Radiohead: who needs a label?

Radiohead left EMI in 2005 after fulfilling its contract, freeing the band up to try new models of distribution. Its next album, In Rainbows, will be distributed exclusively through the band's Web site, and could herald the death of the major label

Tech Culture

Radiohead and its record label, EMI, parted ways in 2005 after the band fulfilled the terms of its contract. The assumption among fans and industry types was that the band was shopping for a new label, and a new album was supposedly slated for 2008.

Today, Radiohead posted a terse entry on its official Web site announcing that its next album, In Rainbows, would be available for sale on Oct. 10. Sort of.

That is, fans will be able to download digital versions of the 10 album tracks on that date. Not from iTunes or Amazon or any other music download service, but exclusively through a band-operated Web site devoted to the album. Fans will be able to decide how much they want to pay (although a minimum credit card transaction fee may apply), and while the band hasn't revealed anything about formats, DRM-free MP3 files would be in line with the iconoclastic, anti-industry approach they're taking. If you don't care how much your fans pay for the digital download, why should you care if they copy and share?

The band's also taking pre-orders for a special box set (they call it a discbox) that will cost 40 pounds (about $80). It'll include the album on both CD and double-LP format, and a bonus CD with eight additional tracks. That discbox won't be available until Dec. 3. In other words, free from the label dictates to sell product, Radiohead is smart enough to use the digital format as a teaser--fans will download it on the day it comes out, and if it's good enough, and they'll pony up for the full meal deal. And probably buy concert tickets as well.

It appears that all the mechanics--manufacturing, order-taking, shipping--have been contracted directly by the band and its management. This E! News story quotes the band's publicist, but it's not clear whether there will be any major marketing campaign--there's no real need when a couple of Web pages can generate hundreds of news articles and blog postings. (Guilty as charged.) Radiohead never got much radio play anyway, so they don't need a label for that. And their management company can handle the tour.

So who needs a label?

True, not every band's got 15+ years and five critically acclaimed studio albums and millions of fans to fall back on like Radiohead. And most artists can't afford a producer like Nigel Godrich or the time to tinker in the studio unless they have label backing. Still, if a musician knows how to write and perform, develops a solid live reputation by touring constantly, and can spare a few thousand dollars to record and press a quality-sounding recording, what's a label get them? Radio play--maybe a 1 in 1,000 chance. An expensive carpet-bombing publicity campaign? Only useful for wannabes with insufficient talent to attract attention on their own. Comfortable living for a couple years while you wait for your big break? Fine, as long as you're sure you can recoup your advance.

Autoplay: ON Autoplay: OFF