Radiohead's 'In Rainbows': A Pragmatic Experiment In 2007, Radiohead shocked music fans and the industry by releasing their record In Rainbows without a label, via its own Web site, and for whatever price listeners wanted to pay to download it. Whether it was a success or not, the much-talked-about release reflected changes in the record industry and shaped the decade in music.

'In Rainbows': A Pragmatic Experiment

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As we continue our look back at the decade and the musical events that shaped it, we turn to 2007. That was the year the band Radiohead shocked music fans and the industry by releasing their record "In Rainbows" without a label, on their own Web site, and for whatever price listeners wanted to pay to download it. Jacob Ganz reports.

JACOB GANZ: Before we get too far, let's be clear about one thing. The release of "In Rainbows" did not mark the end of CD sales as we know them. But for the nine days between the record's announcement and its release, everyone was talking about Radiohead's groundbreaking experiment. Everyone, including me.


GANZ: ...That's all the information we've got, so you've got to figure that there are many, many people poised over their computers right now, waiting for this thing to drop.

GANZ: 30 a.m. I was sitting at my computer, waiting to download the album and file a quick turnaround for MORNING EDITION. That was before I had even heard a note of the music.


WERTHEIMER: (Singing) Forget about your house of cards and I'll deal mine.

GANZ: Radiohead released "In Rainbows" on CD a few months later. Thom Yorke, the band's lead singer, explained in an online interview for Wired magazine that Radiohead would never have been able to pull off the stunt without years of support from the bands' former label, Capitol-EMI.

WERTHEIMER: It's not supposed to be a model for anything else. It was simply a response to a situation. We're out of contract. We've spent a huge amount of money on this server. We have our own studio. This is the obvious thing to do.

GANZ: Essentially, Yorke said, they knew the record would leak. They might as well be the ones to leak it, and see if they could make some headlines and make some money doing so.

WERTHEIMER: My impression was and is that this was a very pragmatic experiment.

GANZ: That's Eric Garland, the founder and CEO of Big Champagne, a company that tracks downloading on the Internet. Radiohead's management hired Garland and a British music-industry economist to analyze sales and unauthorized downloads after the album was released.

WERTHEIMER: This was a band that recognized the realities of the marketplace at a moment when the industry was having a really difficult time doing just that. And so the band, you know, very much did not want to bury their collective head in the sand about that. How do we embrace the world as it is and not as we wish it were?

GANZ: The question on everyone else's lips: what would people pay, if anything? Thom Yorke told Wired that "In Rainbows" brought the band more money via the Web than the digital releases of all other Radiohead albums combined.

WERTHEIMER: People took it as it was meant, you know. It wasn't music's not worth anything. It was the total opposite. People having a little faith in what we're doing. Which, in itself, was an extremely nice little ego boost.

GANZ: Not so nice: according to Eric Garland's findings, more than two million people downloaded "In Rainbows" from unauthorized sources in the month after its digital release, even though it was available for nothing from the band's Web site. Garland says some people took that as proof that the experiment was a failure. Instead, he argues, the numbers point to a more basic fact: more people will buy a popular album, but more people will download it, too.

WERTHEIMER: Not everybody pays for music when you give them the option. And a great number of people pay relatively little, but a reasonable niche will pay far more than you or I would expect them to.

GANZ: In a decade where the industry's motto might as well have been "lower your expectations," that's a small prize. Even if it was nothing else, "In Rainbows" was a well-managed event: the right album at the right time from the right band at the right price. For NPR News, I'm Jacob Ganz.


WERTHEIMER: To see more of our coverage of the past decade in music, visit This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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