“In Rainbows” Turns One: Where Are We Now?

Oct 10th, 2008 // 9 Comments

A year ago today, Internet music fans all around the world received their download codes for Radiohead’s In Rainbows, which the band released via low-quality MP3s a mere 10 days after announcing that it had been completed. (The CD release, and the remix-contest-powered pop “hit,” and the many many blog posts about the genius of Yorke, Greenwood, and the rest of the gang, came later.) Come with me as I look back at the events that have happened since then, ones that were both directly precipitated by In Rainbows‘ release strategy and coincidental to it.

Trent Reznor took Thom Yorke’s idea and ran with it. The Saul Williams experiment was his first foray into the “varied formats at varied prices” realm, but things really took off when Reznor started releasing his own material–Ghosts I-IV, and then The Slip–on his own terms, through his own Web sites. If anything, I’d refer to these new digital-heavy, price-optional distribution models as “the Nine Inch Nails model,” since Trent really perfected the form after Radiohead’s (and Stars‘) initial forays into the digital rush-release world.

Other acts with substantial fanbases decided that they could probably experiment with release dates and pricing, too. David Byrne and Brian Eno, Tori Amos, Weird Al … of course, these are all artists who built their fanbases while working in the major-label salt mines. But in a way, helped the idea of release date as “event” return, if only because of the sheer number of people who knew the names of these artists.

The “free preview” ideal became de rigeur for many major-label acts… They may not be distributing low-bitrate copies of entire albums as part of their promotional run-up, but when freaking Nickelback is (and breaking the six-figure mark in sales of that song anyway) you know the idea has percolated into the mainstream.

… and the majors moved to MP3s. Sure, this is probably more a function of Wal-Mart behaving like the two-ton gorilla that it is when it announced that it was moving to an all-MP3 store, but still, it was pretty significant as far as allowing digital-music consumers to stop asking why their file of “Bitch” that they’d purchased a few years back had suddenly become unavailable.

The phrase “the Radiohead model” was misused approximately 10,000,00 times by lazy journalists. Sigh.

The record? Pretty good, once the endless hype about how it was released died down. Seriously. (Although I didn’t spend enough time with the second disc of the box at all.)

This is obviously an incomplete list, so feel free to add–or subtract!–from it as you see fit in comments.

  1. galactushungers

    Radiohead’s “model” still just a novelty, though. The fact that the quality of the album is last on the list is pretty telling, and no one’s even talking about how good (or bad) NIN’s free albums are.

  2. Richaod

    Ehh, it’s not really Nickelback doing it so much as Roadrunner. They’ve done the “available free for 24 hours thing” for Slipknot, Trivium etc. and it seems to work.

    Personally I got so inundated with RCRD LBL/Pitchfork/Stereogum mp3s that I spent more time deleting than listening to them… so I’ve almost had too much free music. :P

  3. AL

    There was also, of course, Girl Talk, who went so far as to allow a free download in addition to the “pay whatever you like” model.

    And just yesterday I saw that Shinkoyo records, a label run by Brooklyn-based band Skeletons, recently put up it’s entire back catalog on a pay what you like plan. This is interesting in that Skeletons and the other acts on Shinkoyo certainly don’t have a substantial fanbase, but I suppose this works for them in that most of these albums were only printed in very limited editions in the first place, so any money they might make from the downloads is a bonus.

  4. indiefolkforever

    The new Ryland Bouchard (formerly The Robot Ate Me) uber deluxe release is pretty jaw-dropping, just for the indie-to-extravangance ratio alone.

    Seeds Box Set:


    I love The Robot Ate Me, but this is a little rich for my taste ($100 pre-order…)

  5. Anonymous

    ASH has it totally correct. Trent Reznor had this idea originally it toke him some time to create something to use it on. Where as Radiohead read what he said and had a something to use it for already created. Radiohead used it as a marketing tool. Trent used it as a way to thank fans and to avoid the corporate thievery of the record industry.

  6. amrcanpoet

    “The phrase “the Radiohead model” was misused approximately 10,000,00 times by lazy journalists.”

    Lazy journalists also don’t edit before publishing.

  7. DocStrange

    I’ve noticed a rise in record labels and bands releasing the lead single for free online in advance of the album or releasing a free song by other means. So far the list includes: Foxboro Hot Tubs, Sigur Ros, The Offspring, The Streets, Nine Inch Nails (“Discipline” and “Echoplex” before The Slip), Los Campesinos!, Coldplay, Slipknot and Franz Ferdinand.

  8. Anonymous

    Tiny little correction, a mistake journalists always seem to make. Trent Reznor did not “run away” with Radiohead’s idea. Even before he left Interscope Records he used to talk about releasing his albums this way.

    Here’s an interview from May 2007, 5 months before “In Rainbows” :

    “I’ve have one record left that I owe a major label, then I will never be seen in a situation like this again. If I could do what I want right now, I would put out my next album, you could download it from my site at as high a bit-rate as you want, pay $4 through PayPal. Come see the show and buy a T-shirt if you like it. I would put out a nicely packaged merchandise piece, if you want to own a physical thing. And it would come out the day that it’s done in the studio, not this “Let’s wait three months” bulls—.”


  9. Maura Johnston

    hey nine inch nails stans, take it easy. i wasn’t saying that reznor copied radiohead. i was saying that his experiments came after radiohead’s (true) and improved on them in a big way (also true).

    jeez, you try to compliment a guy and this is the thanks you get…

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