Radiohead: Steal This Blip
Silicon Alley Reporter Magazine #41 April 2001

Here I am like some awestruck 16-year old, crammed into LA’s Greek
Theater with 6,161 others who are lucky, famous or able to donate
$300-$10,000 on eBay for the scalpers’ relief fund. There’s just moon
enough tonight to register the phosphorescent eyes of dozens of
ticketless fans who’ve illicitly climbed up 90-degree angle dirt
cliffs behind the theater; they’ve clawed their way up into treetops
and they flutter now like nervous birds poised for the first killer
chord – damned if they’ll miss a single drumbeat from one of only two
sold-out “Kid A” tour dates Radiohead will play in 2000.

To my right, a drunk blonde grinds anorexic booty to the annoyance of
everyone in butt-range; someone’s yelling “Dude! You’re! Blocking! My!
View!” A wavering set of freckled twins shriek in duet falsetto, “Play
CREEEP!” and “Napsterrrrrrr!,” while struggling to rekindle a
beer-sogged joint.

I’m cold. No comforting beer, no boyfriend, no joint. But as the
packed theater goes black and the first note of “National Anthem”
smacks the hysterical crowd, I know why I’m here.

Chords crash and a thousand dazed attentions snap into one. The music
is thick and lush, nourishingly familiar. My bones are buttered into
heaps of hot mashed potatoes smothered with music as liquid as opium,
better and more satisfying than Christmas gravy and I can
nevernevernever get enough. Each note evokes a fresh barrage of
emotional texture, alternating lyrical lullaby with hard-drive chrome
train slam. Suddenly we get both polarized textures at once but all of
them fit perfectly, they belong to me, they’re part of me—and it’s

Those of us inside stumble out reluctantly; those of us in the trees
catapult down to dry, loose, earth that pours down the cliffs in
treacherous streams… I wasn’t always a fan. I was a listener and an
admirer. But I lost it somewhere along the way. I snapped. Blame it,
in part, on blips.

“Kid A” was roundly celebrated as having broken new musical territory.
Radiohead’s approach to promoting the Capitol Records release was
similarly innovative. The band collaborated with longtime Radiohead
cover art creator Stanley Donwood; with animator, filmmaker and
videographer Chris Bran; with digital entertainment collective Shynola
(comprised of multimedia artists Jason Groves, Gideon Baws, Richard
Kenworthy and Chris Hardin); and producer Dilly Gent; issuing brief
10-to-30 second films backed by sonic snippets from the new album. The
blips resemble impressionistic ads more than traditional rock videos;
purpose-built to be distributed online and by e-mail.

Which brings it all rushing back. My downfall… which came first?
Pre-release Kid A bootlegs? Watching blips on my laptop after reading
listserv posts on how cool they were? It doesn’t matter anymore. I was
a goner. During those heady days of free-love filesharing and
pre-Bertelsmann/Napster ennui, it all just got to me.

According to Rob Gordon, Capitol Records VP of Marketing, the blips
were entirely the band’s idea. “They were in charge of the creative
process with their creative team from day one.” In promoting the
release, Capitol created mini-websites, serving up exclusive content
to fan and partner sites like, and Other
elements included print-on-demand postcards and a Kid A “listening
party” where fans could hear the album in entirety weeks before

“People wanted to hear this record and they figured out how to get it
early,” said Capitol’s Director of New Media Robin Bechtel. Radiohead
fans are notoriously active online, so fan “word-of-mouse” became the
driving force. “We knew the entire album would end up on the Internet
anyway, so we wanted to be proactive.”


“What I hate about what I do is that the pictures don’t move,” says
Stanley Donwood, the artist responsible for Kid A’s cover art and much
of Radiohead’s imagery since its 1994 My Iron Lung EP. “ I have ideas
about what’s happening in them, but then I have to stop at a certain

Stanley met Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke back in college. The two
brainstorm regularly. “We drink a lot and then argue,” Stanley
explains. “Kid A is a very agoraphobic record. The music makes shapes
and colors that I tried to use… I like old paintings of battles where
the armies look like jewels scattered on mud, but close up, they’re
performing a ballet of atrocity. The paintings were started during
that horror in Bosnia.”

Radiohead’s death-bear icon has roots in a bedtime story Stanley once
told his daughter; red swimming pools are a reference to Alan Moore’s
graphic novel on CIA atrocities, “Brought to Light,” in which cold-war
casualties are measured by the gallons of human blood it takes to fill
a swimming pool. An ominous stick-monster owes aesthetic DNA to
Stanley’s admiration for the work of British artist L.S. Lowry. One
blip starring a panicked death-bear alone in the forest seems to
reference an earlier pop culture phenomenon… Bear Witch Project?

Before Kid A’s street release, one of the Capitol/EMI web servers
hosting yet-unreleased blips was hacked open, to the horror of many
involved in the project. “I fucking loved it,” says Stanley. “EMI
reckoned they had a secure server – there’s no such thing. As far as I
’m concerned, once we finished the blips, they were free to
genetically reproduce wherever they liked… There should be no
copyright on the net. It’s our last and latest free place. Steal what
you like and use it to make great things.”

“The blips were made to be stolen, copied, thrown away, collected,
ignored.... whatever people want to do with them,” says Radiohead blip
co-collaborator Chris Bran. “When you see a painting for the first
time it takes a few seconds to digest the colors and shapes. Then,
hopefully, you get a rush of thoughts and emotions. After 30 seconds
you start examining it technically, the brush strokes, the detail...
but that initial reaction is the most important.”

Chris first met Stanley while helping Radiohead produce a webcast from
the band’s studio in Oxford, England.

“Around [that] time, we were all playing around with animation and
video on our Macs, creating things we could play during the webcasts.
I took some of Stanley's artwork home with me one night, and created a
few looped animations. Later, I was asked to edit 7 or 8 short clips
using footage from the webcasts… I added the blinking bear logo on the
end. They developed the idea and encouraged me to make more.

Shynola, who prefer to speak collectively, agree that the creative
process surrounding the blips left plenty of room for experimentation.
“Early on in the project, Stanley came around to our place with a load
of photos and scans of his paintings and drawings, and a tape with a
couple of early blips he did with Chris Bran. He talked for a while
about what his paintings were trying to say, and what they hoped to do
with the blips. Amazingly we were allowed to use any part of any song
on Kid A to go with our animation.”

The official blip count remains a mystery: Chris Bran remembers
creating between 25 and 30, Shynola estimates a similar number they
created made it online. Radiohead’s 5th album, Amnesiac, is due for
release in Spring, 2001. While there’s talk of a more extensive US
tour, everyone’s hushed about future online projects.

“I’m working maniacally on the art for the next record,” replies
Stanley when asked about work in progress. “[and] something else that
I won’t mention because that’ll jinx it… it’s a book.”

Fan-created art based on Kid A imagery continues to explode online at
random, then implode back into pixel obscurity just as fast.

But that’s just the nature of big bangs, rock stardom, and blips.