10 Years Ago: Radiohead’s Big ‘In Rainbows’ Gamble Pays Off
On Jan. 9, 2008, Radiohead topped the Billboard 200 album chart with In Rainbows.
The LP became the British band’s first No. 1 in the U.S. since Kid A in 2000, and only their second U.S. chart topper to date. All this was impressive, mostly because Radiohead spent the three months before the CD release offering In Rainbows digitally in a pay-what-you-want format and still managed to crash the top of the charts with the physical release.
But let’s back up a bit.
On Oct. 10, 2007, Radiohead shocked both its fans and the music industry when it released In Rainbows online allowing downloaders to pay any price for the music. Without a record label behind them, the band used its own site to host the release creating the buzz of the year. Would the this be the end of CD? The end of major label music? The radical change the industry has been stumbling towards for years? No, no, and maybe.
That October day, Radiohead introduced a crazy idea. But the band knew the “pay anything idea” could not have worked without a decade-plus of support from its former label Capitol EMI.
“The only reason that we could even get away with this is the fact that we’d actually gone through the whole mill of the business in the first place,” frontman Thom Yorke told Wired at the time. “It’s not supposed to be a model for anything else. It was simply a response to a situation. We’re out of contract. We’ve spent a huge amount of money on this server. We have our own studio. What the hell else would we do? This is the obvious thing to do.”
But the idea didn’t seem obvious. It seemed like a game-changing gamble. Yes, it would prevent illegal downloads -- it was essentially a pre-emptive leak. But would the idea make the band any money?
“It wasn’t sort of nihilistic; it wasn’t that music isn't worth anything,” Yorke said in 2007. “It was the total opposite. But maybe that’s just the nature of people having a little faith in what we're doing. Which, in itself, was a nice little ego boost.”
A nicer ego boost: In Rainbows was a smash.
While Radiohead never outright said how many people downloaded the record or how much they made from the digital-first strategy, a report from their publisher revealed some data. The report said “the fact that Radiohead had made more money before In Rainbows was physically released than they made in total on Hail to the Thief is surely evidence enough that the initiative was a tremendous success.” The report also noted most people paid nothing for the album. Which is interesting because it seems many people didn’t pay for the download but shelled out for the CD.
Fast forward to Jan. 9, 2008. Even after millions of downloads (legal and illegal), even after many record stores violated the street date (stores sold nearly 10,000 early making the LP have a premature debut at No. 156), In Rainbows hit No. 1 The set sold 122,000 units in the U.S. alone, beating out blockbuster records such as Mary J. Blige's Growing Pains, Alicia Keys' As I Am, and Taylor Swift’s self-titled album. To celebrate the “official” release, Radiohead performed the album in its entirety for a New Year's Eve cybercast, which was also broadcast on Current TV.
“The project that some media commentators said was threatening the very fabric of recorded music in the fall of 2007 became a beacon of hope at retail in the first week of 2008,” said Billboard, referring to the unconventional release strategy.
The physical sales were certainly assisted by a wave of great press. In Rainbows elicited rave reviews from outlets including The New York Times, New York, MOJO, Time, NME, Entertainment Weekly, Spin and Rolling Stone, who said, “Radiohead haven't sounded this aggressive and infuriated - so rock and roll - since OK Computer.”
With perhaps the gush of the year, the typically-aloof Pitchfork summed up the record thusly: “Such a return to communal exchange isn't something you'd expect to be orchestrated by a band who's wrung beauty from alienation for more than a decade. But if the past few weeks have taught us anything, it's that Radiohead revel, above all else, in playing against type. … Liberated from their self-imposed pressure to innovate, they sound -- for the first time in ages -- user-friendly; the glacial distance that characterized their previous records melted away by dollops of reverb, strings, and melody.”
Taken as whole, considering the art, commerce, and innovation of the venture, In Rainbows was a massive success. In late 2008, about a year after the download was first made available, Warner Chappell, the band’s publishing company, announced that sales of In Rainbows reached three million copies. The official data shows Radiohead moved 1.75 million CDs globally making approximately $17.5 million. On iTunes the set generated about another half-million dollars (roughly 50,000 copies). The group sold 100,000 box sets for $80, which came with the album on CD and two 12" vinyl records, plus an enhanced CD with additional tracks and art.
The band proved fans will buy anything and everything in any and every format (even if Radiohead played down the release strategy). Radiohead's managers said it wouldn't “work the same way [for Radiohead] ever again.”
Will Botwin, the president and chief executive of ATO Records Group, who put out the CD in the U.S. said the download was “the world’s largest listening party.” For Botwin, the listening party aspect was cool, but he didn’t know if it would translate to CD sales. In fact nobody knew, so the hitting No. 1 was both a shock and to expected all at once.
“The record company doesn’t know (how it might sell),” bassist Colin Greenwood told The New York Times a few days before his band hit the top spot. “They called our office and said, ‘We’ve made this amount of records, is it enough?’ And our manager’s office said, ‘I don’t know.’ It’s great, isn’t it?”
It turned out the answer was, yes, it was great.