When Radiohead announced last week that they would be releasing their seventh album, In Rainbows, via their official Web site, there was much fanfare and some honest-to-goodness debate about the future of the music industry, the validity of major labels and just how people consume music.
But in the days since that announcement, a whole lot of that fanfare has curdled, thanks to moves by the band and its management that some see as dishonest, distasteful and, well, downright un-Radiohead. The sentiment among many fans seems to have gone from admiration for the group's willingness to let the consumer decide how much to pay for the new album to anger over the low quality of the downloads — and dismay over the band's manager's statement that the you-choose-the-price downloads were just a promotional tool for the release of the physical CD.
The first bone of contention arose October 9 — the day before Rainbows became available for download — when fans who ordered the album (either in its download-only form or as a deluxe, $81 "discbox" version) received an e-mail from Radiohead's official online store, announcing that "the album [would] come as a 48.4 MB ZIP file containing 10 x 160 [kilobits per second], DRM-free MP3s."
To the casual music listener, the e-mail would be little more than an order confirmation (if not, you know, totally confusing), but to a segment of Radiohead's fanbase — aand to anyone who frequents file-sharing sites — it was a call to arms for two reasons.
First and foremost, all of Radiohead's previous albums were already available as MP3s encoded at 320 kilobits per second — the highest-possible compression rate in the format (though still not nearing the quality of a compact disc) — and most file-sharers scoff at anything less than 192 kbps. (MP3 files encoded with a lower bit rate will generally play back at a lower quality — something not readily apparent on tiny iPod earbuds but obvious enough on high-end home stereos.)
Second, most took issue with when Radiohead chose to announce that In Rainbows would be available at 160 kbps — after the majority of their fans had already paid for the download. To be fair, however, the band did give potential customers the power of choosing how much they wanted to pay to download the album. It could be had for as little as the transaction fee of 45 pence, or roughly 92 cents. There was also an option on the Web site to cancel orders; though, given the timing of the bit-rate announcement, fans had less than 24 hours to do so.
"Most promo MP3s come at a higher bit rate," wrote the author of U.K. blog Kids Pushing Kids. "Worst pound and pence I've ever spent."
"Radiohead has such delicate music that requires detail and depth of sound. ... I for one CAN tell the difference between 160 and 192," responded one commenter. "[With] 160 you can't hear the finer details that make Radiohead so great. I have lost a bit of respect for Radiohead for this. I would never make people pay for 160. They may as well just stream stuff off MySpace."
No one seemed to understand why Radiohead decided to release Rainbows at 160 kpbs, though guitarist Jonny Greenwood told Rolling Stone, "We talked about it and we just wanted to make it a bit better than iTunes, which it is, so that's kind of good enough, really. It's never going to be CD-quality, because that's what a CD does."
That explanation didn't fly with some fans, who began speculating that the decision was made to keep the album off P2P sites or as a subtle way of making fans purchase either the discbox or the physical release of the album next year. The thought behind this theory was that if Radiohead fans were willing to split hairs over something as seemingly inconsequential as kilobits per second, then surely they wouldn't mind shelling out cash for the actual CD version of Rainbows.
And, as it turns out, the latter speculation seems to be true — especially after comments made by the band's managers, Chris Hufford and Bryce Edge, began to make their way around the Internet on Thursday (October 11) — which brings us to bone of contention number three.
In an interview with U.K. trade publication Music Week, Hufford and Bryce spoke at length about the downloadable version of Rainbows and how it plays into the larger plan of releasing a physical copy of the album in stores next year.
"In November we have to start with the mass-market plans and get them under way," Hufford told the magazine.
"If we didn't believe that when people hear the music they will want to buy the CD, then we wouldn't do what we are doing," Edge said.
To many, those comments sounded strangely, well, capitalistic and seemed to confirm that the lower-quality downloadable version of the album was little more than a promotional tool for the actual CD. (It didn't help that Edge is quoted as saying that "CDs are a fantastic bit of kit. ... You can't listen to a Radiohead record on MP3 and hear the detail; it's impossible.") And if that was the case, it probably would've been nice if the band — or its management — had let fans know before they paid (or, you know, didn't pay) to download it. Attempts to contact Edge for clarification on his comments were unsuccessful at press time.
Is this entire backlash really just glorified nitpicking, or do members of Radiohead Nation have a legitimate reason to think they were duped? Well, the answer in both cases is probably "yes."
On one hand, the main reason so many are upset (the 160 kbps thing) seems rather inconsequential, especially given the fact that most people downloading Rainbows are going to be listening to it on their computers or a portable MP3 player. But there is a slightly noticeable difference between a 160 kbps-encoded song and, say, one encoded at 320 (it's heard most easily when played on a stereo). And Radiohead have yet to really offer up any plausible explanation for why they even chose to go the 160 route, especially since their entire catalog is already available at 320.
Furthermore, had the band announced the sound quality before people paid for the record — and if its managers had made the download sound like nothing more than a glorified demo a few days earlier — would 1.2 million people (as is being reported) still have made the decision to download it on the day it was released? Well, probably not. But really, who knows?
In the end, it's really all about a series of intangibles — kilobits per second, fan loyalty, etc. — that makes it difficult to tell if Radiohead fans are upset because of a whole bunch of miscommunication, or if there was some less-than-honest business being done by a band not exactly known for being cold and calculating. Then again, it's also entirely possible that Thom Yorke and company tried to do something different with Rainbows, and as is the case with being first, they might not have gotten it right.
"I paid zero, nothing, nada for the album," one fan wrote on an epic Stereogum thread about the album. "Sounds like Radiohead. But 160 kbps, that's not good enough. They are actually forcing us to buy the CD when it comes out."
"Do not buy the record then. Was that not the point? Don't go around complaining like they did you a disservice by making an album available," another countered. "As if you wouldn't have downloaded the leak. Would you complain if you got the album for free and actually listened to the music instead of focusing on 160 kbps? Maybe you'd actually remember what music appreciation was and be forced to buy the album based on that notion instead."