Will Radiohead change the music industry next week?

By Peter Valelly

At the end of their 1977 single “Smokescreen,” British punk band the Desperate Bicycles chant, “it was easy, it was cheap – go ‘n’ do it!” The idea of DIY recording as its own form of protest against mainstream orthodoxy became the song’s message. As much as any other moment, this embodies punk as not just a musical sound but a real revolutionary break, a cultural space split wide open and ripe for revolt against commercial dominance. That punk has been commodified and exploited ad nauseam is one of the most insulting travesties of late Capitalism. Yet that no other moment has presented such a rupture is, in my opinion, our very own fault. We have had the chance of a lifetime, quite literally at our fingertips, for over a decade now.

The Internet may have been born of the military-industrial complex, and it may be suffocated by corporate abuse, but it remains an infrastructure inherently given to cultural rupture and renovation; this potential seems to have escaped us.

Yet the last 8 years have seen the Internet posing a legitimate threat to corporations through the advent of rampant music downloading. As record sales plummeted, pundits chattered laughably about the need for the record companies to seize this opportunity for the advantage of the industry, and they tried. But for everyone who pays for a song on iTunes, there are a dozen savvy Soulseekers getting it for free.

Of course, downloading seems also to represent a slap in the face to artists, especially independent ones. Yet both this moral dilemma and the downloading culture’s stillborn revolt against the corporate stranglehold on music made a leap toward resolution on Sept. 30.

You see, for a few years, the world’s foremost “alternative” band, Radiohead, have been working on their seventh album and chronicling the entire process on their blog Dead Air Space. The blog usually served as a place for the band members to post cryptic comments, infuriating and enticing fans. But there was nothing left unsaid in guitarist Jonny Greenwood’s Sunday evening post: “Well, the new album is finished and it’s coming out in 10 days; We’ve called it ‘In Rainbows.’ Love from us all.”

Exciting news for Radiohead fans. But as word of the album spread, it became apparent that this was more than a slick surprise. “In Rainbows,” it turns out, will come out on vinyl and CD, eventually. But on Oct. 10, anyone who wants will be able to download the album directly from their website – and won’t have to spend a cent more than they want. The order page for the “In Rainbows” digital download prompts the customer to enter whatever amount they want to pay for the album. “No really,” the website insists. “It’s up to you.”

The move suits Radiohead. Here is a band that, more than anyone since classic rock, have focused their energies on making the Important Album, the big statement – and they have delivered. With “In Rainbows,” it seems, they have externalized the album’s importance. This record will go down in history regardless of what it sounds like.

Why? Because this move is a deliberate affront to the record industry. Radiohead haven’t been signed to a record label since they fulfilled their obligations to EMI in 2004. For years they’ve happily disregarded the possibility of signing another contract and discussed the possibility of self-distribution. Moreover, the band is staunchly anti-Capitalist, as demonstrated not just by their activism, but by their music. The panoramic musical and lyrical paranoia of 1997’s “OK Computer” represented a massive leap from the nervous self-loathing of the band’s previous album, “The Bends” – a leap made possible when Leftist books like Eric Hobsbawm’s “Age of Extremes” and Will Hutton’s “The State We’re In” helped lead singer Thom Yorke perceive the connection between his own drunken malaise and a global culture of oppression beyond his control.

With “In Rainbows,” Radiohead are biting the hand that fed them for a decade. Their position is unique: only they could do this. Prince’s attempt at something similar by giving out his album “Planet Earth” in a UK newspaper met with cynicism and dismissal, but Radiohead are different. Buoyed by an entire career on a major label, they have ascended to massive success, along the way acquiring a rampant, gigantic fan base with similar ideals both musical and political. If my experience is any indication, many of the band’s fans consider Radiohead the greatest recording act in several decades, if not ever. Even if they make no money on this, Radiohead can afford it.

Yet they do not have to be the last band to do it. Finally, the power of downloading has been harnessed in a way that foolish corporate endeavours the iTunes music store couldn’t imagine. Now we have a vision of music’s future that excludes the music industry. The freedom to pay, say, $3 for a record – significantly below the usual price of a CD or iTunes download – also means giving the artist more money than they would make from a major-label contract.

Of course, let’s not kid ourselves. The culture of downloading was never really about confronting Capitalism. Rather, it has been the motor behind one of the most suspicious cultural trends of our generation: the Internetization of indie. The indie scene used to be a truly physical, localized space, a social network of like-minded bands grossly intermingled with other underground scenes including punk and to a lesser extent hip-hop.

Thanks to indie’s Internet-assisted ascent to full-spectrum cultural dominance, we have a mainstream culture where the more people “stole” a Death Cab for Cutie song, the more money corporations made from that dopey “O.C.” tie-in. The music has suffered, too – the increasingly self-cannibalizing scene is drowning in sonically impoverished bands that occupy the small line between, say, the Shins and Pavement. Against the possibility of a more united, more entrenched, really independent scene, we’ve stumbled into a world where indie belongs to all white and middle-class people instead of a small cult of white, middle-class misfits.

But if these negative developments may emerge from the unholy union of the Internet and independent music, their seeds were sown by the earlier unholy union of Capitalism and art.

So Radiohead’s move has uncertain implications. But let’s be optimists. A world without record labels is a world of art as its own raison d’etre – an unfamiliar, nearly unimaginable culture made possible once more. It’s up to us to make it more than just a faint glimmer this time, more than just a gimmick.