In a year that’s seen the digital economy upend our notions of what a “hit” is—from songs leaping to the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 before radio has even digested them, to acts turning every damned song on their albums into a momentary chart smash—it’s appropriate that the weirdest insta-hit of all was scored by the world’s best-known all-digital band.
Back in April, Radiohead scored their second-ever U.S. Top 40 hit with “Nude,” one of the least catchy songs on the catchier-than-usual In Rainbows. Given the band’s rabid fanbase, they probably could have accomplished the feat simply by putting out a remix of the song on iTunes with the smallest of tweaks. But they did better than that: they invited fans to tweak the song for them.
Released to iTunes on April 1 was “Nude,” broken into six parts: the full song, plus separate stem tracks for voice, guitars, bass, drums and synthesized strings. Each song fork sold separately, and fans had to spend up to six bucks to acquire all the pieces. The combined sales for all six pieces totaled just shy of 60,000, enough to push the song onto the Hot 100 at No. 37 for a single week—just three spaces below where “Creep,” the band’s first and only other U.S. Top 40 hit, peaked in 1993.
In my column last spring, I whimsically predicted that a mainstream act would try to replicate Radiohead’s experiment on a larger scale. But so far no one has done anything quite like the deconstruction of “Nude.” So much has been written about Radiohead’s digital experiments over the last year-plus, but much of what they’ve accomplished since the fall of 2007 has been pretty predictable. Opening up a song for remix isn’t a new idea either—Nine Inch Nails, another convert to the all-digital model, did a web-based version years ago—but like so much of Radiohead’s antics recently, they somehow manage to make the biggest cyber-splash.