I’m beginning to think that being stuck in a soul-crushing contract with a major corporate record label was a good thing for Trent Reznor. Sure, his new-found freedom is allowing him to push new boundaries in promotion, product, distribution and sales. But maybe all the frustration and suffering that came with having to deal with “record industry types” was just the fuel he needed to produce his compelling brand of angst-n-rage.
About a month ago, nine inch nails continued on its untethered course and released Halo 27: The Slip as a completely free, no-strings-attached download. True to the example set with Ghosts, the album is available in multiple formats, from the lowly mp3 to ridiculously high quality 24bit/96khz wav. Also, like Ghosts, each track has individualized album art. Unlike Ghosts, since the songs on The Slip actually have words, lyrics have thoughtfully been embedded in the files as well.
And while I’m glad to see the evolution of the online model, a part of me wishes Trent had spent a little more time on the music itself.
The Slip clocks in at a standard 43 minutes and largely follows With Teeth’s straightforward rock stylings. And it’s good, but it seems to lack that spark of greatness that I generally associate with nails’ releases. After listening to it several times now, there’s nothing on The Slip that strikes me as exceptional.
Which is not to say that I haven’t enjoyed it, it’s just I’ve heard a lot of this before. 999,999, the opening track, is Pinion for the new millennium, while 1,000,000 echoes the catchy poprock sensibility of The Hand That Feeds. Demon Seed, perhaps the catchiest song on the album, feels a lot like a rehash of Starfuckers, Inc.
All great artists are entitled to recycle their ideas occasionally. Let’s hope Trent has gotten it out of his system this time around. If not, someone get him a record contract to be pissed off about.
The iPod’s default behavior is to sort alphabetically.
Here’s Daft Punk’s albums:
Discovery (2001), Homework (1997) and Human After All (2005).
Not that long ago, I was asked by a commenter if I had any suggestions for getting the iPod to sort albums chronologically. By default, the iPod’s behavior is to sort albums alphabetically by title. In iTunes, there’s the option to sort “Album By Year” but the iPod features no such function.
At the time, I didn’t have much of an answer for him other than to put the albums in a playlist and just listen to the songs in chronological order. But in an interesting twist, the pixels in that reply were barely dry before Apple released version 1.3 of the firmware for 5G iPods. After some further discussion, this trick was discovered:
The most noticeable change in firmware 1.3 is the application of iTunes’ “smart sorting” (ignoring “a” “an” and “the”), including recognition of iTunes’ custom “Sort Fields” (Sort Album, Sort Composer), for Album and Composer. The Sort fields allow you to enter any text that you want and iTunes/iPod will use that to order the list of items, while displaying the text from the actual field.
Using the Sort Album field, you can easily put albums in whatever order you like. For example, you could put the Halo number of Nine Inch Nails releases in the Sort Album field to have all items, including singles and remix albums, displayed in the order they were released.
For basic chronological sorting, just put the year in the Sort Album field and voila, the iPod will show the album title, but they will be ordered by the year.
UPDATE: The previous version of this post recommended putting the year of the album in the Sort Album field. This, however, effectively changes the name of the album within iTunes’ logic, making it group all albums of the same year together.
The revised method is to simply prepend the year to the album name in the Sort Album field. This way, each album gets a unique identifier that still sorts by year.
Additional caveat: this tip has the potential (there have been mixed reports) to reorder the listings of the “Album” browser, as the Sort Album field may be applied to it. So if you ever use the iPod’s Album View, keep this in mind. See the discussion in the comments for effects and solutions.
For this demonstration, I’ve selected Daft Punk’s three studio albums:
Human After All (2005)
As you can see in the image at top, the default behavior is to display the albums in alphabetical order, with Discovery as the first. How do we fix that?
click to enlarge
In iTunes, get info on the first song of the album.
Click the Sorting tab.
Enter the year of the album then the album name into Sort Album field
Select all the songs on the album
Right-click/Control-click and select Apply Sort Field > Same Album
Repeat for as many albums as you care to customize
When you next update your iPod, the new data will take effect and the albums will be sorted by release date.
Daft Punk albums sorted chronologically.
This process works for any 5G iPod that has been updated to firmware version 1.3 (and I assume iPods/iPhones released subsequently) So if you haven’t updated yours, hop to it and then get customizing.
