Before Radiohead released In Rainbows, I was familiar with their work, but only just. Their breakthrough single “Creep” still receives a fair amount of airplay on modern rock radio even today, and I knew some of their other songs like “Paranoid Android,” “Karma Police” and “Fake Plastic Trees.” But they have never been much of a radio band (not in this country, at least), so I was never as familiar with Radiohead as I really needed to be, since their immense critical acclaim demands that serious music listeners pay them proper attention. When I was a sophomore in college, word began to spread rapidly among my friends that Radiohead was releasing their new album on the internet for free. Naturally, this piqued my interest, and I looked into it.
Well, turns out they weren’t exactly releasing In Rainbows for free, but rather they were allowing customers to pay what they wanted, so if you didn’t want to pay anything, you didn’t have to. I was one of the bastards that didn’t pay anything, which I didn’t feel that great about, considering it turned out to be one of my favorite albums. (A couple years later I bought In Rainbows on vinyl for my dad because I felt like I should pay for it.) In Rainbows turned out to be a great starting point for me, and if you’re not familiar with Radiohead’s work, I would recommend starting with In Rainbows, as it is probably the most digestible of their many albums. I have since gone back and listened to all of their records, and I have gotten into all of them except for Pablo Honey (1993).
They have generally been regarded as the most critically lauded band of the past 15 or 20 years, and with good reason: they’re a modern-day Pink Floyd, pioneering a progressive sound within alternative rock. Their early single “Creep” may be an alternative rock classic, but it’s quite boring compared to their subsequent work, which is more adventurous by leaps and bounds. The truth is, Radiohead is the definitive album band; aside from “Creep” and several songs on The Bends (1995), they don’t have much single material. They protested EMI’s decision to release a greatest hits album after they left their label because they felt they didn’t really have any hits. (They lost that battle since EMI owns all of their pre-In Rainbows music and can do what they damn well please with it.)
Today’s musical artists are discovering that getting a record deal means less and less, since there isn’t much money in selling records anymore. Radiohead must have given record label execs heart attacks when they announced their “pay what you want” release method for In Rainbows, which turned out to be quite successful since there was no middleman taking a cut. And while new bands can’t exactly take this approach (you have to have fans first), it’s nevertheless encouraging that some artists can avoid the unpleasant commercial tension entirely.