Of all the albums I have reviewed from 2014, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes had the quirkiest release, showing up on the Internet as a sudden, surprise release only available for download on BitTorrent — for money. Well, that’s not the whole story. A track (“Brain in a Bottle”) and a video of that track were available for free download via the same service, and the entire album was available for download for just six bucks. Thom Yorke and producer Nigel Godrich are notoriously critical of Spotify, going as far as yanking their 2013 Atoms for Peace album Amok from the service. According to them (and I’m paraphrasing), they weren’t doing it for their own gain (i.e., forcing everyone to buy the songs/album), but to protest how streaming services don’t offer fair compensation for newer artists who aren’t established.
This seems like a rather odd argument to make — I suppose we can bicker about the scope of the word “established” if you’d like, but it seems to me that if you’re not established, it would follow that there’s no reason to think you can support yourself with your music career. This tends to get left out of “streaming services don’t pay artists enough” arguments, I have noticed. It’s completely cart before the horse for many musicians — or, more accurately, those who want to be musicians — who are making the argument; you don’t get to claim that being a musician is your profession until you’re actually making enough money to do it for a living. Given the sheer volume of music being uploaded onto the Internet on a daily basis — it makes you long for the pre-Internet days when only around 5,000 albums were released a year, doesn’t it? — I doubt many of the independent musicians making the “Spotify is unfair” argument, even if the music industry was still at its late-’90s peak, would actually qualify. Long story short: if you don’t have more going for your career than Spotify royalty checks…you don’t have a career.
As for Thom Yorke and Nigel Godrich, they are absolutely correct that they don’t need Spotify one bit. It’s also why Yorke could afford to do his BitTorrent experiment with Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. In the aftermath of the album’s release, Yorke declared the experiment a success, and outlined the benefits of using BitTorrent in this fashion. What actually is fabulous about using BitTorrent to self-release your music is that you don’t have to pay for the huge bandwidth costs that would come with having thousands of people come onto your website and to download your music. In this respect, this does make BitTorrent sound like a great solution. The only problem with releasing an album this way is the same that has always existed when releasing an album any other way: the only artists who can release their music in this fashion are the ones who are already established, plain and simple. All of those indie artists trying to pay for groceries with Spotify royalty checks aren’t going to use BitTorrent to release their next albums, no matter how successful Yorke thinks the release of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes was.
There’s a reason why artists are signed to labels: promotion is still paramount. People have to (in order): 1) know who you are 2) listen to your music and 3) like your music. And then maybe, just maybe, they might 4) buy your music. And that’s if they’re feeling generous. These four steps are incredibly difficult for record labels to navigate when they’re promoting an artist’s music. For artists just starting out right now, it’s just about impossible to negotiate the required promotion involved themselves (they sort of have to write and record and perform); there is no way an artist just starting out right now could use BitTorrent the way Thom Yorke has used it here. So while releasing Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes this way was an interesting exercise, I doubt it will really make much of an impact on those Yorke seems to think could benefit from it the most. That being said, for Yorke — who has legions of fans from Radiohead — this must have worked out quite nicely, since it’s a great way for all of his fans to purchase directly from him and cut out the middlemen. (Interesting to note that as technology is evolving, it seems to keep shifting in favor of music’s 1%, so to speak.)
As for Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, it’s a lot of air, but it happens to be pretty good air. (It’s in the style of Amnesiac, The King of Limbs, and Amok.) The more structurally sound tracks (particularly “The Mother Lode” and “Guess Again!”) carry a bit more weight, but it’s an interesting exploration of electronic textures, an experiment in what rock music sounds like if you strip away as many foundational elements as possible while still leaving the music fully functional. That means a lot of what’s here is mostly surface elements — and make no mistake, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes will eventually get blown away by the winds of time — but that doesn’t make the music any less enjoyable for now. Yorke is enough of a craftsman to make these intentionally hollowed-out tracks still worth examining over the course of multiple passes.