Few contemporary artists have had a more profound effect on the music industry than Radiohead. The British five-piece have sold in excess of 30 million albums, all while forging a wholly unique, idiosyncratic sound that’s as challenging and rewarding as any band in popular music.
Yet Radiohead’s influence and impact goes well beyond their numerous critical and commercial accomplishments. Radiohead leveraged their popularity to forge revolutionary new paths for independent artists and no other band has been better at exploiting the newfound economics of the music industry to suit their own creative and financial ends.
With the imminent release of the band’s ninth studio album and a series of summer tour dates booked, we’re taking a look at five ways Radiohead changed the music game.
Radiohead helped popularize the blend of rock and electronic music
Radiohead’s influence on the sound and direction of popular music is impossible to properly quantify, but on a rudimentary level, releases like OK Computer and particularly Kid A obliterated the boundaries separating rock and electronic music. Both of those albums still feel progressive more than 15 years after their release and the band's emphasis on electronic elements to build atmosphere and add texture have been internalized by a new generation of producers and artists outside of the world of rock.
Radiohead invented the surprise release
It’s easy to forget now that the practice has become industry standard for top-tier artists like Beyonce and Rihanna, but Radiohead’s watershed seventh album In Rainbows was the first surprise album from a major artist. In a message that now seems remarkable for its nonchalance, the band’s guitarist Jonny Greenwood posted to their blog Dead Air Space on Sept. 30, 2007 that “The new album is finished, and it's coming out in 10 days.” For fans who were completely in the dark on their post-major label plans, the news was exhilarating and highly unconventional, given the months of advance notice surrounding album releases at the time. Of course, there was a second, equally important component to the In Rainbows announcement….
Radiohead was an early adaptor to crowdfunding
….specifically that the album would cost whatever fans were willing to pay, including nothing at all. Again, this was virtually unprecedented at the time and while it wasn’t technically crowdfunding since the album was already complete, it fundamentally altered the transactional relationship between artist and fan. Instead of paying money for an album without knowing what cut the band would make, this new model empowered fans to support the artists directly. And although crowdfunding remains the dominion of established acts with a loyal following, it proved lucrative for Radiohead; a year after its release, the band’s publisher Warner Chappell reported that pre-release sales for In Rainbows had already made it more profitable than their previous release, despite the fact that most fans hadn’t paid a dime for it. Speaking of not paying for music….
Radiohead members were among the first and most strident critics of streaming services
The advent of music streaming services like Spotify over the past several years has been a boon to music fans, who can access a huge library of music for less than the cost of a single CD. But it has also raised philosophical questions about the monetary value of art and one of the first musicians to address the issue was Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke. In a 2013 interview, Yorke and Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich criticized Spotify for its low payouts to newer artists and Yorke later called the service “the last desperate fart of a dying corpse." Although Taylor Swift was not quite as colorful in her criticism, she and other artists -- like Atoms For Peace, Yorke and Godrich’s side-project -- have withheld some or all of their catalog from Spotify.
Radiohead ushered in the era of independent artists
Above all else, Radiohead’s post-In Rainbows success has emboldened other artists to forgo the major label route and remain independent. Rising stars like Chicago MC Chance the Rapper remain unsigned despite a spate of label interest and artists like Pearl Jam have followed Radiohead’s lead by creating their own companies to handle releases in-house. This model doesn’t work for everyone, but technology and social media has made it easier than ever for artists to have a flourishing career outside of the traditional label system.
These are but a few of the ways that Radiohead has impacted the world of music. We’ll find out what they do next when their still-untitled new album drops later this year. In addition to their international festival dates, Radiohead is widely expected to announce more concert dates soon; keep it here on AXS.com for more information on their upcoming album and tour and listen to their “Spectre” theme below.