UPDATE 2: As mentioned in the comments, if you have an artist who released two or more albums in the same year, there are two options you can use to sort them appropriately:
If you know the more specific album release date, you can prepend that to the album name. Example: If one album was released in March and another in October, use 2008-03 and 2008-10 .
If you don’t know the date, you can order them with a number. Ex: 2008-1 , 2008-2 and so on.
Halo 26, Ghosts I-IV has just been announced at the nine inch nails website. It’s a collection of 36 instrumental tracks created with no clear agenda, with the entire process being driven by impulse and improvisation.
Of it, Trent says:
We began improvising and let the music decide the direction. Eyes were closed, hands played instruments and it began. Within a matter of days it became clear we were on to something, and a lot of material began appearing. What we thought could be a five song EP became much more. I invited some friends over to join in and we all enjoyed the process of collaborating on this.
Nine Inch Nails takes the Radiohead gambit a step further with this release, offering multiple formats and ordering options. All songs are available immediately for download from Amazon MP3 and nin.com:
Ghosts volume I (9 tracks) is a completely free download.
All 36 tracks can be downloaded for $5. Provided formats: 320kbps mp3, FLAC lossless and Apple Lossless. Also comes with a 40-page pdf. Paypal is an option for payment, if you want to avoid using credit/debit cards.
For $10, you can get 2 physical cds shipped on April 8 as well as immediate access to the downloads.
$75 gets you the 2 audio cds, a data dvd with multi-track files for remixing, 2 Blu-Ray disc with high-definition 96/24 stereo tracks and visual slide show all bound in a hard-bound slipcase. Also comes with 48-page photographic accompaniment book. You also get access to all the downloadable materials. Ships May 1.
And for the true nin spendthrift, there’s the $300 Limited Edition (limited to 2500 numbered copies). You get everything in the $75 package, plus four vinyl LPs, Glicee prints, and Trent Reznor’s signature. Ships May1, but of course, you get the downloads now.
Ghosts I-IV Limited Edition
I’m actively reducing the amount of physical clutter in my house. So as a devotee of digital formats, I’ll probably opt for the $5 version. Apple Lossless is a pretty nice format. Though I expect the NIN online store to be crushed by the demand for the next day or so. If mp3s are your thing, Amazon might be the way to go. You still get all 36 tracks for $5.
UPDATE: store.nin.com is pretty much DOA right now. I’ve actually managed to make a transaction, but the download failed after 100kB. So I’ll have to talk to customer service, since the store is providing “one-time download links.”
UPDATE II: Trent writes at nin.com from Hong Kong:
The response to this album has been overwhelming, causing our website to slow to a crawl. We THOUGHT we were ready, but… We’ve been adding more servers to accommodate the unexpected demand and we expect to be running smoothly in the next few hours. In the meantime, if you’ve had any problems with downloads from the Ghosts site, don’t worry – you’ll be able to use your download link again when the site is more stable.
Good to know the early adopters won’t be left in the proverbial cold.
UPDATE III: 24 hours later and the site is humming along nicely. Either the added servers are handling the crush well or demand has slowed or both. I had no trouble using my original download link to retreive the Apple Lossless + bonus files (more than 600 MB), which transfered without any hang ups.
The 36 songs range in length from 1:53 to 5:52 and total a running time of 1 hour 50 minutes. For comparison’s sake, both discs from The Fragile run 1 hour 46 minutes.
My initial impression after a couple listens is that Ghosts I-IV is a series of tone poems that don’t necessarily have any connection to each other. Nine Inch Nails records tend to have a certain “flow” to them that’s largely missing here. Instead, we have, as the album name would suggest, is borderless apparitions of sound and space. Many tracks stop suddenly, like a figment seen in the corner of one’s view that disappears when looked at directly, while others fade away or into the next track.
Stylistically the sound is unmistakeably Nine Inch Nails and the overall feel has more in common with the dark ambient tendrils of Trent’s soundtrack for the Quake computer game and The Fragile (think The Frail) than the apocalyptic paranoia of Year Zero. There is, however, some new ground here. I Ghosts 6 is borderline playful in its demeanor, a quality not usually associated with Nine Inch Nails’ music.
