Radiohead was expected to release a new album this year, but it wasn't clear how and when. After the English rock band began deleting its Internet presence - tweets and status updates included - many though the time had come and praised the unusual promotional strategy. But others were hoping it was something more.
The alarm was first sounded by a Reddit user, who noticed the Radiohead website was fading away. Starting on the morning of Sunday 01 May, the page gradually dimmed and vanished by the early afternoon. Meanwhile, all content was removed from the band’s social media accounts (bar MySpace, which presumably didn't make the cut). Within hours, fans were left staring at blank pages, many feeling a potent mix of uncertainty, concern and excitement.
Vulture called it “anti-viral marketing”. That description missed the target: the band’s white Facebook profile picture garnered 64,000 likes, over 4,000 shares and 3,300 comments. Headlines in the vein of “Radiohead erased itself from the Internet” soon popped up across the web. At that point, the blackout could have ended in two ways: a predictable comeback or a complete shutdown. Some were hoping for the latter, a digital Houdini.
After all, a self-imposed online ban would fit nicely with the views of Radiohead’s outspoken frontman, Thom Yorke. Soon after launching a solo album in 2014, he emailed fans to say he had the “utmost respect” for those who rejected Facebook and Twitter. In an earlier interview with the Guardian, Yorke spoke about the “commodification of human relationships through social networks”. He added that big technology companies “have to keep commodifying things to keep the share price up, but in doing so they have made all content, including music and newspapers, worthless, in order to make their billions”.
He was even more vehement in a recent interview with Italian newspaper La Repubblica, likening these companies to the Nazis. “The creators of services make money – Google, YouTube. A huge amount of money, by trawling, like in the sea – they take everything there is. ‘Oh, sorry, was that yours? Now it’s ours. No, no, we’re joking – it’s still yours’. They’ve seized control of it – it’s like what the Nazis did during the second world war.”
Radiohead had the perfect opportunity to thumb its nose at 'Big Tech' and renounce the likes and views that increasingly define modern music. Its website was down, its social media profiles empty and fans were waiting with bated breath. The band could have deleted its accounts and erased its website. It wouldn’t have been a digital unplugging on the scale of Mr Robot’s revolution. But it could have been a meaningful short circuit, a small protest against the commodifiers. If nothing else, it could have stirred up fresh debates about the digital era and the direction of modern society.
Of course, that didn’t happen. The blank pages were soon filled with promotional material for A Moon Shaped Pool, the new album. First the cover appeared, then a video and more followed. The rebels were left with just another unusual marketing strategy. It seems that Radiohead chose the reach of social media and the money to be made online over an opportunity to defy the industry. Perhaps they’ll pick the red pill next time.