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October 2, 2007

Radiohead Spreads the Word

The music industry may have just changed forever, triggered by a friendly message delivered on a band website. Radiohead announced the imminent release of their 7th studio album on October 7. In a message on the band's website, guitarist/organist/laptopist Jonny Greenwood writes, "Hello everyone. Well, the new album is finished, and it's coming out in 10 days; We've called it 'In Rainbows.' Love from us all. Jonny." The most shocking thing isn't the short run-up to one of the year's most anticipated albums, nor is it the band's decision to release it themselves. Instead, it's that the band is asking listeners to pay whatever price they want to download the album.

Despite the low-profile announcement, the news is making its way around the web with blinding speed, leaving giddy commenters in its wake. But some of the bigger news publications have been slow to react. Below, Gelf traces the spread of the story, tracking who's on the ball and who is asking their kids just who exactly is this Stereo Brain band.

A little backstory: Radiohead began work on the album—LP7 was its working title online—in early 2005, then took a break to tour with the new material. Many of the songs premiered on the 2006 tour found their way onto the album and its bonus disc. Over the course of the recording and mixing process, speculation and anticipation ran high, with the band's typically cryptic website only adding to the intrigue. The last week saw a series of posts on the site in the form of coded squares that were decoded by fans to reveal an equally mystifying series of statements. The fans could sense something brewing, and a mischievous prankster set up the website RadioheadLP7.com with an ominous clock counting down to September 28, 9:00 AM EST. The music blogs were filled with excitement mixed with traces of doubt. When the countdown reached zero hour the site showed a video of Richard Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up," revealing itself to be a common internet practical joke known as "Rickrolling."

Shortly after midnight on October 1, 2007 (GMT)—with the Rickroll still fresh in fans' minds)—Greenwood posted the short message on the band's website. Within minutes, the official Radiohead message board and fan websites Radiohead At Ease and green plastic had the news. Soon after that, popular music blogs like Stereogum, Pitchfork Media, and Kevchino excitedly carried the story. Commenters on Stereogum and other sites greeted the release with delight and genuine surprise—a marked departure from their usually jaded responses. From there the news rapidly spread across email and Facebook as frenzied fans eagerly shared the good word with friends. Music magazine sites with their ear to their ground like Spin and Rolling Stone posted the story in the first few hours. British music magazine NME seems to be in war mode, covering it from every possible angle, from "How much will you pay?" to the album's chart eligibility.

Then there were the major media outlets. Time Magazine quickly provided an article that captured (or as a few weeks' time may tell us, exaggerated) the significance of the album, calling it "easily the most important release in the recent history of the music business. The article also included the analysis of a forlorn record company executive quoted as saying, "This feels like yet another death knell. If the best band in the world doesn't want a part of us, I'm not sure what's left for this business." Within hours of Greenwood's short message, the story had been reported in the Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, and by Reuters. The New York Times lagged behind slightly, writing it up on a blog Monday afternoon, and syndicating the Reuters piece nearly a full day after it was first published. Sites like Variety and Netribution are wondering aloud what the In Rainbows release means for the future of pop stars as well as films and other traditionally paid-for media.

As an album leaked to fans by its creators, the work of an entirely vertically-integrated recording artist, and the beginning of the end of the outdated record-label model, the upcoming release of In Rainbows is going to tell us a lot about the entertainment industry in the coming weeks. Just as importantly, the spread of the news of its release over a single day—from a single low-key posting to almost every major media website—tells us a lot about the ferocious pace of news on the internet.

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