Ghosts has all the qualities of great instrumental music. It works well as background, as white noise with which to block out the world or drift away, but upon close inspection reveals remarkable textures and attention to detail.
But in typical fashion, Ghosts is more than just a listening experience. Each of the 36 songs has its own unique album art, snapshots to accompany the music.
Ghosts is Nine Inch Nails’ first release since the band was freed from its recording contract with Universal last October and its good to see that it is wasting very little time taking advantage of the new-found freedom and utilizing new media and techologies to promote, sell and circulate the music. There’s absolutely no way a record company would have released a double-disc set of what is a essentially musical diversions. And certainly not for a $5 download.
But Trent’s free agent status allows him to do whatever he wants. He can give this thing away, which he actually did: All 36 tracks are released under a Creative Commons license: Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike, meaning that anyone can give away the albums or use the songs as part of any non-commercial project so long as they credit NIN.
Trent says that there will likely be further editions in the Ghosts series. I, for one, will be looking forward to the music and future releases using the model.
In my last post, I detailed the ten albums that earned the highest ratings from me during 2007. But while I did find them each to be fantastic recordings, ratings don’t necessarily reflect popularity. That is to say that the most highly rated albums might not have been the most often played.
Indeed that’s not the case. I took data from the past year and ran it through my Impact report, which measures the relationship between total play counts and the number of songs an album or artist has in my library in order to see who has received the most attention relative to their size
While the results show some significant overlap with the top rated list (of course I listen to what I like), it turns out that being highly rated doesn’t necessarily guarantee a lot of playing. So without further ado, here are the albums that made the biggest splash last year.
1 Nine Inch Nails – Year Zero
Impact Rating: 1072
Showing Trent Reznor at his best, Year Zero received significant airplay throughout the year, enough to earn it the title of “Tunequest’s Most Impactful Album of 2007.”
2 Air – Pocket Symphony
Impact Rating: 1064
I listened to Pocket Symphony in a huge burst after its March release and kinda petered out over the remainder of the year. Still, that initial burst was enough to coast to a second place ranking.
3 Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight
Impact Rating: 1021
Rilo Kiley is one of a handful of musical acts that both the modernista and I actively like. It should be no surprise then that despite its late summer release, Under the Blacklight was in heavy rotation for the duration of autumn, so much so that it claimed the number three spot.
4 The Polish Ambassador – Diplomatic Immunity
Impact Rating: 936
The Ambassador’s debut disc broke into my brain early last year and left a substantial wake in its path. Our intergalactic diplomat’s electrogrooves are really really catchy. In my library for nearly the entire year, Diplomatic Immunity garnered the most play counts of any album I acquired in 2007.
5 Radiohead – In Rainbows
Impact Rating: 355
Radiohead’s revolutionary distribution may have brought the record to my ears, but its quality kept it playing again and again. Though In Rainbows narrowly missed my Top Rated Albums of 2007, it was listened to enough to become the fifth highest impactful album of the year, quite a feat considering the early October release of disc one and the early December release of disc two.
Also of note, here we see a huge drop in impact ratings between places 4 and 5. It’s clear that the top four were the breakaway albums of the year. Those four albums were responsible for 20% of the impact points generated among new aquisitions last year. Which means that either those albums are fantastically good (and they are) or I need to diversify my habits a bit (which I probably do). But hey the ears like what they like.
6 David Arnold: Casino Royale
Impact Rating: 338
I’ve been checking in on David Arnold’s film works every so often since the late 90s, when I discovered his score for the original Stargate film. Since then his scores have continued to impress me, especially his work for the James Bond franchise. His composition for Casino Royale, the 2006 re-booting of the Bond character, is perhaps his finest contribution yet. Lush, inviting and full of suspense and action, Casino Royale projects the best of the Bond musical heritage with a suave confidence that’s the hallmark of the character. But it adds its own unique motifs and ambience, keeping it from sounding like a re-hash of John Barry’s seminal soundtracks.
A highlight of the record is I’m The Money, a short 27-second track. But those 27 seconds are filled with the distlled essense of the entire score and they evoke the predominate atmosphere of the film as well, from the exotic and intriguing to the dark and dangerous.
I’m The Money:
The more I listen to this one, the more I might think it’s the best score of Arnold’s carreer and perhaps the best in the entire James Bond series.
