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Why Radiohead Is the Only Rock Band to Perfect the Surprise Album Release

on May 05, 2016, 3:10am

Nine years ago this October, Radiohead did something unprecedented for a rock band of their stature. The group announced that they’d be making the long-awaited follow-up to Hail to the Thief and their first album in four years, In Rainbows, available online. What’s more, fans could choose any price they wanted to pay for it.

They only gave 10 days notice. It felt truly exciting, not least because it came completely out of nowhere. Bands at Radiohead’s level simply didn’t do things like that. In an era not far removed from the Napster debates, the music industry was still working furiously to stave off the encroachment of the internet, and here was one of its most beloved bands embracing the technology and suggesting a new way to operate within it.

Nearly a decade later, Radiohead is gearing up to release another album with little notice, and once again they’re eschewing the traditional album rollout in favor of a more mysterious approach. What was once revolutionary and shocking has become routine for the band, and while the landscape of album releases has shifted drastically in the last nine years, few rock bands have been able to successfully duplicate Radiohead’s success or follow in their footsteps. Why?

(Ranking: Every Radiohead Album from Worst to Best)

It’s not for lack of trying. Both Nine Inch Nails and My Bloody Valentine put out albums with little warning in 2008 and 2013, respectively, but the hype surrounding those records didn’t come close to what Radiohead had achieved. As if to prove their own dominance, the band repeated their trick in 2011 with The King of Limbs, this time giving only four days notice. It may not have garnered the acclaim of In Rainbows, but was an unmitigated triumph, with one of the group’s managers telling Rolling Stone that it was probably their most financially successful record to date.

No act — rock band or otherwise — could have hoped to achieve the mixture of surprise and success that Radiohead had. No act, that is, until the end of 2013, when Beyoncé happened.

Radiohead - In Rainbows Artwork

The release of Beyoncé’s self-titled album not only echoed Radiohead’s method, but also heightened the stakes. Released with zero advance promotion, the album performed extremely well, selling over 600,000 copies in the US in its first week. For some reason, this did something In Rainbows and The King of Limbs had failed to do: It opened the floodgates. Once the industry saw that this model could work for pop stars, it became common, with artists such as Prince and Drake subverting the typical album rollout with fantastically successful results.

In the past year, “surprise” releases have become so common that they’ve nearly lost the element of true surprise, forcing artists to further refine the concept. Cue Rihanna and Kanye West foregoing firm announcements to create a heightened sense of anticipation. Cue Kendrick Lamar and (once again) Beyoncé putting out albums with zero warning. For fans and critics alike, this was a brave and uncertain new world.

(Of course, this strategy doesn’t always go as planned. Same-day surprises are one thing, but in the cases of West and Rihanna, both artists spent months teasing an album that was “coming soon,” and unsubstantiated rumors and gossip led to multiple instances throughout the year when people assumed it was “dropping any minute.” It was a tiresome exercise that led to exhaustion by the time the albums were finally released.)

(Read: Radiohead In 10 Songs)

We now live in a musical environment defined by volatility. Artists know they don’t need a long buildup before album releases, and fans know they can’t rely on cut-and-dry release dates anymore. What’s especially strange about this landscape is how pop stars and rappers are thriving but rock bands are noticeably struggling to adapt. This is ironic given the fact that a rock band — Radiohead — can reasonably be said to have founded this new approach. For some reason, their peers haven’t been able to keep up.

Post-Beyoncé, the number of rock bands that have tried to replicate this approach has increased. In 2014, U2 infamously released Songs of Innocence as a free download that automatically appeared in the iTunes libraries of all Apple customers without their consent. While the band reportedly did well financially with the result, this method backfired in a big way.

U2 and Apple deserve credit for thinking ambitiously, but they overestimated the band’s relevance with fans, and many felt like the automatic download constituted an invasion of privacy. In an era in which music consumption is centered around access and choice, nobody wants to be forced to do anything.

