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Radiohead’s Revolution Not a Flash in the Pan

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The internet changed the face of music almost from the get go, but it wasn’t until relatively recently that it was for the better. Music downloading led first to people basically stealing from the artists song by song, and then to bands creating collections of songs as opposed to actually making legitimate albums (that is, because people were stealing and/or buying music a song at a time, there was no longer an impetus to make a complete work).

Soon, things became more nebulous, as websites like MySpace turned the internet into a tool that makes more bands than it breaks. But for the most part, the worldwide web was still looked at as the bane of the music industry.

A few months ago, however, Radiohead stirred things up. They weren’t the first band to give their album away for free online, but they were inarguably the biggest. Moreover, they did so with no buildup; the idea was announced only 10 days before the release.

At that point, the internet basically exploded. Blogs and message boards were immediately abuzz with discussion. A record release was again an event.

Since then, a few other artists have followed suit. Nine Inch Nails offered a version of their newest release for free online, and after Gnarls Barkley’s latest effort was leaked online, the band pushed up the actual release.

Basically, this whole interwebz thing is proving to be rather beneficial to real artists (although record labels and the “musicians” that wouldn’t exist without them will likely still cry). What comes after this distributive freedom, though?

Creative freedom.

Popular music in this country has always been confined by the medium. That is, music could only be made if it was short enough to fit onto a vinyl LP/cassette/compact disk. Sure, there have been double albums, but most of them have been historical footnotes, and the few good ones have been at least a bit cumbersome.

Digital releases, on the other hand, allow for more creativity. It’s rare that an album longer than 40 or 50 minutes doesn’t feel like it’s dragging on too long, so in that regard, it’s probably unlikely that bands will use this opportunity to craft 300-minute epics (although with Rush still making music, anything is possible).

I’m talking more along the lines of something like Zaireeka, the Flaming Lips' polarizing 1997 four-disc release. Basically, each disc has a different part of each song, so that a full song can only be heard by playing all four discs at the same time.

In theory, it was a great idea: by introducing different variables (position of different speakers, exact times as to when each disc is started, etc.), each listen is an ultimately different experience.

In practice, however, it was a complete flop, due to the simple fact that few people had four readily-available stereo systems to be used at a given time in a single place.

Now, however, things have changed. You don’t need four stereos when instead you can simply rip (or download) each disc to your computer and play each in a different instance of Winamp.

Zaireeka was a little bit ahead of its time, but thankfully, that time has come. As musicians become more accustomed to this digital milieu, revolutionary ideas (like those from Radiohead and the Flaming Lips) will become more common.

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About Adam Clair

  • charlie

    Thanks for this article. I am a casual Flaming Lips fan (I have a couple of CDs of theirs) but had no idea about their epic 1997 series of releases. Having four albums made of parts of songs that can be put together to sound like a full song only by listening to them all simultaneously sounds freakin cool nowadays (in the digital era). Maybe some artists will do something similar one of these days, perhaps only using two albums instead of four. It’s a hard sell doing this though, and would likely be done by whatever band as a side project or a fun experiment.