7 Susumu Yokota – Symbol Impact Rating: 335 8 Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon Impact Rating: 324 9 The Polish Ambassador – The Phantasmal Farm Impact Rating: 301 (A good year for the Ambassador around here) 10 The Smashing Pumpkins – Zeitgeist Impact Rating: 261
For those would would like a baseline, the average impact for all records acquired in 2007 was 68, while the median was 16. Additional math shows me that the top 20 records were responsible for just more than half the impact ratings generated throughout the year. So I’ve resolved this year to show some more consideration with my musical choices. Last year’s massive influx of new tunes was largely a response to having neglected many new records and trends in music while partaking in the original tunequest. This year I’ve decided to purposefully not seek out too many new records and spend more time with the ones I do get.
So, here’s to tunequest 2008, whatever form it may take.
After spending 2006 evaluating the status of my iTunes library and trimming some fat, I took the opportunity in 2007 to explore a lot of new material. And I must say that overall it was a pretty good year for both my library and for music in general. I had added 1,891 songs to my library by the end of October, which marks the fifth largest library expansion since I started collecting music. At that point, I decided it was time to start evaluating my acquisitions.
2007 was a year of rock in tunequestland. Each year seems to bring me another fascinating tangent of audio to explore in detail. In 2004, it was classical music and in 2005 it was audiobooks, podcasts and other learning materials, an itch that already seems to be acting up for 2008. But for 2007, rock was the operative mode, so much so that I’ve picked up a significant air-guitar habit. Nearly 50% of my library additions fell within the genre, with all other forms of music splitting the remain 50%.
Around here, the year was also a big one for newly-released music. 22% of my new acquisitions were released in 2007, while 50% were released between 2005 and 2007. Perish the though that there is no good music these days. That sentiment might apply to some corporate-backed music, but in total there is more good music released everyday than a single person can keep up with. I’ve already got a huge backlog of albums I didn’t get around to listening to by October.
But forget the stuff I didn’t listen to, what about the music I did? Read on for the albums, artists and songs that made for tunequest 2007. First, some numbers:
2007 By the Numbers
Applies to all new music added to my library during 2007. As a subset of my library in general, these figures do not include ratings, play counts and other stats from 2006 and earlier.
Total Songs: 1,891
Total Play Time: 5 days, 18 hours, 43 minutes, 1 second
Total Play Counts: 4,815
Avg Play Count per song: 2.55
Median Play Count per song: 2
Total Listening Time: 14 days, 3 hours, 35 minutes, 40 seconds
Avg Song Length: 4:26
Median Song Length: 4:01
Released in 2005, the EP fleshes out Bonobo’s attractive studio work with robust live arrangements. The energetic atmosphere of hypnotic future jazz presented on the disc earns it a phenomenal 4.58 / 5 stars. Music rarely gets better than when the live cut of Nothing Owed bursts to life from its humble introduction.
But since EPs are ineligible for Album of the Year ratings–their low track counts skew the results–here is the official list of the music that rocked my world this year.
1 Pink Floyd: Dark Side of the Moon
Sacrilege I know! But before this year I had never listened to Pink Floyd, save for a small part of The Wall that I saw a friend’s house while in high school. At some point over the summer though, I figured there must be something to 1973’s Dark Side of the Moon, since it’s become the de facto standard for judging the success of a new recording medium and that the record was in the U.S. Top 100 records for nearly 30 continuous years.
Turns out that two generations worth of music lovers aren’t wrong. This thing is fantastic. Expertly-crafted, catchy, thought-provoking and teeming with existential quandaries, the record quickly became one of my favorites of the year. Highlights: the haunting mortality implicit in Time and the swagger of Money. Then there’s all the air-guitaring again.
4.51 / 5 stars
2 Nine Inch Nails: Year Zero
Trent Reznor was in the news a lot in 07, from publicly insulting his record company to encouraging his fans to steal his music to setting up a website for people to exchange homemade remixes of his songs. Ignore all that. His real achievement this year was Year Zero, the nightmarish dystopian concept album that broke out into the real world.
Beyond marketing games though, Year Zero features some of Trent’s tightest and most clever songwriting. From the straight-ahead bombast of The Beginning of the End to the almost-hymnal Zero-sum, this record doesn’t disappoint.