In fact, only one rock band besides Radiohead has successfully pulled off a huge surprise album release to date. That band is Wilco, whose latest album, Star Wars, dropped last summer as a free download with no advance warning. It was a fine album, and the move did generate its fair share of headlines. The problem was that Wilco hadn’t released a truly vital full-length in nearly a decade, putting a cap on how excited fans could really get about a new one.

radiohead Why Radiohead Is the Only Rock Band to Perfect the Surprise Album Release

There are multiple factors that allow Radiohead to succeed in this instance while others struggle or achieve more modest results. Most importantly, Radiohead is a well-regarded band with a significant pre-existing fanbase. As one of the biggest rock bands in the world, they have a devout following willing to drop $10 or more on a new album sight unseen. Additionally, the band’s fan base is young enough to have grown up on computers; as such, they’re likely to be open to new methods of purchasing albums online, whether it’s a direct download or, in the case of Thom Yorke’s 2013 solo effort, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, BitTorrent. While this method works well for a band like Radiohead, it’s easy to imagine it backfiring for U2 and other classic rock acts like Neil Young or Paul McCartney.

It also helps that Radiohead has a firm grasp of their audience and how to cater to them. The band may still indulge in shticks like deleting their entire social media presence, but it’s less cloying than Arcade Fire putting out a bunch of paper mache masks and getting fans to paint derivative graffiti on sidewalks around the world. Stunts that are too elaborate — or in the case of Arcade Fire’s, downright corny — can often leave a bad taste in people’s mouths and distract from the music itself.

Radiohead may engage in tricks like mailing out leaflets to fans with cryptic imagery, but to their credit, they follow through quickly on it, knowing that dragging out the process can be grating and turn off as many people as they might attract. It’s all a matter of finesse: The band creates events that are interactive but not needlessly complicated and mostly have swift resolutions. It’s also hard to ignore the fact that Radiohead leave gaps of up to five years between records, leaving fans eager to snap up anything. Contrast that with a band like Death Grips, who oversaturate their fans with new music every year and thus struggle to generate a consistently high level of anticipation.

The combination of these factors creates a unique type of environment in which fans geek out over every little move, granting the band visibility and automatic promotion with each sliver of new information they tease out. Radiohead do a good job of orchestrating these events, but an integral aspect that helps them is one slightly beyond their control: their lack of commercially viable singles.

As popular as Radiohead have become, in the 24 years since “Creep”, they have had only had one single break into the top 10 of the US alt-rock charts (2008’s “House of Cards/Bodysnatchers”). Despite having five platinum albums in the US, they are simply not a band with high-performing singles. Once a weakness for them, this fact has turned into a competitive advantage. Most rock bands at the same level as Radiohead tend to survive on the strength of their hit singles, whether it’s Muse, Foo Fighters, or the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Those bands make radio-friendly songs that, even in an age where radio’s influence is steadily declining, are accessible enough to the mainstream.

Radiohead, on the other hand, don’t have to worry about airplay or charts because the majority of their fans will argue about which album is best rather than debate over singles. Radiohead fans will gladly consume a new record, even if it has a middling single, because of their pre-existing expectations that the album as a whole will be a challenging listen to parse through. Not being a singles-oriented band gives Radiohead the freedom to use the element of surprise for their albums.

On the other side of the coin, Radiohead are such a massive public entity that they don’t require press campaigns or long buildups the way smaller rock bands might. Are there some “indie” rock bands that might be able to get away with a big surprise release? Sure. Vampire Weekend or Bon Iver could likely pull it off. But there’s risk involved, and it’s difficult to justify taking the chance. Radiohead have a proven track record of doing it, but for many rock bands, it’s simply not a viable option.

As Radiohead prep for their third major release in this format, there’s a sense that they’re trying to top themselves yet again. In truth, they’ve created a pattern that’s difficult to break out of. They were innovators of a model that is being used frequently in the industry today, even if it hasn’t revolutionized the world of rock music the way they might have hoped. It turns out that Radiohead’s practice of surprise releases has become much like their music: something that was initially thought to set a precedent for other bands to follow, but has instead become something only they can truly pull off.

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