Why I Paid For Something I Already Had For Free
Radiohead is one of my favorite bands. I was living in Los Angeles in the early 1990s, when Thom Yorke and his compadres broke through with the song Creep on a radio station I still miss, KROQ. The first time I heard that guitar-heavy chorus kick in, driving down the 101 Freeway in my Acura Integra, I was hooked. I loved Pablo Honey (the Creep disc), the follow-up effort, The Bends, and of course the band’s signature work so far, OK Computer.
Probably the best live show I have seen in my life was Radiohead at Radio City Music Hall in New York, during the OK Computer tour. I cashed in a favor from the only friend I have who knows famous people so Gwen and I could get into Saturday Night Live on the night Radiohead was performing as the show’s musical guest (when she was about five-months pregnant with Madison), and saw them on two subsequent tours through the city.
We had OK Computer on auto-repeat for much of that first pregnancy and for several months after Madison joined us, and I’ll be damned if Karma Police and the bell work at the beginning of No Surprises didn’t do a better job of calming her down as an infant than any Baby Einstein video ever could.
But even though I kept going to see the band live, and listening to the old favorites, I have to admit I found its recent studio efforts fairly disappointing. Kid A, Amnesiac and Hail to the Thief were, for me, pretty discombobulated “experimentations” that did not work particularly well. There were a few nuggets in there, (National Anthem, Knives Out, and Where I End And You Begin come to mind), but buying all three of those discs left me feeling pretty taken, in the end.
So I didn’t exactly have high hopes when reports of the band’s latest release, In Rainbows, started rolling through my RSS reader a couple of weeks ago. And it wasn’t even the arrival of a new Radiohead cd that was commanding so much media attention, but rather the way the band was planning to distribute it – without studio backing, through its own Web site, and with “buyers” paying whatever they wanted for the download, all the way down to nothing.
“Nothing” sounded about right to me, particularly after having tossed off perfectly good money for songs like Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors, Treefingers and Life In A Glass House. So when I visited the special Web site the band had put together to distribute the disc the other night, and got to the box provided to indicate how much I was willing to pay, I entered 0.00, proceeded with my download, and a few seconds later was listening to new Radiohead songs, gratis.
I felt a little bad and uncomfortable about it, in the moment, and even worse when I’d been through the tracks and discovered they were really very good. I’ve read a few positive reviews of the disc, but most of the press has focused on the idea that the way it was released will likely be considered a watershed moment in the history of popular music. I think this may be right, and if I owned a record company right now I would be terrified, or apoplectic, or both.
Radiohead has done something important here, they’ve gone beyond their recent pattern of self-indulgent studio tinkering and dismantled the very machinery of the industry that served them so well for so many years, for the benefit of their fans, the people who actually consume their music. This “name your own price” thing is a little gimmicky, and probably not something that is sustainable or will become pervasive, except for musicians who are already rich and want to make a point. But the idea of a performer going direct to the public with a creative work, cutting out the middle-man and making the process of consumption even easier, is unbelievably important and powerful, it seems to me.
During the too-brief period that Pearl Jam was the Biggest Band In The World, it decided to use its power and influence to make a stand against Ticketmaster and the expense of going to a concert. As a result, very few people were actually able to see them live – during a period when they should have been conquering the planet and broadening their appeal. They tried to break the rules, change the way things were done, and the result was a destructive and ultimately self-defeating campaign that hurt the band much more than the establishment.
Radiohead’s little experiment in music distribution is much more well conceived and holds far more promise. So tonight, still feeling a little bit sheepish for cheaping out during the original transaction – although I still believe that approach was justified, given the quality of the band’s recent output – I went back online and threw the guys 5 pounds and 4 pence (about $10.24), in honor of the exact moment when little miss Madison chose to grace us with her presence, following a night spent in New York-Presbyterian Hospital, listening to a Pitocin drip and OK Computer.