More accolades around here for Bonobo’s particular brand of laid back energy with 2006’s Days to Come. Bonobo’s music gets more complex with each release and this one is 51 minutes of pure brilliance. Watch out for the pairing of Nightlite and Transmission94. Swingy jazz, melancholic brass and clever rhythms held together by superb production.
3.97 / 5 stars
4 Maserati: Inventions for the New Season
Athens, Ga-based postrock outfit Maserati piles on thick layers of instrumental delight on 2007’s Inventions for the New Season. Crisp, melodious and spirited, this record is the band’s best yet. It almost like the soundtrack to the best roller-coaster ride of your life.
3.93 / 5 stars
5 Les Baxter: African Blue: Exotic Rhythms of Les Baxter
I’ve had a soft spot for master of exotica and light classical composer Les Baxter since I stumbled upon his rendition of Calcutta nearly ten years ago. Being a master of course, Baxter delivers his own unique lounge-inspired spin on traditional African music on African Blue. The version I got from eMusic (bundled with Colors of Brazil) was re-issued in 1993, but I haven’t been able to track down the original release date. It probably dates to the late 1960s.
No matter, it sounds good regardless of when it came from. African Blue might be inspired by the sounds of the Dark Continent, but it could hardly get more chic. The woodwinds and percussion on Zebra are to die for.
3.9 / 5 stars
Listen to Zebra:
6 Susumu Yokota: Symbol
Japanese sound-bender Susumu Yokotainfatuated me in a big way near the beginning of the year. His ability to not just make beautiful music, but make and harness beautiful sounds–building blocks of music–captivated me almost instantly. On 2005’s Symbol, Yokota takes his inspiration from a wide spectrum of classical music heritage, directly sampling a mashing together multiple works and styles. It’s breath-taking. The Steve Reich meets Claude Debussy and a plethora of other composers on Blue Sky And Yellow Sunflower strikes my fancy like you can’t imagine.
Even the song titles are poignant and beautiful on this record.
3.87 / 5 Stars
7 The Polish Ambassador: The Phantasmal Farm
When it was put on the internet as a free download in July 2007, The Phantasmal Farm was the second full-length album released in the span of six months by the inter-dimensional envoy of electrogroovocity, The Polish Ambassador. Some people might assume that such a rapid-fire release rate would have affected the quality of the music. But not in this case. The Ambassador’s powers are mighty and The Phantasmal Farm’s beats, grooves and mind-blowing electrotunes actually edge out the score of The Ambassador’s debut record, Diplomatic Immunity (which I thought was pretty damn awesome), by 0.12 points.
By downloading this record, not only will you experience some of the most seductive and mesmerizing electrofunk you might ever hear, you’ll be helping to preserve the Phantasmal Farm itself, which can only persist if people remember it. When you’re there, check out When The Robo B-Boys Just Kill It and Astro-American Anthem, then just try to keep from dancing.
3.86 / 5 Stars
When The Robo B-Boys Just Kill It
8 Rilo Kiley: Under the Blacklight
The fifth album and major label debut from Los Angeles rock troubadours Rilo Kiley has been totally rocking my house since its August 2007 release. While not all the songs rank among the band’s greatest, Under the Blacklight is probably their most well-rounded record. I made note in my review that it’s the band’s most rock-focused release to date. That suits me just fine, considering my current regard for rock music.
Initially my favorite track was the disc’s opener, Silver Lining. Having had more time to listen to Under the Blacklight, I’ve since discovered that I’m partial to Dreamworld, which is unusual because it’s one of Blake’s songs, and I’ve been less disposed toward his writings.
3.84 / 5 Stars
9 Air [french band]: Pocket Symphony
The first Air album in three years arrived to eagerly waiting ears in March 2007. Though not much groundbreaking this time around, Pocket Symphony is a strong album nonetheless. If anything, the record is more sullen in character than anything the duo has produced in the past. Still, it is exquisitely lush in composition and well worth attention. Left Bank and Mer du Japon are particularly lovely.
3.84 / 5 Stars
10 The Smashing Pumpkins: Zeitgeist
The Pumpkins came back in 2007, after breaking up in 2000, and there was much trepidation around these parts as to whether this new era of smashingness would be substantial or meaningless hype. Turns out that the trepidation was ill-founded, because Zeitgeist freakin rocks. Taut songs presented straightforwardly equals rock heaven. Tarantula was a hit from the first radio-capped bootleg I snagged off the Internet and Doomsday Clock freakin blows my doors off. that’s right, I said ‘freakin’ twice. that’s how good this is.
