As of this morning there is a new Thom Yorke solo album in the world, titled Tomorrow's Modern Boxes and available for $6 via BitTorrent. This is cool and good; I heartily recommend you stop using BitTorrent to illegally download pornography long enough to legally check it out, flush as it is with atmospheric techno-burbles and Yorke's sonorously mewled, oblique yet profound musings on the alienating aspects of modern technology. There's also a new video where Thom dances, and those are always a hoot.
A quick word, though, about the delivery system. The announcement of Tomorrow's Modern Boxes was framed as a distinctly Yorke-ian quasi-manifesto about cutting out the middleman. Excerpt:
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.
If it works anyone can do this exactly as we have done.
Not exactly. That this fight-the-power announcement came from a major PR firm is pretty funny, but largely irrelevant; a single tweet from Thom would've triggered the RT-and-reblog music-press avalanche just as effectively.
No, the real issue, as plenty of wise critics and industry folks have been pointing out ever since Radiohead allegedly changed the game with 2007's shock pay-what-you-want direct-download jam In Rainbows, is that every prominent artist that has bucked the system and/or taken matters into their own hands and/or showed the world that you don't need major-label muscle and PR flash to make a splash, from Nine Inch Nails to Beyoncé to U2, has one thing in common: major-label muscle and PR flash. At least at the onset. Surprise albums, utopian pricing schemes, and other such bloggable chicanery work only if you're already insanely famous, and you're only famous if those self-elected gatekeepers deem it so.
Radiohead got famous on a major label. They have agonized over this at length, most notably in the half-fascinating, half-irritating 1998 documentary Meeting People Is Easy, which is archly self-loathing if you're feeling charitable and merely super-whiney if you're not. (Here's a six-minute compilation of "sad moments" therein that is about an hour and 24 minutes too short.) "It sucks being a famous rock band," is the gist, and it's a little too convincing.
The boys have since grown fond of surprise album announcements and anti-PR-stunt PR stunts: Pimping 2011's King of Limbs via a limited-edition newspaper called The Universal Sigh is a pretty funny joke, if it was a joke at all, which it better have been. You never can quite tell with these guys, and so it goes with Tomorrow's Modern Boxes: It's a pleasant surprise and a fine idea, but as always, the rhetoric is just a click too naive and self-congratulatory. It's a New World Order, sure: Anyone can sell anything on the internet these days. But nobody much cares unless the Old World Order already made certain that people will pay attention to everything you do from now on. Stars are not just like us; you get to avoid the self-elected gatekeepers only if you've become your own.
Rob Harvilla is Deadspin's culture editor. Yes, there is one. He's on Twitter.
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