Music's renegade masters... Radiohead, Drake and Beyoncé
Surprise releases from Radiohead, Drake and Beyoncé are proof that modern musicians are beginning to think outside the box and shun traditional marketing ploys to keep their product relevant
Published 06/05/2016 | 07:00
Rock's grumpiest mould-breakers have struck again. Having woven an intoxicating mystery by "erasing" themselves from the internet at the weekend, Radiohead set the web aflame on Tuesday with the surprise release of a new single, a terrifying nugget of art-rock entitled Burn the Witch.
This was just the latest coup by the Oxford quintet, who have devoted the latter half of their career to turning music industry received wisdoms on their head.
What other band could have put out an entire album for free - as Radiohead did with 2007's In Rainbows - only for it to promptly whoosh to the top of the American charts (and eventually sell three million copies). Who else, for that matter, could so effortlessly swap U2-esque stadium posturing for difficult art rock and become more popular in the process?
Yet while Radiohead's reputation as peerless innovators will be enhanced by the hoopla surrounding Burn the Witch (best described as last season's Game Of Thrones compacted into a three-and-a-half minute dirge) there's an argument that their latest grand project is, in fact, rather conventional. Predictable even.
We are in the era of the "stealth" album, with more and more artists seeking to turn their latest record into an event by unleashing it with the kind of fanfare previously reserved for Hollywood blockbusters and moon landings.
Several days before Burn the Witch, hip-hop fans were in a lather over the bolt-from-the-blue launch of Drake's Views, a concept-long player that counts the ways in which being an international rap deity can ruin your day (there are a few, it turns out).
That record, was in turn, preceded by the continent-shaking happening that was Beyoncé's Lemonade - the "surprise" album that eclipsed the death of Prince, the US Presidential election and a new Captain America movie.
Unveiled via a one-hour television special on HBO, Lemonade was greeted by fans and critics alike as though a sacred document wafting down from the heavens, every lyric parsed for droplets of wisdom (to sum the record up: Bey is mad and Jay's sleeping on the couch).
This is not how it used to be. Back in the day, new albums were promoted in a relatively traditional fashion. The artist would grant several high-profile interviews, supplemented by a lavish window display at your neighbourhood HMV.
When Michael Jackson sought to draw attention to his 1995 HIStory LP by floating an outsize statue of himself down the river Thames, the derision was immediate. Gimmickry was frowned upon.
Of course, that was back when the public was willing to pay for music with cold, hard cash and artists could move millions of units without even really putting a shoulder to the wheel. Past a certain level of popularity, your records essentially sold themselves.
Rest assured we no longer live in that time. The overwhelming majority of listeners nowadays access music via streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music (not forgetting Jay Z-owned Tidal, which holds exclusive streaming rights to Lemonade).
In other words, every new album is by definition a "soft" launch - a musician sets their music free into the virtual ether and it is a matter of serendipity whether or not it gains traction.
In this environment, it is crucial to set yourself apart by, in essence, turning your record into an internet-hogging event. Yet staging a multimedia circus brings its own risks.
Consider U2, whose give-away of 2014 album Songs of Innocence to 500 million iTunes subscribers triggered a backlash and arguably damaged their credibility long term. With Apple quick to disassociate from the stunt by releasing a Songs of Innocence "removal tool" for iTunes and Bono moved to apologise ("I had this beautiful idea and we kind of got carried away with ourselves"), this was a shot-gun blast to the foot on a grand scale. Songs of Innocence was dead before it had even really arrived.
"Apple hung them out to dry," one rock star told me on condition of anonymity in the aftermath of the controversy. "By releasing a patch that allowed people remove the album, they were essentially washing their hands of U2. It was unfortunate."
If Radiohead are better at walking the tight-rope it may be because, from the start, defying received wisdom has been part of their modus. They were quietly appalled when early single Creep became a boozy student anthem; following the success of 1997's OK Computer, they retreated from stadium populism and, in essence, tried to scare away the mainstream component of their fan base.
They have, moreover, always chased their muse and left the hedging of bets and career strategy to others.
"The moment you try to second guess anything you're in trouble," drummer Phil Selway told me in 2014. "With everything we've done in Radiohead, there was always a sense the music has to come first. It has to be a genuine representation of where you are at that point.
"We all have our gut instincts and ultimately the smart thing is to listen to them. That's what helps you make music that connects to people."