Monday, September 29, 2014

Music According to Benedict - Thom Yorke's Tomorrow's Modern Boxes

Longtime fans of Benedict Cumberbatch who've followed his musical tastes know of his appreciation for Radiohead and lead singer Thom Yorke. In the past, Cumberbatch has openly admitted Radiohead's significance to him - as if their music were the soundtrack to his life (never more so than "How To Disappear Completely" - the song he heard before and during his carjacking while filming BBC's "To The Ends of the Earth.")

Radiohead's first hit, "Creep" is the one most people can recognize, but it's not indicative of the band's sound or the albums released while under contract to EMI. While Benedict talks of an extraordinary life, it seems that if one listens to the artists he mentions during interviews and Q&A's, he is drawn to artists who see the extraordinary in the parts that comprise songs, whether it be the music, lyrics, instruments, orchestration - and, in the case of Radiohead and Thom Yorke, distribution. Just last year, the outspoken Yorke described Spotify as:

 “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse.” 

Picturesque, isn't it?

Before that, Thom didn't seem fond of CDs, either. In a 2009 interview with Believer, Yorke admitted: "...I always hated CDs. Me and Stanley [Donwood, Radiohead’s longtime album-art designer] always hated CDs. Just a f*cking nightmare," adding that he was happy to see that format disappear.

The message seems to be consistent, even with the press release for the new album:

It's an experiment to see if the mechanics of the system are something that the general public can get its head around ...
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.
Enabling those people who make either music, video or any other kind of digital content to sell it themselves.
Bypassing the self elected gate-keepers.

One might be able to get around gate-keepers, but that cannot be said of the critics. Reviews have been, well, mixed, at best, although there have been close to 500K downloads as of this writing. Zach Schonfeld of AV Club commented that the record illuminates "how Thom Yorke and longtime co-conspirator Nigel Godrich like to spend their free time," before they begin the newest band album, while Mark Beaumont of The Guardian observed that "much of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes sounds distinctly unambitious" while admitting "it’s unfair to expect Yorke to dismantle and resolder the circuit boards of modern music every time he releases a record." (Mark's review is colorful and well worth the read, by the way. Check it out!)

NME's review, like others, acknowledged the daring that comes more with the distribution of the music than with the contents customers receive: "Not so long ago, musicians like Yorke strived to push the artistic envelope; now it seems the focus has shifted towards finding the most ethical and efficient way to mail it."

For me, the challenge is the delivery service Yorke chose, announcing it on Twitter on Sept. 26.

While elevating the BitTorrent Bundle brand and giving himself artistic freedom and control, what makes it better for the customer? Today's consumers are usually motivated by price AND convenience. The price? $6.00 USD, which is very reasonable IF you love the band and know you'll enjoy the record. However, in the age of iTunes and Amazon, where you can hear a song sample, or Spotify, Pandora and 8Tracks, where you can listen to music at no charge before you buy, it seems a safe bet for Yorke and Radiohead to choose alternative distribution AFTER they earned critical and commercial success with a 6-album deal with EMI that began in 1991. There is less risk and more control for them, but that can't be said for us, the buyer. Times and tastes change - and the music industry has, too. A typical Radiohead fan has likely been along for the ride from the beginning - and my guess is that they enjoy the convenience of digital downloads, streaming radio apps  - and the efficiency of iTunes (and they probably bought a few CDs, too.)

Perhaps this is the evolution of digital downloads, and fans will follow where Thom leads. To find out more, you can click on the Twitter link above or check out Radiohead's press release, which details BitTorrent Bundles method for selling Tomorrow's Modern Boxes - or check out the video and audio tracks for "A Brain in A Bottle" below:

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