On Sept. 26, Thom Yorke – frontman for Radiohead – released his new album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. Unlike with his previous work, Yorke opted to release the record using BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file sharing service.
“If it works well it could be an effective way of handing some control of internet commerce back to people who are creating the work,” Yorke said in an interview with NME. The album costs $6.
While the idea of “bypassing the self-elected gatekeepers” of the music industry seems noble, Yorke appears to be attempting to catch up to the bandwagon of unconventional music releases that have become increasingly common over the last decade.
In 1999, Blur’s Damon Albarn began to work with visual artist Jamie Hewlett. They created Gorillaz, a fictional band that produced real music. The duo created a world for the “band” and with the help of an ever-changing group of collaborators, released four full-length albums that crossed multiple genres, from pop, to trip hop, to dub. The band has also appeared at festivals and gone on tour, sometimes with holographic projections of the fictional members, and other times with the “real world” collaborators. Over their 15-year career, Gorillaz has challenged our perceptions of both genre and how music is made.
Similarly, in 2012, Beck came out with Song Reader, an album only available as sheet music. Beck’s goal with Song Reader was to encourage people to create their own versions of his songs. The corners of every sheet of music are covered in bonus notes and fragments of other melodies, paying homage to sheet music from the days before radio, when the majority of pop music had to be accessible to amateur musicians. With Song Reader, Beck produced an artifact that is both a throwback to times gone by and a door to the future of music.
Now throw Modern Boxes into the mix. Creating a pay gate to download the album from a service most people use to obtain files for free is counterintuitive, making Yorke look out of touch. Moreover, he cannot claim to have pioneered the BitTorrent release, as Hundred Waters and Willis Earl Beal have both gone this route.
Music has been available online for years now, in both paid for and pirated venues, and while his intentions may have been revolutionary, Thom Yorke’s album is not. Yes, there should be a better way to encourage people to pay for music digitally, but his method is not the answer.