Radiohead is one of the most enigmatic rock bands of the last twenty years. The band has consistently redefined itself, rethinking both their music and their marketing strategy with every work they release. They’ve effectively transitioned from late eighties punk band, to early nineties grunge, to mid nineties brit pop, to an artistic high point marked by their much lauded album, OK Computer in the late nineties. In the past 11 years since OK computers release they’ve evolved artistically in an exponential fashion and their marketing plan has proved to be just as unique as their music.
In 1982 Thom Yorke, then 14, asked Colin Greenwood and Ed O’Brien to join him for a new band. Thom and Colin were in a school punk band called TNT. Another friend, Phil Selway, from the Abingdon public school became the drummer of the band. Johnny Greenwood - Colin's brother – was begrudgingly allowed to join the band as well.
They named themselves On A Friday. The band made its debut at the Jericho's Tavern in their hometown, Oxford a few years later, in 1987. The band members all stayed close geographically as they finished up at the University and routinely practiced on the weekends and Holidays.
In 1991, when all the members except Johnny had completed their university degrees the band regrouped and started recording demos. As On a Friday's number of live performances increased, record labels and producers became interested. It was at this time that the band first started to receive publicity, appearing on the cover of Curfew magazine, and getting write ups in local music rags.
Chris Hufford, the co-owner of Oxford's Courtyard Studios, attended an early On a Friday concert at the Jericho Tavern. Impressed by the band, he and his partner Bryce Edge produced a demo tape, called the manic hedgehog demo and became On a Friday's managers. As of October 2007, Hufford and Edge remain Radiohead's managers. The band signed a six-album recording contract with EMI in late 1991, following a chance meeting between Colin Greenwood and label representative Keith Wozencroft at the record shop where Greenwood worked. At the request of the label, the band changed their name to Radiohead, inspired by the title of a song on Talking Heads' True Stories album.
The first official release from Radiohead was the 4 song EP produced by Edge and Hufford. It was released in March of 1992. Its lackluster chart performance led the band to hire new producers to help construct their first album, Pablo Honey.
The lead single “Creep” was released in September 1992, thereby setting the stage for the albums release in the fourth quarter. The album was distributed to major radio stations and music publications across the world. The British music press gave uneven, and generally unfavorable reviews of the album. NME went as far as to call Radiohead a “lily livered excuse of a rock band.” Furthermore the lead single from that album, “Creep” was refused play on BBC Radio 1 because it was “too depressing”. The album peaked at a disappointing #32 on the UK.
Thankfully, the record company had international distribution, and “Creep” was a surprise hit stateside, and in Israel. The album was a favorite among DJ’s in key markets, most notably in San Francisco College radio, where it eventually caught the ear of program managers at LA’s taste making KROQ.
The band began their first tour of the United States in 1993, and “Creep” began to receive heavy airplay on modern rock radio and MTV. It rose to #2 on the billboard modern rock charts. The album went Gold shortly thereafter and exactly one year after the album was released in was re-released in the UK, peaking at #7. The momentum led the band to tour for one more year.
The tour wound down and the band faced mounting pressure to follow up “Creep”. The band went into the studio and worked on tracks for “The Bends” which was produced by John Leckie, and engineered by Nigel Godrich, who would later produce all subsequent Radiohead albums.
They released an EP called “My Iron Lung” in 1994; it was an 8-track EP that showed a transition between Pablo Honey and the Bends. It peaked at a disappointing #24 on the UK charts. The band took a break from the recording process to tour in markets in Asia and Eastern Europe, honing their material in the process. They came back to the studio and finished recording shortly thereafter.
The Bends was released in late 1994 in the UK and 1995 in the States. Radiohead relied on the same distribution and promotional techniques that they used to support their first album. They used the long arms of their record company to get the music into ears of major radio markets and garner publicity in the forms of album reviews and interviews and invested in print advertisements as well.
This album, however, was very different than Pablo Honey. While their first album was essentially a collection of their best songs as an unsigned band over scored by an MTV worthy single, this second album was more cohesive, road tested, and ultimately generated 5 singles. Most importantly it generated airplay on underground radio stations and caught the ear of tastemakers. Johnny Greenwood said, "I think the turning point for us came about nine or 12 months after The Bends was released and it started appearing in people's [best of] polls for the end of the year. That's when it started to feel like we made the right choice about being a band, I think."
