from me,” he said. “Where he was trying to get across was… he sees streaming but there’s no money coming from anywhere, and his thing was, well if this is supposed to be the next thing, how are people going to survive because there’s no money in it? And nothing was coming though. At the time none of us were really aware there was a transparency issue.”
Understanding the reason for the blockage, said Message, meant understanding that the streaming model would work at scale while the traditional model doesn’t. Once you pay for a CD, it’s yours for life; with streaming, each play constitutes a payment, but it won’t be lucrative until a lot more people use these services.
“Today it still hasn’t got to scale,” said Message. “There should be 200 million plus paying subscribers, and there aren’t, and there are lot of good reasons there aren’t. Part of it – I would say a lot of it – is the recorded music industry’s incompetence, and fear, and trying to work off an old copyright model.”
Still, Yorke went on a similar tirade just last year, this time against YouTube and comparing its business model to Nazi art theft. “They seize it,” he said, calling out Google for paying little or nothing at all despite adverts running before their videos. “It’s like what the Nazis did during the Second World War. Actually, they all did that during the war, the British, too – steal the art from other countries. What’s the difference?”
Thomorrow’s Modern Boxes
This frustration is what lead Thom Yorke to release his second solo album via file-sharing service BitTorrent, better known for music and movie piracy. The album, titled Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, was a paid-for bundle, making it the first album to use BitTorrent’s pay wall.
“It’s an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around,” said Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich in a statement at the time.
“If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work. Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves. Bypassing the self-elected gatekeepers.”
Again, we don’t know how successful Yorke’s last distribution stunt was. It’s probably not the magic pill that will safeguard artists and music producers, but it was an interesting experiment that could foreshadow the band’s next move.
It’s possible that the band will once again experiment with distribution for the ninth album. A day before the recent website whiteout, many fans received a mysterious flyer in the post containing the words, “Sing the song of sixpence that goes ‘Burn the witch'” – a reference to a song the band have been teasing for more than a decade, and which, going by the Instagram teasers, will be the first song we hear.
Below that were the words “We know where you live” which, when tied to the band’s subsequent disappearance, perhaps hint that this is to do with internet privacy and how our personal data is passed around. After all, the flyers were distributed to people who had purchased items through Radiohead’s website w.a.s.t.e.
Could the band be removing themselves from the internet to pursue a more analogue form of distribution? If anyone were to send out their album through snail mail, it would be Radiohead.
Perhaps the website will simply cough up a download link on Friday with a “Thank you very much”. Or perhaps, as some people are speculating, the band won’t launch the album until the first date of their live tour on May 20. It seems unlikely.
What seems more likely is that this stunt is another piece to Radiohead’s ongoing conversation – and uncertainties – about the power of the internet.