By Eric Pfanner
PARIS — Epochal pronouncements from rock stars should sometimes be taken with a dose of skepticism. In 1966, John Lennon declared that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Since the 1960s, Jesus has enjoyed a bit of a comeback, while the Beatles’ music is still unavailable from legitimate digital music services.
But people in the music industry tend to listen to Thom Yorke, lead singer in the British alternative rock group Radiohead, for Radiohead has cultivated a reputation as one of the most future-proof bands around.
The quintet, who met while attending private school in Oxfordshire, bucked the music industry establishment two years ago when they left their record company, EMI, and released their latest album, “In Rainbows,” direct to fans, on the Internet. In a nod to the new economics of a business ravaged by digital piracy, they employed a novel pricing formula: pay whatever you want.
So, when Mr. Yorke announced a change of course for the band, saying it planned to stop making full-length records and turn its attention to singles, it sounded like an epitaph for the album, the broken backbone of the record industry’s longtime business model.
“None of us wants to go into that creative hoo-ha of a long-play record again,” Mr. Yorke told the Believer, a literary magazine based in San Francisco. “Not straight off. I mean, it’s just become a real drag. It worked with ‘In Rainbows’ because we had a real fixed idea about where we were going. But we’ve all said that we can’t possibly dive into that again. It’ll kill us.”
Radiohead’s shift to singles reflects a change in music fans’ preferences. Instead of buying whole albums, they now stream or download just the songs they want. That, along with unauthorized copying, has decimated industry revenues.
According to Nielsen SoundScan, U.S. sales of albums, in physical and digital form, fell 14 percent last year, continuing a multiyear decline. While consumers bought more than a billion individual digital tracks in the United States, which accounts for a majority of online sales worldwide, they bought only 65 million digital albums in 2008.
Efforts are under way to try to make albums less of a drag. Apple and the major record companies are reportedly working on projects to include liner notes, lyrics, artwork, music videos and other extras with digital downloads.
They could start by examining Radiohead’s experiment with “In Rainbows.” The band’s publisher, Warner Chappell, reported that more than three million copies of the album were distributed in the first year, in digital and physical formats. Some people paid nothing, but the album still made more money than either of the band’s previous two records, Warner Chappell said. And the marketing buzz from the “pay what you want” model helped drive the CD to the top of the charts.
Why give up on albums, then?
Some Radiohead followers were convinced that Mr. Yorke’s comments signaled that the band intended to release an EP, or extended play, album, rather than downsizing to singles.
Their case seemed to be bolstered by cryptic comments included with the recent online leak of a new Radiohead song, “These Are My Twisted Words.” Bloggers, constructing a “Da Vinci Code”-style trail of links from these comments, concluded that the EP was due last week. Alas, for Radiohead fans, the day of the expected release, Aug. 17, passed with no news of a new record. Some bloggers suspected pranksters; others said it was all a multilayered plot by Radiohead, demonstrating the band’s mastery of viral marketing because it kept fans chattering.
“The band is fast becoming as synonymous with technological mischief as they are with music, and for that, we can only salute them,” wrote Contagious magazine, an online publication that focuses on digital advertising.
The faster the music business figures out what Radiohead is up to, the better. After all, if Mr. Yorke and Co. keep having to expend their creative hoo-ha showing the industry the way forward, will they have any left for their music?