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In a very insightful and thoughtful post on the UK’s Index of Censorship site, the bassist for Radiohead recently reflected on the experimental release of the band’s last album, the Grammy winning and chart-topping “In Rainbows,” which went online initially with an honor box through which the audience paid what they wanted for access to the songs. It was the band’s first album after they left their label, EMI.

Colin Greenwood, Radiohead’s bassist, is a keen observer of the digital distribution system and the Internet audience. The sequence of lessons Greenwood and his bandmate’s have learned is worth reviewing, mainly because they seem like lessons we might be learning before too long, especially in book publishing.

First, on the album preceding “In Rainbows,” the band’s music was swiped somehow from some digital version — a CD, an iPod, they’re just not sure — and placed online against their wishes.

It made you realise how easy it is to store and transmit music once it’s digitised, and that the fundamental thing about music is its destiny to be broadcast or shared.

Scholarly content was pirated with aplomb by casual and organized approaches in the early days of broad digital usage (and you could argue that Mendeley is essentially a file-sharing technology). So, this is a parallel right off the bat.

Like any good publisher, Radiohead is worried about galvanizing an audience around a publishing event. To recapture the feeling of an event with “In Rainbows,” the band worked hard to maintain control of their files, and successfully released the entire album all at once online, making the kind of splash they’d hoped to:

[In the old days,] the success of keeping the music off the net until release proved very powerful. . . . In the digital world, with the ease of music escaping online, that sense of an event is diminished.Journalists in America had stayed up overnight to write the first review as they received the music – again, in the pre-digital age they would have had advance copies up to three weeks before.

The journal embargo is essentially a way to control the release of information so that it represents an event. This is actually, in most cases, helpful to scientific communication, I think. We have enough trouble cutting through the clutter. Getting the message out through this kind of controlled event — the embargo — is a way to make important authors, studies, and results more prominent.

Greenwood then turns to matters at hand:

Three years later, we have just finished another group of songs, and have begun to wonder about how to release them in a digital landscape that has changed again.

As he puts it, music has become the “poor cousin of software.” The same could be said for STM journal content, as PubMed, Google, and other search aggregators wrap the content in convenient, vanilla, de-branded packages for easy consumption, bypassing the work on site design, brand attributes, and editorial differentiation.

Quality is something the band insists upon, another lesson we might want to take to heart:

For all the giddy prognostications, the most important reason for the success of “In Rainbows” was the quality of the music. I think this was overlooked, but without the great songs that we were proud of, the online release would have counted for nothing.

Despite the freedom the band’s approach provided, you can see it feels like a bittersweet victory, as if something was also lost on the journey:

I understand that we have become our own broadcasters and distributors, but I miss the editorialisation of music, the curatorial influences of people like John Peel or a good record label. I liked being on a record label that had us on it, along with Blur, the Beastie Boys and the Beatles.

There was something more pleasant about a slower-paced, more curated, more top-down information sphere. But there is no going back. Still, this tinged-with-sadness trope isn’t entirely unfamiliar to any of us who have bridged from the analog age into the digital era.

Greenwood also portrays a distinct love-hate relationship to the digital world in which he finds himself as a famous rock musician and artist.

There are signs that the net is moving out of its adolescence, and preparing to leave its bedroom. . . . There is less interest in the technological side of the net, and more focus on what services the web can deliver, like any other media.

In scholarly publishing and scientific communication, we’re probably on a flatter adoption curve, a slower change agenda. The cultures of science have more layers of insulation protecting them from the forces of change, and have only recently been beset by a generation of new students with new expectations. Many editors and publishers still think “digital = technology” while “print ≠ technology,” when in fact they’re just different technologies and one is receding.

Digital music publishing has been a leading indicator of change for decades now, I believe. If you accept that, then Greenwood’s final thought might be worth pondering:

The ability to have a say in [our new album’s] release, through the new technologies, is the most empowering thing of all.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


7 Thoughts on "Radiohead Contemplates Digital Realities — Parallels for STM Publishing"

Radiohead are something of a unique case, a band that became tremendously popular through traditional media channels, now exploiting that fame in ways that can equally be described as innovative or deceptive. Their own manager announced that the whole “pay what you will” scheme was a publicity stunt meant to promote the sale of physical CDs. The problem with reading much into what they do is that it doesn’t translate to other bands who don’t already have the same level of success. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon:

“It seemed really community-oriented, but it wasn’t catered towards their musician brothers and sisters, who don’t sell as many records as them. It makes everyone else look bad for not offering their music for whatever. It was a good marketing ploy and I wish I’d thought of it! But we’re not in that position either.”

It’s kind of like suggesting that JK Rowling would do fine self-publishing, but her success from doing so is likely going to be quite different from say, Kent Anderson doing the same. So kudos to Radiohead for being forward-thinking. They can thank EMI for putting them in a position where they’re allowed the freedom to do so.

You’ll note that I wasn’t suggesting Radiohead’s approach generalized to all bands, but was drawing parallels to scholarly publishing’s tale so far and possibly to come. In that vein, you offer another potential source of parallel: “became tremendously popular through traditional media channels, now exploiting that fame in ways that can equally be described as innovative or deceptive.”

Perhaps the parallel I’m trying to establish is what works for Nature or Science may not be a viable strategy for a brand new startup journal in an emerging field (say, the “British Journal of Manatee Behavior”).

All fame is local in a way. For manatee psychologists, the may be a very famous journal!

But given the numbers of manatee psychologists in the UK, the economics of experimentation and business models likely differs from that of a magazine with a higher level of subscribers.

Hence a mid-level band like Sonic Youth can’t hope to do the same things as a top seller like Radiohead.

One other thought on the applicability of stunts like this to other bands (or to scholarly publishing): it’s very easy for the first iteration of an idea like this to get a lot of publicity. Nine Inch Nails pulled a similar stunt after Radiohead and got a decent amount of publicity as well, but certainly less than Radiohead. The next band that does it will see less attention, and so on. The same thing goes for authors, Cory Doctorow has made a career around the hype driven by the availability of free full text versions of his books online. Later authors who have tried similar stunts have not benefited to the same degree.

Some of these “strategies” are not proving to have long-term value. They play on the attention driven by their novelty, but once commonplace, they don’t seem to hold up.

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