Whether or not you think that Radiohead’s download-only release of In Rainbows was a success or a failure; a bargain or a rip-off — and there are valid arguments that it was actually all four — you kind of knew that they weren’t the only artist of their stature who were going to try to bypass the traditional Major-Label release strategy.
And, sure enough, after what can only be described as a collective pause while everybody held their breath, in the past couple of weeks, we’ve had at least four artists with established fanbases follow in their footsteps. While each artist is doing something different, they’re all taking a piece from Radiohead’s playbook.
First up: Trent Reznor, who one-upped Radiohead by offering a veritable menu of configurations for his 4-CD album of instrumentals, Ghosts. While I’ve never been a huge fan of Reznor’s music, I love the concept of letting fans declare their level of fandom via not just price (which was what Radiohead did), but varying levels of immersion.
Next up: R.E.M., who are debuting their new album, Accelerate, next week on the Facebook application iLike. While this is only a week prior to the CD release, and the album has been, er, available on the internet for at least a couple of week, they are obviously counting on the word of mouth of what might be their finest album in well over a decade to spur excitement.
Of course, R.E.M. has always been a band that’s been sanguine about bootlegging, file-sharing and the like, so it makes a lot of sense. Like Radiohead, they get that the hardcore fans don’t see it as stealing when they download bootlegs and preview tracks, but rather the fans are just hungry for more of what they love.
Meanwhile, The Raconteurs, the full-band project of Jack White, whose total and utter awesomeness is matched only by his obvious craziness, announced a couple of days ago that they’ve just finished their new record, Consolers of the Lonely, and it will be available next week. This totally fucks with the normal planning and promotion cycle for such a high-profile new release.
This almost never happens: probably the first (and best) time was the “Ohio” single by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and that nearly 40 years ago. Since then, there have been various “We Are The World”-type charity records with short lead times. And OK, “Peace in L.A.” by Tom Petty, but who wants to remember that? This is different from those cases because there isn’t a tragedy to which The Raconteurs are responding.
Unless, of course, you consider the collapse of the record industry a tragedy.
One of things that they are trying to do is create a moment when everybody who is interested in their album is discovering it at the same time. While it won’t be as awesome as the In Rainbows moment — , it will be fun to watch as the various online tastemakers step all over each other in an effort to get in the earliest review next.
Finally, there is Elvis Costello, who has announced that his new record isn’t even going to have a CD. Instead, Momofuku will be released on vinyl-only, with a download code included in the package. No CD, and no word on whether you can download it from Amazon or iTunes as well. If not, that seems puzzling and self-defeating.
Though not that self-defeating, as Elvis seems to reissue every single one of his records every few years, so you can always wait and buy the third reissue in 2015.
What’s interesting is that all of these strategies are totally different, but they all reflect a frustration with the 20th century process of making and marketing music. Which, you know, most of the major labels are still using.
If there is a pattern, it is this: established iconoclastic artist who really doesn’t give a rats ass about sales anymore (if they ever really did) tries something new, just to see what happens.
Is this a trend? I think so: there are loads of artists out there who are never going to see the top of the charts ever again — the Long Tail of musicians — who are now eyeing the internet as the best way to distribute and promote their music, so I think that this is just the beginning of what by the end of the year will be dozens of high-profile artists playing the game in a whole new way.
Radiohead busted open the dam, and the water is only now just pouring through. The only question from here is who’s next?