These days, rare is an album from a superstar act that doesn’t leak onto the Internet before it hits stores. But when MP3 files purporting to be songs from Radiohead’s Capitol album, “Hail to the Thief,” surfaced online more than two months prior to the set’s June 10 street date, both band and label knew something was terribly amiss.
It was quickly determined that the files were copies of stolen unfinished versions of songs dating back to the first day of mixing. The leak forced the label to revise an already unconventional marketing campaign for one of the world’s foremost rock bands.
“It was annoying, but not that surprising,” guitarist Jonny Greenwood admits of the leak. “It’s annoying because what leaked wasn’t finished and wasn’t even edited. If it would have happened after [the release date], it may have been interesting to some people to hear what we changed. But the fact that these versions came out first is unfortunate.”
“The biggest question was, do we move up the record? The artwork was still in progress, but we ultimately thought we should stick with our plan.” says Capitol VP of global marketing Rob Gordon. “We had a very elaborate teaser campaign,” adds Capitol VP of new media Ted Mico. “We could probably have still rolled it out, but it’s a little stupid to offer tiny clips of an album that most people already have. We had to make sure we were giving fans something they didn’t already have — visual elements, a special multimedia player with song and video clips.”
Beginning in early May, a different song from the album was used as incidental music for three successive weeks on the hit CBS show “C.S.I.” At the same time, first single “There There” began picking up steam at radio; the cut is No. 14 this week on Billboard’s Modern Rock Tracks chart.
The campaign went to the next level on May 20, when the Bolex Brothers-directed clip for “There There” was debuted on the Jumbotron in New York’s Times Square and played every hour on the hour on MTV2. Earlier this month, Capitol launched the Web site Radiohead.tv, featuring exclusive video footage akin to the homespun Webcasts the group has often hosted on Radiohead.com.
“Radiohead had always been about the collision of online and offline in the most interesting possible way,” Mico notes.
Indeed, such unusual promotions are the order of the day for Radiohead, whose increasingly experimental music belies a mainstream popularity that has allowed its past two albums — 2000’s “Kid A” and 2001’s “Amnesiac” — to debut at No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, on The Billboard 200. The sets have sold a combined 1.76 million copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.
And while the Nigel Godrich-produced “Hail to the Thief” is a more immediate, guitar-powered album than its predecessors, it remains a challenging listen full of odd sounds, keyboards operated by antiquated computer programming languages, and frontman Thom Yorke’s always idiosyncratic singing style.
The record gets off to an electrifying start with “2+2=5,” from which the title phrase is drawn, and the claustrophobic, piano-driven “Sit Down. Stand Up.” Other highlights include the loose-limbed acoustic strumming of “Go To Sleep,” the impassioned closer “A Wolf at the Door,” and “Scatterbrain,” one of the most beautiful, straightforward songs the band has released in years.
Nearly all of the tracks were debuted in live performances during 2002, allowing the band to nail down finished arrangements so precise that the album was largely recorded in just two weeks worth of sessions.
“We’ve got quite an old fashioned approach, I’m starting to think,” Greenwood muses. “It’s a bit like the ’50s idea where you get the producer in and he would decide what arrangements would be done for that song, and the song would exist on paper. We really enjoy that sort of music making — writing the right chorus or verse isn’t even halfway for us. Sometimes you have to take the guitar off the shelf and use that, but other times you take a laptop.”
Greenwood admits that “a relatively small thing” can turn a song in a completely different direction. “The last song, ‘Wolf at the Door,’ was kind of brought in finished, but obviously without Thom’s shouting lyrics over the top,” he recalls. “Without that, it is kind of a sweet piece of music that is okay, but doesn’t really come alive until Thom’s adding his shouting stuff. Even songs that have been fairly finished by Thom or whoever, occasionally they’ll only come to life if [drummer Phil Selway] suggests cutting it in half or repeating sections. It’s that arranging thing.”
Capitol has a second wave of promotions on tap to keep “Hail to the Thief” in the public eye well into the summer. The now-spartan Radiohead.com was re-engineered and relaunched on June 10. Fans will also be able to create their own music video treatments (called “blips”) and share them with one another via an in-development FTP site. Mico adds that a “very elaborate, multi-tiered online game” should go live in August.
Although Radiohead sold out 14 of 16 shows on its 2001 North American tour, according to Billboard Box Score, Gordon says an extensive tour of the region remains unlikely. Instead, the group will tour Europe during June and July, with a three-week North American outing (booked by Carole Kinzel at CAA) set to begin Aug. 13. Another three-week North American swing begins in late September, and Kinzel says it is possible the band may return for more dates in 2004.
“The majority of the tour this year will be in amphitheaters,” Kinzel says of the North American run, full details of which aren’t expected until next week. “There will be a few arenas, a stadium, and one park we’re going into that we played before. We’ll be playing a few more shows than we did last time, including some markets we haven’t been in in a long time, if ever.”
Sometime in August, Radiohead.tv will make the jump to the real-life small screen. “We’re going to take that content, make it bigger and brighter, and in America, we’re going to buy late-night syndicated TV and put it on,” Gordon reveals. “It will be like Radiohead taking over a TV station.” Four 30-minute episodes are in the pipeline, and without revealing specifics, Mico assures, “as always, the creative element will be in the hands of the band.”
Both band and label admit “Hail to the Thief” will be a high-profile test case for whether pre-release piracy will significantly affect retail sales. “If I was a kid and it happened to my favorite band, I would be too keen to hear the songs and I would download it too,” Greenwood says. “But then at the same time, I’d definitely want the real record as well.”
— Jonathan Cohen