For me, Radiohead’s splendid OK Computer provided the perfect soundtrack to being a PR guy in the waning days of the 1990s tech boom. The lads in the band would probably find that odd, but such is the stuff of pop music.
Anyway, in a few hours, the band will do something pretty extraordinary. Free from a record label for the first time in a long time, they’re releasing a new album online. All by themselves. Furthermore, they’re letting buyers decide what to pay for it. Would you like to download it for nothing? OK. Would you like to pay $200 for it? Fine. Up to you. Pay the band what you think it’s worth.
What’s most remarkable to me, though, is that this has taken just about everyone by surprise. Even longtime, die-hard fans of the band. No promotion. No satellite media tour interviews. No advances to press, reviewers or radio stations (not that I can see anyway), and consequently no pre-release Internet leakage. None of the usual song and dance. Just a note posted to the band’s website on Oct. 1 by guitarist Jonny Greenwood: “Well, the new album is finished, and it’s coming out in 10 days.” And they’re handling it themselves, thanks much.
Of course, they can do this because more than a decade of old-school record label promotion helped make them big enough to do so. And, presumably, they can afford to give a record away if that’s what essentially happens. But in any case, one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed rock acts in history has pretty much just dumped the promotional middleman in a bit of classic nonchalance.
For zillions of musicians who feel they’ve been chumped by labels over the years, it must be a sweet thing to see. But is this a defining moment in the way major artists’ stuff will be promoted and sold? And if that’s true, what other middlemen does the Internet threaten? That we’ll have to watch.