“There’s a line in Karma Police about he buzzes like a fridge. And to me, when you’re driving around in America and you have the alternative stations on in the background or in your hotel room or whatever; and it’s just like a fridge buzzing. That’s all I’m hearing. I’m just hearing buzz. It’s really odd. It’s kind of funny though really. You just have to laugh.”
-Thom Yorke, Meeting People Is Easy (1998)
Shortly after Thom Yorke and Radiohead released their first critically successful album OK Computer in 1997, they ventured on a 104 concert tour over almost 2 years. Instead of focusing on the behind the scenes look at the band and reveling over a few memorable concert moments, the film focuses primarily on all the baggage and absurdity that comes with being a world famous rock band on tour.
Radiohead’s and most notably Thom Yorke’s relationship with the press and the music industry can be described as, well, complicated at best. He hardly gives interviews and does 0 pandering when it comes to following any set format on releasing music, touring, or…even answering interviewers’ questions.
The band has always been a bit unconventional when it came to releasing music. Never shy to make a statement about how the music industry can in fact be pushed around, the band has famously delivered new releases in a variety of ways. In 2007, In Rainbows was released on their own website on a “pay what you want” status. They released their following album in a similar fashion on their site with 2011’s King of Limbs. Thom Yorke went as far as releasing his solo album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes via BitTorrent.
“It’s an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around … If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work. Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves. Bypassing the self elected gate-keepers. If it works anyone can do this exactly as we have done.”
Yorke’s reasons for bypassing the tried and true method of letting the label release the album through a system of pulleys and ropes was simple: take out the middleman and bring music closer to the artist.
In 2013 he famously got in a bit of a spat with Spotify and took off all of his solo work and the discography from Radiohead he still had control over.
There is a debate on whether or not Spotify does take away proceeds to artists that would have been lost to a few pennies from their streaming, however there is no argument that smaller bands need these streaming services to survive.
Yorke isn’t after lost earnings here. He is after restoring the relationship of artist to consumer. Throughout his career, a good chunk of his writing has been a bit political, to say the least. From warning his audience that technology has taken over our ability to function properly (OK Computer) all the way to the dangers of large government and climate change (Hail to the Thief), this has been quite a theme of his.
However, this thinking has come to a bit of an abrupt halt for Yorke and Radiohead. Although there is certainly a system that the music industry employs to keep bands in a square hole to pump out ratings and listens for the masses that stunt creativity, the peg of Radiohead has been truly relentless in its pursuit of staying right where they are–up until now.
Radiohead’s creativity hasn’t stalled at all, in fact, you could argue it has only blossomed more with last year’s A Moon Shaped Pool. However, the group’s relationship with its fans and the industry has changed drastically. The message was clear, Thom and Co didn’t want to put out garbage to get plays on the radio. They wanted fans who appreciated music for what it was truly meant to do: think and feel.
AMSP was released on a fairly large label, XL Recording that was quickly available on streaming sites such as Apple Music, and Thom’s long time nemesis, Spotify.
This year, Radiohead placed their entire discography on Apple Music and Spotify for everyone to hear.
For all the good intentions Yorke had to protect the artist, he ended up hurting the group that music is ultimately for: his listeners.
Don’t get me wrong, Yorke’s crusade had considerable merit and the waves were seen through artists like Taylor Swift’s call for Apple to pay artists accordingly when they launched their music streaming service last year. However, with any quest to make a change, you have to consider the cost to those affected in said quest.
Maybe it is age paired with an almost thirty year career in music, but Thom Yorke at 48 years is done releasing music in unconventional ways and just wants to return to being just a musician.
Thom has come to the realization that he wouldn’t be where he is today without the industry. The industry on the other hand deep down inside knows that bands like Radiohead don’t just spring up every year. No one knows when Thom’s swan song will start playing but his band has secured a spot in just about any critic’s top ten artists of all time list. You can’t get there without a little bit of controversy.
Myself along with my friend and co-founder of Reasonable Thought, Taylor Swayze had the good fortune of seeing Radiohead play in front of tens of thousands in Chicago at the music festival Lallapalooza this past summer. There were few things more thrilling for us lifelong fans than watching your favorite band play live in unison that only a group playing for three decades could master. Even after listening to their albums hundreds if not thousands of times, knowing every bass line and murmur, it was so fresh. One of their first shows in almost five years, a giddy Thom was interacting and singing along in his distinct croon for his fans to relish in his brilliance once again.
Artist and listener. This is the nucleus of the music industry for better or worse. At the end of the day, it is better left as a symbiotic relationship.
Maybe Yorke will be the one taking his own advice towards himself after all of this.
“You just have to laugh.”