Why Thom and co are out on a limb this time
Nick Kelly on the surprise announcement of Radiohead's new album
Published 15/02/2011 | 05:00
When it comes to Radiohead, it seems there's no publicity like . . . no publicity.
Despite being one of the biggest bands in the world with a fanbase in the millions -- not to mention a music press who pore over singer Thom Yorke's every utterance -- the announcement on their website yesterday that they are releasing a new album this Saturday came as a complete surprise to everyone who is not actually in Radiohead.
What makes this story remarkable is not just that they managed to keep the news of the imminent release of The King Of Limbs secret -- but that they did so in an age of instantaneous social media, where a rock star can't blow his nose or fiddle with his plectrum without some passerby filming it on their camera-phone and uploading it on to YouTube five seconds later.
But you could have searched Twitter, Facebook and a thousand obsessive music blogs for gossip about The King Of Limbs -- and you would have searched in vain. Blindsiding the blogosphere like this is almost unprecedented these days.
But the Oxford group are happy to rip up the PR rule book: normally, a band of Radiohead's stature would flag their new album months in advance -- the current trend is for the record company to make a hullabaloo over announcing the name of the album and the running order of the track list long before it's actually on sale. Then there's an extensive billboard campaign plastering the album cover all over town, not to mention TV and radio ads . . .
A case in point is U2, whose last album, No Line On The Horizon, had a press campaign that was inescapable only if you lived on the far side of the Orion nebula in outer space. Famously, Bono and the boys appeared on every arts programme on BBC TV and radio for a week.
But Thom Yorke's mob take delight in doing things their own way. They effectively gave away their last album, 2007's In Rainbows, for free, making it available online months before it appeared in record stores, with the stipulation that fans could pay what they thought the album was worth.
Many chose to pay nothing -- although its presence atop many polls listing the greatest albums of the Noughties suggested it was actually priceless.
It was a stunt which infuriated the bean-counters in the music biz -- not to mention other artists without the same deep pockets as Yorke et al -- but it cemented Radiohead's reputation as the music establishment's most anti-establishment band.
Having fulfilled their contract with EMI prior to In Rainbows, the band could easily have signed a multi-million euro deal with any of the other majors, who would have snapped them up as one of the only sure bets left in an increasingly cash-strapped industry -- but chose instead the small independent dance label XL because they admired their roster.
Then there was their world tour for 2000's Kid A album. The band erected an old-school marquee circus tent in which to perform -- refusing to allow any corporate sponsorship on the tour. This was interpreted as Yorke making a statement about the extent to which other rock bands have sold their soul to corporate branding (here's looking at you, Mick 'n' Keef).
The overall impression Yorke and co give out is of a band in love with making music -- but who loathe the capitalist system in which it operates.
By rush-releasing their new album with no advance notice, it seems Radiohead have once again gone out on a limb.