Radiohead and Social Media: The Twitterized Release of “The King of Limbs”
March 1st, 2011 by
The members of Radiohead are a private bunch, often very selective with their interviews and keeping low-profile lives in their hometown of Oxford, England. As such, the press scrambles over every utterance that the band might put forth, which isn’t much. But their online presence, long established, is staggering. Their website, entitled “Dead Air Space,” has gone through countless incarnations, including wormholes of old information about their previous art and music. It primarily serves as the band’s blog, strewn with “office charts” of the music they’re listening to and links to new music or websites of political and social issues. Some of the members keep more-or-less active Twitter accounts, including one for the band itself, and the people they follow seem to form some of their inner circle, like the artist Stanley Donwood, amongst others.
These twitter accounts, along with those of their fans, were an epicenter of activity last week. On Monday, February 14th, Radiohead posted via Twitter: “Thank you for waiting…”, which was followed by a link to www.thekingoflimbs.com, a website designed for the release of “The King of Limbs,” their new album slated to become available for download the following Saturday. Four days later, on Friday the 18th, Radiohead tweeted again: “It’s Friday…It’s almost the weekend…You can download ‘The King of Limbs’ now if you so wish!”
Fond of doing things differently, Radiohead are known for their innovative and genre-bending music. While the quintet could be cited as one of the most influential bands in modern music, it’s also clear that they are also exploring the marketing of their music in a way that no other mainstream band has attempted before.
Anyone who followed the most recent album releases by Radiohead already knows that they’re changing the way music can be released to the public, especially by a major artist. After completing “Hail to the Thief” in 2003, they had fulfilled their recording contract with EMI, and they chose to remain independent rather than signing with another label. They recorded 2007’s “In Rainbows” on their own and released it on their website as a direct download with the asking price of “pay what you want.”
This alone posed numerous questions to musicians, music lovers, and music industry professionals, causing a minor existential crisis in the recording industry. It called into question the value of music, especially considering the widespread piracy of music. It questioned whether musicians really need major record labels to market their work. But most importantly, it bridged the gap between the band and their fans. Radiohead offered an immediate and direct transaction, so one would know that the money they paid for the music (if they chose to pay at all) was going directly to the artists and producers responsible for creating it.
By default, Radiohead relied on their previous successes, fan base, and name to market their new music, so their achievements with “In Rainbows” cannot be applied to unknown artists. However, the way “The King of Limbs” was released last Friday redefines the relationship between musicians and their fans. The band chose to use Twitter as the medium for announcing the album, and they again utilized their own web servers to facilitate the release. While the “pay what you want” aspect was ditched for a $9 price tag on a set of eight mp3s, fans could still remain happy knowing that their money was going directly to the artists that they want to support.
Already on very short notice, the instantaneous “early” release of “The King of Limbs” caused Twitter and other social media sites to flood with reactions to the album, and it nearly caused Radiohead’s download site to crash. Music critics, eager to get the official first review, listened to the album hastily on their laptops that morning and posted track-by-track assessments merely an hour or two after the album was released–to much criticism by fans, claiming that new music cannot be properly reviewed so quickly. Regardless, the social media world was rocked by this new release, providing an open channel of communication between the band, their critics, and their fans. Whether you like the new music or not, it doesn’t take much to think that Radiohead might be up to something.
Six days prior to the announcement of “The King of Limbs,” Ed O’Brien, guitarist and back-up vocalist, posted a blog entry on the band’s web site entitled “The Dignity Revolution.” (Also coupled with a tweet–they’ve connected their blog and Twitter account, a sign that they’re aware if the importance of social media.) It reads as follows:
What have twitter and facebook ever done for us?
Obviously, keeping in touch with everyone but I have to say I have become increasingly excited over the last 3 months about the possibilities of this form of communication.Yes I am very slow out of the blocks. It’s in the arena of public protest that it seems twitter and facebook are increasingly the means by which popular movements throughout the world are able to come together and mobilise.
In some ways, one could argue that Radiohead are leading a popular movement, and Mr. O’Brien has an extremely valid point. Their use of social media, like Twitter, allowed for a direct and instantaneous connection between the artists and their audience, just as the release of “In Rainbows” allowed for a direct and open transaction. Thom Yorke, lead singer, once remarked in an interview: “If people want to play it for themselves, why don’t we just give it to them to listen to?”
Aware of their massive fan base, the band decided that they can conduct business as they so please, using the high-speed connectivity of social media to do so. And while lesser-known artists may not have the audience that Radiohead has, thus being more vulnerable to reviews, it’s also clear that those musicians also use social networks as a way to market themselves on their own terms. That trend can only increase in the future, and that is what I believe Yorke and Co. are trying to prove.
Is Radiohead leading a music industry revolution? It’s hard to say. With highly successful performers such as Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift, who are promoted and made famous through the marketing strategies of major recording labels, Radiohead’s business model might not be for everyone. Either way, social media provides an effective channel to promote their music, and Radiohead have become a successful example of a group of artists marketing and releasing their own work, instantly and directly, as they see fit.