News related to the British experimentalist outfit Radiohead has a tendency to cause tremors in the music world — and the earth-shaking details don’t necessarily have to relate to the group’s records. Since 2008, Radiohead has become known for how it plays around not just with musical expectations, but with the idea of how music comes to market; in October of that year, the band initially released its album “In Rainbows” as a pay-what-you-will download of low-quality MP3s, with tricked-out box sets being made available later.
On Friday, a few days after news broke that music sales in the first half of 2014 were down 4.9 percent from the year prior, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke released the digital version of his second solo record, “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.” The album, which he recorded with longtime Radiohead collaborator Nigel Godrich, is available through peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol BitTorrent, historically known as a haven for pirates. The “Boxes” release, however, marks the launch of the BitTorrent Bundles program’s paywall: A user downloads a bundle for free, but only a few files inside are unlocked; complete access comes after money (in the US, $6 via PayPal or credit card) has changed virtual hands.
In a joint statement, Yorke and Godrich said, “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.”
There is a bit of hyperbole involved here. True, “Boxes” is the first major album released via BitTorrent where money is necessary to open a Bundle. (In 2013, the EDM artist Kaskade used Bundles to distribute audio and video files, requiring e-mail addresses as “payment.”) But small labels and independent artists have been using sites like the elegantly designed roll-your-own-store Bandcamp to bypass bigger outlets like iTunes and Amazon, which take bigger cuts of revenue, for a while now.
The mechanisms through which Bandcamp and BitTorrent work are different; as Godrich and Yorke noted, “the torrent mechanism does not require any server uploading or hosting costs or ‘cloud’ malarkey.” It does require the user to have to download a separate application, however, which might cause the less technologically adventurous to opt for the physical edition, a white vinyl LP that costs $50 and includes access to higher-quality files — or to not buy it at all.
In some ways, the basics of “Boxes” stand in direct opposition to the release earlier this month of U2’s “Songs of Innocence,” which was made available gratis to anyone with an iTunes account; both U2 and Yorke, however, share a level of fame where the release of new material doubles as those records’ promotional campaigns, an advantage not enjoyed by just “anyone.”
All of the hoopla over how “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” was released can tend to obscure thoughts about its contents. “Boxes” is mostly moody club music that sometimes gets lost in its own haze; it leans heavily on brooding synths that at times sound intentionally blown out, with Yorke’s spectral voice floating in and out of sparsely populated tracks. The squiggle introducing the opening track, “A Brain in a Bottle,” finds Yorke’s voice sounding nearly angelic; the stark tableau of “Interference,” meanwhile, is made more welcoming by his gentle croon.
The tracks where Yorke’s voice are front and center are the most satisfying; lengthier forays into drum-machine oblivion, like the winding “The Mother Lode” and the atmospheric “There Is No Ice (For My Drink),” could use a bit of editing. Those aesthetics come together beautifully on “Nose Grows Some,” the album’s closing track; Yorke’s distorted voice winds around a shuffling beat and organ drone, only coming into focus when he sustains a note. In time, “Boxes” likely will be seen as belonging to Radiohead’s business-side innovations more than to its musical ones. It’s enjoyable yet slight, a hedged bet on a still-unproven concept.
On Sunday, York posted a photo of a white vinyl on his Tumblr: