The clues had been gathering since the summer. Rumors that Radiohead front man Thom Yorke and genius producer Nigel Godrich were hard at work on a project, teased with characteristically enigmatic messages, had fans believing one of rock’s last great superstar bands would be releasing a new album soon.
The truth was both less and more than what fans expected.
On Friday, Yorke and Godrich announced the release of a new solo record from the musician, but it was not a “coming soon” announcement. The album was available for download immediately. And here’s the most interesting part: The album was available only through a special paywall service, developed specifically for this product, on BitTorrent.com, the birthplace of the infamous BitTorrent protocol.
Accompanying the release was a statement from Yorke, full of his typical grandiose proclamations and anti-establishment fervor. “It’s an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around.… If it works well, it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to the 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.”
Neither Yorke nor BitTorrent are new to the fight against the music industry. Radiohead was forged in the cauldron of the ‘90s indie scene, where there was no greater enemy than the record labels. After their initial stateside triumph with their single “Creep,” they (and Yorke in particular) railed against their success, viewing mass acceptance as proof that they were doing mediocre work.
Radiohead continually pushed against expectations, becoming both weirder and more interesting at every step. They forcefully introduced electronica elements to an audience that was stubbornly analog. And most importantly, they seemed to have bought copies of Naomi Klein’s “No Logo” by the truckload, refusing for years to make videos or participate in anything that seemed like the dirtiest of words…marketing. Their vision of the music industry, rightly or wrongly, was of coke-fueled, L.A. suits who cared only about making money and not supporting artists.
In 2007, Radiohead took this stance to its logical conclusion. MP3s and widespread broadband meant that albums could be downloaded in their entirety in minutes. A physical package was no longer, strictly speaking, necessary. Their album “In Rainbows,” released online using a pay-what-you-want model, was wildly successful and continues to be the benchmark for self-released works. Many have followed. In fact, it’s debatable if the Apple/U2 debacle would have occurred if Bono and Co. weren’t trying to emulate their kid brother.
Where Bono chose the monolithic Apple as a partner, Yorke has now chosen to side with the pirates. BitTorrent has been around for a while now, although its use, at least in popular culture, has been synonymous with illegal piracy and file sharing. The nature of the network, though, is ideal for self-publishing. Since files are uploaded from the computers of users that have completed the download, rather than a central server, there’s no hosting fees, country-specific rights issues, or concern of the files being “taken down.”
For a totally reasonable $6, listeners can download the album from BitBundle, the product created for this experiment. The unspoken subtext of Yorke’s announcement is an acknowledgment that fans are already getting all their music from BitTorrent anyway….and that is still a concern, even for this particular experiment.
You can bet your life that as soon as Yorke’s paywalled album appears on BitBundle, a less-legitimate version will appear on The Pirate Bay. Still, the Internet is especially kind to progressive takes on media distribution. When comedian Louis C.K. made the move of self-distributing one of his stand-up specials at a cost of $5 a download, he was hailed by the Internet, with pirates actively chiding their own for downloading illicit copies. Yorke’s history has probably earned him the same backing here.
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