3.81 / 5 Stars
I found all these albums to be well worth my attention this past year. Give them a listen and you find that they are well worth yours as well.
For nearly as long as there’s been an Internet, fans have been contributing to the nine inch nails experience. There’s something about the music that seems to inspire a devotional following (probably has to do with expressions of angst, contempt and alienation wrapped appealing pop sensibilities). Youthful rebelliousness and antiestablishmentism runs deep through both camps.
Indeed, the rise of nin and the net seems to have coincided perfectly with each other. There were discussions on Usenet about Pretty Hate Machine being one of the best albums of the year in 1989 and the earliest mention of a nine inch nails web site that I could find is dated Nov 1, 1994, shortly after the net was opened to the public.
1994, of course, was the year the The Downward Spiral took the world by storm, reaching #2 on the Billboard Charts and exposing nin to the mainstream. Long story short: Reznor took five years to release another album and while lost in the wilderness, the steadfast fanbase incubated around the Internet. Fansites came and went, trading bootlegs and rumors and tracking the handful of singles and soundtrack songs released in the interim.
By the time 1999’s The Fragile release cycle began, Internet culture had matured quiet a bit. MP3’s and broadband were just starting to be mentioned in mainstream, but the leading-edge nails fans had already adopted them. I downloaded my first fan remixes sometime in the 99-00 winter and some of them were really good (like The Day The World Went Away (peppy by ignorantLOSER). download it). On the official front, Trent made several remixes and exclusive tracks available at the nine inch nails website. There was even a remix contest held for the song The Big Come Down (the winner can be found here).
Fast forward another five years. The Internet and computer technology had advanced quite a bit further. The album With Teeth was released in the spring of 2005 and a month later, Trent posted the source files to the first single The Hand That Feeds to his website in Apple’s Garageband format, officially sanctioning home-brewed remixes of the song. Websites sprang up immediately to catalog and share the fan-created materials.
Which brings me to today. One of the predominant trends on the Internet is, to be sure, social networking and inter-site integration (some call it “web 2.0”). What happens when you mix web 2.0 with the nine inch nails online ethos?
Taking the home remix concept a step further, Trent Reznor has put together a site where anyone can sign up, listen to, vote on, make comments about and download nine inch nails remixes, both official (as in previously-released on CD) and fan made. It’s freakin huge. The more industrious fans can download master tracks and make their own remixes for community evaluation and sharing.
The site combines the nine inch nails community and do-it-yourself artistry with a heavy dose of modern social media technology. The entire site is built in Flash and follows the graphic spirit typical of a nine inch nails presentation. Music can be selected from a playlist showing the latest top rated songs or you can search or browse for a particular piece. When browsing, you can create your own custom playlists. I started to put together a complete instrumental version of Year Zero before I realized that Trent had already done it for me. Other available playlists include Top Rated Fan Mixes, Most Commented, Newest, and Most Listened to, among others.
Once a song is selected, it begins playing in the browser and the song’s curriculum vitae is displayed along with it. If you enjoy what you hear, there’s a “download mp3” button next to the rating number. Users can also assign attributes to songs based on various continua such mellow vs aggressive or dense vs sparse.
Playlists as well as individual remixes can be shared. Playlists via RSS feed so you can publish your favorite tracks or keep tails on a favorite remixer. Individual songs can be shared via URL. Here is a decent remix of The Beginning of the End. The only thing that’s missing is embedable player, a la YouTube, for putting the mixes on your own site.
There is one thing I can’t help but grumble about (but good-naturedly): all those rare and unreleased songs for the downloadin’. Being the nails fan that I am, I’ve spent more a decade keeping up with all the loose-ended ephemera of the catalog. Imports, promos, versions, bootlegs and anything else rare and obscure. After all the work and effort, to my (light-hearted) chagrin, I come to find that a lot of it is now free for the taking. It took me six and a half years to find a copy of the Aphrodite remix of The Perfect Drug, but you can have it just by clicking on this link.
But hey, the fact that it’s available at all is pretty freakin cool.
