Even More “In Rainbows”

 Neil Cartwright:

take a look at measurement metrics not controlled by the Majors….

hype machine

radiohead is at the top of every single one, and this is 4 months after In Rainbows was released via a website consisting of 6 pages, and without any hype or promotion (at least, not hype paid for by the band…)

the fact is, the record is a smash, but not using your traditional measurement, i.e. sales and airplay. However, consider the new measurement tools, i.e. those that actually track what people listen to and play, and the radiohead album is by far the biggest release this year.

On Last.fm, last week, Radiohead occupied slots One to Ten on the Popular Track Top Ten! And we’re not talking small numbers – this is a site that measures tens of thousands of music fans listening preferences…. it may be sitting unplayed on your ipod, but evidently there are millions of people playing it….I’m sorry, but how do you define a ‘smash’?????

According to Don McLean, the day the music died might be when Buddy Holly’s plane crashed, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact date music expired again in the seventies. Sometime after corporate rock ruled the airwaves and was eclipsed by disco and then all blew up at Comiskey Park. Music was finished. The days of stadium shows were done. And then, on August 1st, 1981, images were beamed down the pipe and the business was saved again, by MTV.

MTV made stars. It told us what to listen to.

In the seventies, journeyman acts without hits were respected. Little Feat and Bonnie Raitt, for example. Suddenly, if you weren’t on MTV, if you didn’t have a hit, you were irrelevant. We went from a complex world to a very simple one. Winners and losers. And few winners at that.

And don’t forget that at first MTV was only rock, it was like an AOR station. Once Michael Jackson broke the color line, all music was broken on MTV, and there were even fewer opportunities for the losers. Now only a few rock acts could make it. You had to refine your sound, you had to make your act play on MTV. Mark Knopfler could lampoon the criteria in ’85, less than a decade a later, the owner of one of the biggest MTV hits ever couldn’t even get a video played.

Looked pretty good to those who’d survived CBS’ Black Friday. At least the business was making money. Who cared if television burned out acts. Who cared if it cost so much to break an act. You could win the lottery and sell TEN MILLION COPIES!

Suddenly, that’s all over. Along with the cash cow CD, whether it be the catalog replacement business or overpriced new material. It was all killed by the Internet. Suddenly, people had choice. But the business still functions like it’s 1999. Expecting to build superstars that can sell tonnage, when those days are done.

We can say it’s about the price of CDs, the vapidity of the acts, but really, it’s a lack of someone, an institution, to tell us what’s good.

In the fifties and sixties we had AM radio. In the seventies, FM. In the eighties and nineties, MTV. Each and every one of those institutions has capitulated, is burned out, calcified. Yet, the media act like they still count. You wonder why we can’t build any more superstars.

Stars will emerge in the twenty first century. They probably won’t shine as bright as their predecessors, but their growth will depend on two elements. An institution that tells us what is good, what to listen to, and word of mouth.

The labels hate word of mouth. They like dictation. That’s what radio, MTV and press are all about. We pick ’em, you consume ’em. That works when the institutions are trusted, but when they’re not, music goes underground. Music has now gone underground.

The Radiohead album is huge, but ONLY AMONGST ITS FANS!

Used to be EVERYBODY had an opinion on the Beatles, even Bon Jovi and ‘N Sync. Now you don’t have to pay attention to anything you don’t want to. But if you’re into something, you’re a part of a community, and that community exists on the NET! On the Net, like-minded fans communicate about their favorites, interact, and those outside of the loop are clueless. Like me.

I was positively INUNDATED with Radiohead recommendations. Stunningly, everybody disagreed regarding the best tracks on the album. The most votes were for "All I Need", which I don’t really get, but then there were those who picked tracks nobody else did, like "Weird Fishes/Arpeggi". And the few who loved "Videotape". And the ones who were down with my favorite, "House Of Cards".

It was like 1970 all over again. Music was vital, people were passionately speaking their truth, and suddenly, I was part of it. I was drawn into the vortex. And it all happened via E-MAIL!

Oh, I got a couple of negative responses. But from those who’d tried. Only one who’d heard the music passively, not by choice (on XM). It’s a self-selecting group, you’re either interested in Radiohead, or you’re not. How large is this group? WHO KNOWS!

Maybe if the band goes on the road and books stadiums. But the last time they hit the boards, they underplayed the market so dramatically, that all we perceived was the overwhelming demand. Which helped build the band’s cred, amongst believers. And only believers. No one wanted a ticket to hear the radio track, to be up close and personal with a TV star.

Don’t download "In Rainbows" if you’re not interested. It’s not something for drive-by listeners, casual fans. "In Rainbows" is for someone who doesn’t put their iPod on shuffle, someone who wants to go DEEP!

And you can go deep, BECAUSE THERE’S ONLY FORTY TWO AND A HALF MINUTES OF MUSIC ON THE RECORD! You’re not so overwhelmed that you can’t digest the tunes. You can play them a few times, to see if you get hooked.

This music was not made for the radio, not made for television, and therefore the mainstream doesn’t know what to do with it. It doesn’t fit their usual criteria. Where it’s all about SoundScan and spins. How do you work an "In Rainbows"? You don’t. You let the fans work it.

Sure, Radiohead started off with a radio track, "Creep", in the last century. But, their constant left turns have added to their credibility, when most bands that started off on MTV at the same time are now done. There’s been little press, few interviews, few proclamations. This just adds to the mystery, adds to the belief.

The business story has overwhelmed the music. And that’s unfortunate.

But it won’t be this way in the future. Just like giving away an album with the newspaper is now de rigueur. How the next album sold via Wal-Mart won’t generate press. In the future, we’re going to have bands playing directly to their fans, only interested in their fans, not interested in the media, the old metrics, because they just don’t translate into the one thing that counts, fans.

Fans generate money. Believers lay down cash. Whether it be for recorded music, live shows, merch or something yet to be created. Everything flows from the fan.

Radiohead’s got a shitload of fans. It’s just that their fanbase is extremely vertical. You’re either on the bus or off it. And those who aren’t on are insulted by those who are, alienating the rest of the public. There are no casual Radiohead fans. And that’s just how the band and its followers like it.

The story here isn’t the pay what you want release. Not at all. The story is a band that’s about the music and the music only, following its muse, not the pricks telling them there are rules and they must make a certain kind of music and whore it out.

Radiohead is a creative beacon. The press will go on to another story. Doug Morris will license or sue somebody. But that won’t impact the relationship Radiohead has with its fans. Its fans are rabid and satiated. Question the band’s music or motives and you get excoriated. You can’t buy this devotion. It’s an angry mob that plays in its own little backwater. But the backwater never evaporates, and it’s not really that little. This is the future, bands following their muse with fans. It’s less about subscriptions and DRM than the music, and people’s relationship with the music. One fan is worth more than a shitload of spins. Because that fan will tell everybody he knows about your music and will give you all his money.

This is a read-only blog. E-mail comments directly to Bob.