Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Revisiting Radiohead

In the week since Radiohead’s groundbreaking digital release of their new album In Rainbows without a fixed price, the initial results have been quite favorable. Music reviewers have formed a consensus in their praise of the album, using terms such as “masterpiece” and “primo.” Perhaps more importantly, the album seems to be selling incredibly well, though use of a weasel word like “seems” is necessary due to shaky supporting evidence; the earliest reported figure of 1.2 million sales originates from a “source close to the band.” Even if this total is high, the response to Radiohead’s strategy indicates that fans are favorably disposed to paying what they want for a digital album.

Yet there’s a less-considered benefit to Radiohead’s strategy that Mark Pytlik raises in his review of In Rainbows for Pitchfork:

“Like many music lovers of a certain age, I have a lot of warm memories tied up with release days. I miss the simple ritual of making time to buy a record. I also miss listening to something special for the first time and imagining, against reason, the rest of the world holed up in their respective bedrooms, having the same experience. Before last Wednesday, I can't remember the last time I had that feeling.”

Pytlik hits the nail on the head. Though I have no idea how old he is, it’s apparent that the “music lovers of a certain age” to whom he refers are those old enough to have begun music collections before the rise of Napster and peer-to-peer downloading methods around 2000. For all of the advantages associated with the digital music era that originates from that point—instant gratification, portable devices that can contain one’s entire music library, the ability to preview and access album material before release dates—I think a lot of music lovers (myself included) have probably lost some of the anticipation and ritual that used to be a part of buying new music. When I was younger, I remember tracking the days before a major release, and how excited I would get just by opening the shrink wrap on a newly-purchased cassette or CD. While listening, I would pore over album art and liner notes, trying to memorize lyrics so that I could sing along accurately.

Those elements of my musical experience haven’t completely disappeared, but they’ve certainly decreased, and my access to digital music is a large reason why. It’s easy for me or for anybody with basic computer knowledge to preview “leaked” albums before their release date. It’s cheaper to subscribe to eMusic and download certain independent-label albums there, even when I want the CDs. And with the exception of being in the car (where I have a CD player), it’s more convenient to use my iPod and computer as my primary playback devices. I’d suspect that Pytlik has made similar types of acquiescence (especially considering the volume of music that he listens to for reviews), as has many of us in the past few years. The paradox is that while we continue to gain convenience and access in ways that we never could have during the pre-digital era, we also are losing some of the habits that can make music listening more enjoyable and tangible.

Radiohead’s certainly can’t change this process, but they allowed us to recapture some of the value behind what Pytlik mentions: being excited for an impending release, making time for it, and sharing in a type of communal musical act. In my eyes, that makes their achievement all the more remarkable.

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