The Radiohead brand was re-evaluated from that of disposable one hit wonder, to a band that releases consistent material. Radiohead was able to mobilize a group of hardcore fans by creating a product that was cohesive and polished. They did so without substantially alienating earlier adopters of their sound.
The band spent the year touring with R.E.M. and generated a vocal fan base of some of the hottest talent in rock. Word of mouth was a valuable asset to Radiohead at this time. Radiohead was also licensing more and more music to be used to sync with television and film. At this point the band recorded and licensed tunes for various charity compilations and worked on the soundtrack to Baz Lurmanns “Romeo and Juliet”.
Yorke said that The Bends succeeded because Radiohead "had to put ourselves into an environment where we felt free to work. And that's why we [produced] the next [album] ourselves, because the times we most got off on making the last record were when we were just completely communicating with ourselves…"
The band subsequently took their advance for their next album and invested it in gear for a mobile recording studio. This would be one of the first decisions to lead the band down a maverick path. They rented Jane Seymour’s mansion to write and record material for OK Computer.
The album was finished recording in 1996 and was mixed, mastered and released by March of 1997. The album was a huge commercial and critical success, earning the band #1 hits in many markets across the world. It’s success was due in part a 7 minute long single, and fervent word of mouth from an already mobilized musical elite.
The release of the album was followed by a yearlong tour. The “Against Demons” tour was grueling as nearly ever stop on the tour was met with various publicity junkets. The tour and the artists subsequent burnout was caught on the documentary “Meeting People is Easy”, a Pennebaker-esque film that was released the next year. The film portrays a physically and emotionally battered band, disaffected with the music industry and the perpetual barrages of press.
The band took a hiatus for most of 1998 and it was revealed later that the band came close to splitting up. Thom Yorke is said to have experienced a writers block that later influenced him towards more of an abstract, stream of consciousness, songwriting technique. The band returned to the studio and rather than create a stylistic sequel to OK Computer, Radiohead created experimental material. Commercial viability was not at the forefront of the creative process. Colin Greenwood stated, “The trick is to try and carry on doing things that interest you, but not turn into some art-rock nonsense just for its own sake". Kid A was the first of two albums gleaned from these recording sessions.
The band had some highly creative ideas for promoting this highly creative album. First off, they planned no lead single for the album. They gave the album to radio stations to play whatever tracks they wanted to from it. Second off, instead of investing heavily in Music videos, the band decided to make “blips” or “antivideos” that were created by in part by Radiohead’s in house artistic director StanelyDonwood. These blips were freely traded and viewed online and were played on some television stations, including during commercials on MTV.
They were influenced by Naomi Kliens anti-globalization book “No Logo” and mounted a European tour in a custom built tent that was free from advertising, and completely eschewed all large corporate owned venues.
This was also the first album that was leaked online before it’s release. Despite the piracy the album debuted at number 1 in a variety of markets. It could be said that the hype generated by such nontraditional methods of advertising and marketing are greater than the raw effects of the advertisements themselves. In others words, Radiohead generated buzz because they were doing something unique, not because their unique approach intrinsically generated more buzz.
Radiohead released Amnesiac shortly thereafter. This album was recorded at the same session as Kid A and it’s marketing rollout was substantially different their previous album. This album did utilize traditional music videos and the piano ballad “Pyramid Song” was released to top out at number 5 on the UK. The band released an Internet only video for 'I might be wrong' on their official site. “Amnesiac” ended up selling even more copies than 'Kid A'. The album release was followed by a sold out tour through Europe, North America and Japan.
By this point Radiohead was experimenting in new ways to engage itself with the fan community. What started out as Ed O’Brien’s tour diary turned into a sprawling website that was laced with Dante references and hidden videos. Every once in a while Radiohead would play live on the Internet. At one point radiohead.tv was registered and the band planned to use this as an avenue to produce content in an episodic fashion. Footage from radiohead.tv was later scrapped and compiled onto a super trippy DVD equipped with live songs, blips, and bizarre sketches. This period also saw the expansion of their online store, W.A.S.T.E, (a Thomas Pynchon reference).
