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Radiohead and the Rule of Reciprocity

3 November 2007

RADIOHEAD understands the zeitgeist as well as any contemporary group. Its master work, OK Computer, lyrically and musically tapped into what so many were thinking and feeling a decade ago as the excitement and promise of emerging technologies collided with growing alienation and uncertainty.

Today, Radiohead, while not so much addressing technology lyrically, is dealing with it through action, digitally distributing its newest record and allowing listeners to name their price.

With people increasingly downloading music – be it for free or paying for it – and buying fewer CDs, Radiohead acted boldly but logically by employing a savvy, bifurcated—low/high-end—approach that appealed to a broad audience on the cheap while offering an $80 deluxe physical version targeted to its more rabid fans.

The time leading up to last month’s release of Radiohead’s seventh studio album was filled with news reports describing the group as revolutionary. The buzz was fairly deafening. Case in point: The Wall Street Journal, of all papers, wrote four articles about or largely about Radiohead in October alone! Ya’ think the business world’s paper of record would’ve written that many pieces if not for the digital name-your-price approach? Hail no!

So even before the album’s release, Radiohead had gained a healthy return on its investment in the form of free publicity by tossing a fresh rose to its fans while ramming a thorn into the industry’s bloodshot eyes. (Is that MARSHALL MCLUHAN I hear snickering from the great beyond about the medium being the message?)

Some correctly pointed out that Radiohead enjoyed the luxury of conducting this digital (de)tour de force due to its wealth and giant fan base, adding that this name-your-price strategy could set a precedent of sorts and in the process hurt musicians with less money.

But a largely sympathetic media played down those points. Why? People were thrilled to see such a generous gesture, especially the kind that’s talked about often but rarely done in a turgid industry beset by semi-paralysis, denial, and bravado. The fact that it was Radiohead – a group with talent, critical approval, and commercial success—made the reception all the warmer. THOM YORKE & Co. also handle stardom humbly.

Moreover, the Internet, journalistically speaking, is still quite sexy and this is a fascinating tale. Though not of David versus Goliath proportions (Radiohead is a Goliath of sorts), the ripple effect is potentially huge and will likely produce a parting of the waters within the muddied musical ecosystem.

Likely winners: Musicians who use the Internet to offer music with differentiated price points instead of a uniform “take it or leave it” approach and those who can use it to forge deeper relationships with their fans (see Musicians Should Tap the ‘Net to Make More Money (2/21/06). Likely losers: the major labels, which will see more key acts test this approach, and possibly less financially secure acts.

Now that In Rainbows is out, Radiohead is still rocking. It’s the second-highest-ranked album on, a site that aggregates record reviews from news sources and offers a composite rating based on those reviews.

While the word “masterpiece” has been used to describe this record, I wouldn’t go that far. A more apt description: damn good and damn frustrating. (Knives out? Put ‘em away you wascally wabbits!)

But before I discuss the record, I want to point out that some of the praise heaped upon Radiohead may be due to an oft overlooked but not insignificant aspect of human behavior – the rule of reciprocity.

From “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” by Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., page 27 (Quill, 1993)

“As a marketing technique, the free sample has a long and effective history…. The beauty of the free sample, however, is that it is also a gift and, as such, can engage the reciprocity rule. In true jujitsu fashion, the promoter who gives free samples can release the natural indebting force inherent in a gift while innocently appearing to have only the intention to inform…. A highly effective variation on this marketing procedure is illustrated in the case, cited by Vance Packard in The Hidden Persuaders, of the Indiana supermarket operator who sold an astounding one thousand pounds of cheese in a few hours one day by putting out the cheese and inviting customers to cut off slivers for themselves as free samples.”

So although we may not realize it, before even listening to In Rainbows, we were psychologically primed to like it more than we would have had we paid full price or even downloaded it for free because in both instances the group offered no formal “gift.”

With its name your price approach, Radiohead made people feel that they owed the group something and that indebtedness, however manifested, only led to better buzz and more goodwill.

From “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” Cialdini, page 18.

“The impressive aspect of the rule for reciprocation and the sense of obligation that goes with it is its pervasiveness in human culture. It is so widespread that after intensive study, sociologists such as Alvin Gouldner can report that there is no human society that does not subscribe to the rule.”

So on to In Rainbows. Like a speedy base runner who rounds third base but chooses the sure-fire triple instead of going for the inside-the-park home run and risking being called out, Radiohead seems like it knew it had a very, very good record but decided to quit while it was ahead.

I’ve listened to this at least six or seven times, and while it’s highly engaging, it hasn’t clawed its way into my mind as much of my favorite music does.

In Rainbows is soulful, technically accomplished, and still very much sounds like Radiohead and no one else. While incorporating a more organic and intimate sound, Radiohead makes sure that electronic bleats and beats still worm their way in alongside agile guitar work, gentle percussives, and sheets of cascading beauty. Radiohead still can create moods and passages that are distinct, exotic and otherworldly.

Yorke’s plaintive cry thrills (listen to the gorgeous “Nude” for a showcase of his stunning voice). And when Radiohead picks up the pace, it generates genuine excitement on “Bodysnatchers” and “Jigsaw Falling into Place.”

“Weird Fishes/Arpeggi” and “All I Need” deliver endings that are staggeringly beautiful and transcendent. In fact, you’ll find many of the album’s best moments in the final minute or two of a number of songs. “All I Need,” which ends the record’s superior first half, represents the album’s peak.

However, some songs don’t develop much and risk turning, or do turn, repetitive. That’s never a good thing, particularly on a short 10-song record that’s just over 42 minutes, where each song’s contribution is magnified. This criticism applies mostly to the second half, where energy, memorable melodies and songwriting chops are scarcer.

“House of Cards” flat out bores and is too long at more than five minutes. A house of cards, indeed, that falls in slow-motion. “Reckoner” takes a pretty Yorke vocal melody and stretches it out for almost five minutes without adequately advancing the song.

And the following lyric from “Jigsaw Falling into Place” is cringe-worthy, even to a cat owner like myself: “You’ve got a Cheshire cat grin.” Ugh.

Ultimately, In Rainbows is largely defined by what it isn’t, lacking the melodic grandeur and accomplished songwriting of The Bends and OK Computer as well as the experimental courage of Kid A and Amnesiac.

The good news is that In Rainbows has its own identity. The bad news is that the identity isn’t sufficiently defined or bold. It comes across as somewhat tentative. I’ve always admired Radiohead’s willingness to try new things. At the same time, a hidebound determination to not tread upon previously trod terrain can be taken to an extreme.