Back in December, mediabistro’s GalleyCat posed the question ‘Where will we find Literature’s Radiohead?‘. Not a question of matching literary style up to the Oxford band’s musical approach (although over at the Valve they see a similarity between Yeats and the band), but rather the starting point for a discussion on distribution methods – on the back of an interview/meeting between David Byrne and Thom Yorke in Wired magazine where they discussed the revolutionary release of In Rainbows.
The question, though, had already been answered in a sense – and before the publication of In Rainbows. Radiohead’s system of releasing the album online for free, allowing downloaders to decide their own price (including a figure of zero), merited the huge media attention it got – but, while certainly the most audacious experiment in new methods of distribution, it’s far from the first.
And I’m not talking about the open-source theoretical works like The Cathedral and the Bazaar published under an open publication licence by O’Reilly in 1999. For all its subversive worth, it’s not strictly-speaking literary.
Stroll into any decent bookshop and you’ll find a copy of Q by Luther Blisset. The book, set in reformation Europe has been a signifcant success both commercially and critically since its original publication in 1999. The book was the work of an Italian collective which, for reasons that remain obscure, operated under the name borrowed from a 1980s British football player of Afro-Caribbean origins.
In his TMO review, Robbie Looby wrote that Q was ‘ a wild, exhilarating account of a turbulent age’, while The New Republic review wrote “It is hard to do better than this vivid, terrifying portrait of a survivor of the Protestant Reformation . . . The characters in Q bleed real blood, blood that was still soaking Europe in the trenches of World War I, and the firestorms of World War II.”
What’s this got to do with Radiohead? Well apart from the fact that the band have at various stages name-dropped the book and the art collective behind it (who have mutated into the Wu-Ming Foundation), the main reason is that the novel, while a commercial and critical success, is downloadable for free from the Wu-Ming site. It’s also published under a licence that allows for copying and distribution for non-commercial purposes.
But Luther Blisset, footballer or art-collective, is hardly a household name – even in literary circles – you might argue. A fair point, perhaps (which poses its own question – would the collective Blisset be better known if a) they were English rather than Italian or b) they had chosen a more high-profile footballer).
A more household name, perhaps, is Neil Gaiman who has flirted with the same question posed to Radiohead with their release of In Rainbows, namely ‘why give it away for free when you can make loads of dosh selling it?’. Gaiman, with his publishers Harper Collins, made his novel American Gods freely available for a month. Admirably open, Gaiman published various stats from the experiment on his ever-popular blog – stats that showed that his overall book sales were up during the month.
One of the interesting stats from Gaiman was that while a huge amount of people had flocked to the specially set up browse-inside format online, the average amount of pages read per person was 46 – i.e not the whole book.
Gaiman’s courteous and intelligent response to a small bookstore owner could quite easily also be adapted by Radiohead for the legions of detractors who suggest their experiment makes it harder for small bands to break through.
Arguably, as shown by the experience of Gaiman and Wu Ming, books are a much more appropriate art form for the free download. I downloaded Wu Ming’s novel 54, and got fed up of reading on-screen after a while, through discomfort. I read enough of the book to realise I wanted to read it the full way through, and so went out and bought it.
For the growing number of people whose music delivery system is a computer/mp3 player, downloading Radiohead’s album gives you a near perfect format. Sure the cd will give you some extra sonic range – most of which is superfluous to those of us not blessed with canine hearing – and the packaging will be of interest to some die-hard fans, but for those interested in simply listening to the songs, the download gives it to you straight. The choice then becomes a moral one – to either value the artist, or enjoy the art gratis.
With books the free download brings with it a handy in-built discomfort, which makes the moral choice secondary.