The band went back into the studio after the Amnesiac tour and began to work on Material for 2003’s Hail to the Thief. The album was announced March 24th 2003 leaked online march 30th, and officially released June 9th. This would be their last album under contract with EMI, and they used every arrow in the record companies quiver. There was the massive publicity rollout, with the band securing the cover of most all music publications. Their lead single “There, There” was promoted traditionally through modern rock radio, and accompanied by a music video. The No logo style tent concerts were a thing of the past, and the band embarked on international tour at major venues, eventually headlining Coachella and Glastonbury.
Radiohead began work at their 7th LP in 2005, in the middle of 2006 the engaged on another sell out tour of Europe and the United states, debuting new material in the process. In interviews in 2006, they admitted that "for the first time, we have no contract or release deadline to fulfill — it's both liberating and terrifying." What they would do with that liberation would send shivers down the spine of music executives everywhere.
On September 30th 2007 Radiohead’s website announced that new record was completed and that fans could order the website through W.A.S.T.E. The album would be available in two formats. You could either download the album for however much money you’d like to give to the band, or you could buy a “discbox”, which contained the album on CD, a bonus CD of new material, the albums on hifi vinyl, and loads of extra artwork for 40 pounds. This decision will have long-term effects on the music industry for a variety of reasons.
First off, they’ve officially bucked the industry trend of reliance on record companies and marketing teams to produce, commercialize and promote music records. Other established artists that are out of contract are planning to follow suit. Trent Reznor of Nine inch nails has just gotten out of contract and plans to “engage the fans directly” with his new music, Oasis, James Blunt, Iron Maiden, and Jamaraqui have also planned to do the same thing. In fact giving music away for free as a promotional tool is nothing new. Wilco released Yankee Hotel Foxtrot for free after they were dropped from their label.
When asked what their reasoning is Johnny Greenwood said, “Just getting it out quickly. It was kind of an experiment as well; we were just doing it for ourselves and that was all. People are making a big thing about it being against the industry or trying to change things for people but it's really not what motivated us to do it. It's more about feeling like it was right for us and feeling bored of what we were doing before… It's just interesting to make people pause for even a few seconds and think about what music is worth now. I thought it was an interesting thing to ask people to do and compare it to whatever else in their lives they value or don't value.”
Another potentially lucrative strategy that comes with their marketing plan is that by signing up at Radiohead’s website to download the album, the band will have access to all the demographic information about their customers. This information will undoubtedly be utilized for future campaigns.
In the book “The Long Tail” the author makes the astute claim that artists that are on the long end of the tail, generating limited niche market sales, actually generate more sales by allowing other people to pirate their music. It’s called the “sampling effect”, and the idea is that the more people listen to your music, the more revenue you’ll obtain from ancillary income like future album sales, merchandise and tour revenue.
What’s exciting is that a band on the “head” of the long tail has found a way to satisfy their entire consumer spectrum. Die-hard fans can get a discbox, and casual fans can DL the album for a penny if they choose. Furthermore, Radiohead is planning to ink a special deal with an undisclosed record company (rumored to be ATO or Warner Brothers) whereby the band will retain ownership of the music, and license it to the record label to distribute the CD at physical stores.
The old model of record industry was arranged in such a way that the Artist worked on commission and retained a small percentage of sales in exchange to have access to a record labels war chest and their distribution, promotional and licensing infrastructure. This new business model maintains that artists pay for the production fcosts of their album and they retain all rights to their material. Record companies are then forced to license the music from the band in order to facilitate distribution. Radiohead has effectively flipped the balance of power for major selling artists.
In addition to subverting the role of record labels Radiohead has both monetized piracy and de-legitimized it. This is the first Radiohead album since the dawn of Kazaa that has been offered legitimately before it was available on file sharing networks. What’s more astounding is that people are actually flocking to this new model.
Speculative figures point out that 1.2 million unique customers have downloaded the album at an average price of 4 pounds. These figures are for downloads only and do not include revenue from the Discbox purchases. Furthermore these figures were generated within the 10-day span between the bands announcement and the albums release.
The central irony of their decision to release their album this way stems from the fact that their rabid fan base exists greatly in part to the 15 years worth of traditional marketing campaigns that accompanied their previous releases. This is a luxuruy that many new bands following Radioheads footsteps do not have.