It’s been nearly forty-eight hours have passed since Radiohead’s surprise announcement set off an explosion of fandom around the web. Indeed, Blogpulse shows a more than 1300% increase in the number of posts mentioning the band from September 29 to October 1. Of course, a new Radiohead album is big news, especially after a four year wait, but the real source of conversation is the band’s decision to allow variable pricing of In Rainbows. Much of the commentary revolves around how this is a shot across the bow of the record labels.
In Rainbows is Radiohead’s first record since fulfilling their recording contract. That is to say that there was no record label involvement in the financing, production, marketing or distribution of the album. It’s yet another sign of the changing economics of the music industry in the digital era. Besides the usual “labels are dinosaurs” meme being bandied about, the aspect that strikes me the most about the In Rainbows announcement is the complete element of surprise.
It’s almost inconceivable that one of the world’s most watched band’s most anticipated albums could be sprung so suddenly on an unsuspecting populace.
Radiohead fans have known that there would be a new album “soon,” but a specific time frame was unknown. In fact, until as recently as week ago (Sept. 25) the Wikipedia page for the album maintained that it was to be released in 2008. There were no details other than suspected track titles and new songs played at live shows. We didn’t even know the album’s title until the other day. The fact that the band can say, “Hey it’s done and can be yours in a little more than a week,” that’s the real game changer here.
Consider the case with the band’s previous album, 2003’s Hail to the Thief. Whereas we’d heard nary a peep about In Rainbows, a surprisingly robust unmastered version of Hail to the Thief was leaked on the net TWO MONTHS before the official release date. Albums by other artists regularly appear on the net well ahead of their scheduled release date. Now, there’s the argument that leaked albums aren’t exactly a bad thing, but that’s not the point here.
The point is about control.
Now this is pure speculation, but it seems to me that without the involvement of record label personnel, Radiohead has been able to work in a more secured and isolated environment. Fewer spoons in the pot, so to speak, means fewer opportunities for unscrupulous individuals to make off with recorded materials. When there are so few people working closely on a project, I imagine that there’s much more loyalty and devotion as a whole and fewer people who feel that what they are doing is simply a job.
Added security and more artistic control? Chalk that up as another advantage to not working with a record label.
Of course, like Trent Reznor telling fans to steal his music, Radiohead can get away with this scheme because they’re a known quantity, having already benefitted from ten years of record label backing from a time when record labels were essential to lasting success. In 1997, there’s no way that OK Computer could have become one of the greatest albums ever released without the support of a major label. The media landscape of the late 90s was such that sufficient money to go big could only be found at a major corporation (EMI in Radiohead’s case).
Having generated all that cultural capital with the help of EMI’s resources and having a fan base that is already legion, there’s not much the band has to do at this point to stir up excitement. However, while they have generated the biggest buzz, Radiohead is not the first to distribute “donation-ware” music. Athens, Ga-based label Quote Unquote Records has been working in that fashion since 2006, billing itself at the first donation-based record label. And certainly there have been individual artists with Paypal buttons on their site, asking for contributions in exchange for free downloads. Though, it’s hard to find evidence on how financially successful that approach has been for the relatively obscure.
With a big name artist popularizing the idea, direct-to-consumer sales and personal value pricing are just more cracks in the business model of the record industry.
Historically, labels served the artists by putting money down to help promote, produce and distribute physical media. Throughout the 20th century, it was very expensive to shoot a music video and get posters printed and pay for studio time and hire recording technicians. The mass-production of thousands or millions of vinyl, cassettes or compact discs didn’t come cheap either. It’s impossible to have a record go platinum without manufacturing at least one million copies of it. The upfront money to do that was essentially on loan in the hopes that public interest in the artist would recoup costs and generate a healthy profit.
But since the boom of the MP3 and the increasing affordability and sophistication of “pro-am” music production, that system has been changing. Compared to even ten years ago, it’s exponentially cheaper to record, promote and distribute music using desktop computers and the Internet. Programs like Apple’s GarageBand make it relatively simple for actual garage bands or bedroom auteurs to create compelling, professional sounding music.
Add YouTube and music blogs (such as tunequest) to the mix and artists have a lot promotional muscle at their disposal. Top it off with low-cost DIY and pay-what-you-want digital distribution and the question becomes, “Who needs labels?”