No, Thom Yorke’s ‘Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ Won’t Reinvent the Music Biz Through BitTorrent

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“Thom Yorke hates Spotify” is one of the first Google auto-fills that pop up for me when I enter the Radiohead frontman’s name. I can’t say I remember ever googling that particular phrase, perhaps because I know it to be a fact. The series of tweets he rattled off about music’s most popular streaming service, along with frequent producer and Atoms For Producer bandmate Nigel Godrich, have become beef as classic as a Big Mac. Still, Yorke really did put his money where his mouth is when he removed portions of his discography (Atoms for Peace’s AMOK and his 2006 solo debut, The Eraser) from the streaming service.

“When we did the In Rainbows thing what was most exciting was the idea you could have a direct connection between you as a musician and your audience,” Yorke would later tell a Mexico City radio station called Reactor 105.7 last fall. “You cut all of it out, it’s just that. And then all these fuckers get in the way, like Spotify suddenly trying to become the gatekeepers to the whole process. We don’t need you to do it. No artist needs you to do it. We can build the shit ourselves, so fuck off.”

“Building the shit ourselves,” it turns out, is using BitTorrent behind a paywall to release a surprise album, as Yorke did last Friday with his second solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. Oh, so basically pulling a Moby while pulling a Beyoncé? (In addition to Moby, Madonna and De La Soul have also embraced BitTorrent, which is trying to rebrand, a bit hilariously, as a space for creators.) There’s just something smug and a little willfully ignorant about the way Yorke essentially describes the functions of Bandcamp while acting as if he’s a savior of the music industry. He already played that role in 2007 with the pay-what-you-want digital release of In Rainbows came with just ten days’ warning on Radiohead’s Dead Air Space blog. The label-less experiment went on to be studied, idolized, and emulated, including by the likes of Bandcamp. What more does Yorke want in terms of altering the music industry’s broken distribution model — singlehandedly taking down Spotify while lifting up paid Torrents?

Refusing to be part of the system is one way to stand against it, but I’m personally of the belief that more change can be effected from the inside, via constructive criticism and collaboration. Will U2 and Apple really create “an audiovisual interactive format for music that can’t be pirated and will bring back album artwork in the most powerful way, where you can play with the lyrics and get behind the songs when you’re sitting on the subway with your iPad or on these big flat screens”? Will Neil Young force casual music listeners to care about audio quality with his Pono player? I’m skeptical of both concepts, but I do commend their all-in efforts, even when Bono and Tim Cook start talking about numbers in terms of percentages of the world’s population. For all that Radiohead stirred with their dare-to-dream approach to In Rainbows, I don’t think the future of digital music distribution is going to come from Thom Yorke. He already sounds out of touch in his note accompanying the release of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes:

“As an experiment we are using a new version of BitTorrent to distribute a new Thom Yorke record. The new Torrent files have a pay gate to access a bundle of files. The files can be anything, but in this case is an ‘album’. 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. The torrent mechanism does not require any server uploading or hosting costs or ‘cloud’ malarkey. It’s a self-contained embeddable shop front. The network not only carries the traffic, it also hosts the file. The file is in the network. Oh yes and it’s called Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.”

He’s clearly proud of the cheeky title, and there are other things to be proud of here as well: that he got more than 400,000 people (and counting) to spend $6 on his music, that closing track “Nose Grows Some” ranks among the best songs he’s written since In Rainbows, that he really stuck it to the man (and Metallica) by using a site previously known for piracy to make actual money. But this release model isn’t going to change music, just as the songs themselves don’t herald major tide shifts in electronic music or even “IDM” as a genre. Thom Yorke made an album that’s pretty typical for him in this decade: layers and layers of ambient electronic beats and semi-incomprehensible vocals that intoxicate the listener with vibes and moods instead of tangible messages. He put it out on a Friday just before noon EST and 5 p.m. in his home base of London, a time that suggested he didn’t particularly care about making headlines before the weekend began (he did anyway). He wrote a paragraph explaining what he was trying to do. And then I imagine he logged off and went back to making the new Radiohead record. Accept it for what it is and nothing more.