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10 Years Ago: Radiohead Come Through the Darkness on ‘In Rainbows’

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Radiohead were the most important band of 2007.

Not important in the same sense that the declarative, end-of-discussion claim is often made by fans of rare, fault-immune bands like Radiohead—bands who fill stadiums on the strength of artistic regard rather than singles. Yes, when Radiohead reemerged with In Rainbows after a four-year absence, it was as universally cheered as a band prays its post-hiatus album to be, yet its importance wasn’t of the kind that can be calculated by Metacritic.

Released Oct.10, 2007, In Rainbows, remarked as “easily the most important release in the recent history of the music business” by Time, forced the industry into an uncomfortable conversation about itself it had been trying to stave off. In an era where downloading files — legally or otherwise — was replacing physical product as a primary method of consumption, but still years before streaming services could relax the bleeding, record companies grappled over the value of their catalogs to audiences. The conversation was stolen by Radiohead when they announced that the price of the digital version of their seventh album would be left up to each paying (or, hey, non-paying) customer, available anywhere within the range of £0 to £99.99.

It was a first for a major commercial recording, and one that surely would have been overruled by EMI, Radiohead’s label since 1993, with whom they decided against renewing a contract when Hail to the Thief fulfilled their six-album obligation. In 2006, a year before In Rainbows was dropped on the industry like a grenade, Thom Yorke sassed to the New York Times, “Why would you want to sign a six-album deal with a business that is imploding?”

The “pay what you want” approach would hog news cycles and stir prolonged debates in the music and business spheres for the better part of the year, placing under review the worth and efficacy of an aged business model that had long been accepted as a given. And it was a risky move for a band that had been out of the spotlight for all of four years. “There was that moment where we thought: ‘Will anyone be interested? ‘Will anyone care about it?’” drummer Phil Selway recalled in an interview with Drowned in Sound in 2009.

While the model itself tested the confidence of major artists in big record companies, its results made labels of EMI’s stature vulnerable in another way. Exercising full control of In Rainbows‘s digital distribution meant that whether Radiohead, or an established band like them, stood to reap financial benefits from releasing albums independently could be comparatively analyzed.

Although Radiohead resisted sharing the exact numbers yielded from the experiment, calculated estimates by all accounts trumpeted unprecedented success. The company comScore, for example, determined, according to Rolling Stone, that while “only two out of five downloaders paid anything at all, the payers averaged $6 per album – which, factoring in the freeloaders, works out to about $2.26 per album, more than Radiohead would have made in a traditional label deal.”

It begs the question of why such a hiatus was necessary in the first place, what with the autonomy that came with the dissolution of their record contract. But it was precisely the conditions that sparked their hiatus—exhaustion, familial preoccupations, free-agentism—that provided the fertile soil for the liberty and space to foster a divergence away from traditional ways of thinking about music—and the promotion and distribution of it.

Still, spirits would have to hit a crushing low before reversing to a creative apogee.

On the band’s Dead Air Space blog, Thom Yorke wrote in 2005, “there are giant waves of self-doubt crashing over me and if I could alleviate this with a simple pill … I think I would.” Like the retreat into depression that crippled the songwriter during the gap between OK Computer and Kid A, the years that followed 2003’s Hail to the Thief dragged Yorke into a devastating loss of confidence. Unlike the desolation conveyed by the timorous electronica of Kid A (and furthered on Amnesiac), however, “doubt” isn’t necessarily the emotion that can accurately describe the mood looming over In Rainbows. Rather, it was Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo debut, The Eraser, through which he’d channel his tormenting melancholy.

The songs on In Rainbows, breezy and air-tight, exude a sort of muted brightness about them. It’s a quiet album, and one whose lyrics rank among Yorke’s most deeply personal, and moves at a leisurely pace; furnished with affecting sentimentalism, but absent the thick air of melodrama. In Rainbows, in keeping with its name, in no small way embodied the light at the end of the band’s solitary passage through Kid A and Amnesiac‘s cavernous tunnel.

The shifting emotional and musical landscapes from Hail to the Thief to In Rainbows (or, for that matter, Pablo Honey to A Moon Shaped Pool) says less about either album on its own than what it does about the arc of Radiohead as whole: that the nature of their artistry, couched in such personal intimacy, results in an evolving cache of music that is at once reliably inventive while reassuringly true-to-form. And that this essence is what rests Radiohead fans with a return on their patronage.

As Thom Yorke put it in an interview with Believer two years after In Rainbows, “It was more about a statement of belief, like, ‘We believe the people find music extremely valuable and we’re going to prove it.'”

The belief was reaffirmed by more than just digital release revenues. Radiohead signed with independent label XL for the physical release of In Rainbows, which was released on Dec. 3, boxed with a second disc of new material. Despite over one million digital downloads, the album peaked at No. 1 on the U.S. and U.K. chart the week of its proper retail release.

In Rainbows is, at least in our opinion, our classic album, our Transformer, our Revolver, our Hunky Dory,” Yorke championed to the British Independent three months following the “pay what you want” release. A sentiment that hardly echoes the sullen notes the same songwriter offered following Kid A—their previous Transformer.

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