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I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t weigh in on the whole Radiohead album thing. Fortunately, I’ve had some thinking assistance in this regard.
Radiohead

Ever have one of those conversations that are like playing tennis with someone who’s slightly better at it than you? You end up running around the court, working up a bit of a sweat, playing above your own expectations and improving your overall game, cognitively speaking.

I had one of those over several glasses of scotch last night with my friend Clutch from the band (x) is greater than (y). The topics ranged from Buddhism to corporate ethics, the relationship between age and the songwriter’s craft, New Zealand colonial history, the problem of public funding — and the new Radiohead album, In Rainbows.

I’d been holding off for a few days on writing about the new Radiohead release — mostly because so much had already been said about it as a new music strategy elsewhere. But as a result of the catalyst of that conversation, I think I’ve ended up with some useful analysis to throw into the mix.

It’s clear that the Radiohead ‘pay whatever you want, but here’s the premium disc box’ arrangement is significant and exciting – but nobody seems to have put their finger on why it’s so intuitively right.

Let’s go back a decade or more to a book by Nicholas Negroponte. Large parts of it made me cross at the time, but there was a central idea I found interesting: the world of physical items is made out of atoms; the digital world is made out of bits. These component pieces have their own unique characteristics.

Bits are endlessly and perfectly replicable. There is an infinite supply of them. They can travel immense distances in a matter of seconds, and they can be endlessly manipulated, transformed and reassembled. Things made of bits have no weight, smell or substance. They are entirely ephemeral and yet they do not decay.

Digital works do not have, as Walter Benjamin would have it, the aura of authenticity of an ‘original’. They are, to use Baudrillard’s terminology, simulacra – copies of things of which there is no original.

By contrast, atoms are discrete units that form the building blocks of concrete items of tangible significance. They are finite and often scarce in number. It takes force and energy to move physical objects from place to place. They tend to appeal to more senses than just sound and vision, having the properties of weight, smell, texture and the characteristic of being susceptible to degradation over time.

The brilliance of the Radiohead release is entirely in the extent to which they have approached both of these types of media on their own terms. The way in which you make a desirable item of quality in the world of bits is not the same way in which you make a desirable item of quality in the world of atoms.

One cannot seek to replace the other. It simply jostles it about a bit in the mix of available modes of consumption.

And this goes some long way towards explaining why the declining sales of CDs are not compensated by an accelerating rate of paid digital downloads. Major record labels seem to misunderstand the world of bits AND the world of atoms, and are trying desperately to make the one do the job of the other.

CDs are not actually on the decline. If anything, they’re on the rise. There are many categories of CD — from the connoisseur box set and the high end reissues with books, photography and high quality materials, right down to the hand-scrawled quick demo using a medium that is now so close to being free that anybody can make their own and hand them around to friends.

I reckon there are about ten different categories of compact disc usage.

But one type of CD — the mass-produced, high volume, full retail price CD — is on the decline. Why? Because it more or less fully misunderstands its own character. In trying to be affordable, corners are cut in terms of quality and substance of presentation.

It’s not nearly free like a hand-cut CDR, but nor is it a premium product like a — well, like a disc box.

And the idea of selling DRM-crippled digital tracks at more or less the same price as their physical counterparts seems entirely counter-intuitive when you understand the innate characteristics of the component elements.

Digital music has no value-as-artefact. It is entirely ephemeral. It only has cultural value, and this — as Radiohead assert — can be negotiated on an individual basis.

There is no risk here. Radiohead cannot, as I see, fail to make this their most significant, influential and (most likely) lucrative album to date. And that’s without having heard the music, which I suspect will be ace.

I say this for two reasons:

1) Radiohead understand marketing. This is a great story, and one that is being talked about and shared at great length, both through the potentially free nature of the music itself, but also because it is, as Seth Godin puts it, a Purple Cow of an idea.

2) Radiohead understand media — in a deeply McLuhanistic sense. They have approached each medium on its own terms and have applied the principles related to the innate characteristics of bits and atoms respectively.

I suspect I’ll buy the discbox. It just looks so tangible and lovely. Clutch was the same. He was first in line. But what he’s paid for is different in almost every conceivable way from what a casual downloader, curious and in for a quid, will get.

But both are important and valuable. They’re just made of different stuff.