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Duvn Duque Vargas

PHIL 247
Radioheads liberation:
In Rainbows self-release as a way out of the culture industry

In The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, Adorno and Horkheimer
portray a culture that is completely ruled by the interests of the market, an industry that determines
every cultural product available to the masses, leaving no space for authentic creation, "infecting
everything with sameness"
1
. Is their analysis applicable to our present culture industry? Are new
technologies and new conditions offering ways to produce and distribute authentic cultural
products, liberating creators from the mandate of the industry? Radiohead's self-distribution of their
album In Rainbows seems to give a positive answer to these questions. However, even though it
may prove how internet has enabled ways for successful independent mass distribution, the
question of to whom those new tools benefit the most seems to still be determined by the industry's
power. After all, from the pessimistic perspective of Adorno and Horkheimer, Radioheads
liberation may be just another illusion of freedom.
Radioheads career illustrates several of Adornos and Horkheimers claims. The band has
occupied for decades now the uncomfortable position of the artist who openly criticizes and
denounces the industry and the system that has made its own success and exposure possible. The
band was successful from the first album, Pablo Honey (1992). Even though their music was
everything but the sort of celebration of the system that Adorno and Horkheimer link to the culture
industrys products, expressing instead through their lyrics and melodies a feeling of depressive
alienation, the band was signed by two of the major record labels, EMI and Parlophone (which
would produce all of their albums up to Hail to the Thief), and produced several successful singles.
An example of this contradiction can be seen in Creep, from their first album, which was barely
aired after its release because Radio 1 considered it too depressing, but reached position 7 on the
UK Singles chart after its re-release (once the single had been a success in America).
Even though the band has declared repeatedly that they actually didnt like the song for
being too commercial (Adornos and Horkheimers description of products that are such that they

1
M. Horkheimer and T. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Culture Industry: Enlightment as Mass Deception, p.
94.
can be alertly consumed even in a state of distraction
2
, being precisely the kind of distraction that
an exploited an alienated mass needs after its hours of labor, can certainly be applied to songs such
as Creep), they tried to repeat its success by constantly trying to deliver successful singles on their
next two albums. In this way, the band can be seen as an example of the industrys assimilation of
and domination over its own detractors. In Horkheimers and Adornos words, anyone who resists
can survive only by being incorporated. Once registered as diverging from the culture industry, they
belong to it as the land reformer does to capitalism. Realistic indignation is the trademark of those
with a new idea to sell
3
. Even though their music gained more complexity in their third album,
causing their reception to be more inclined to label them as progressive rock than Britpop (as in
their beginnings), their music remained in the spectrum of commercial rock, delivering hits that
followed the industrys parameters for successful singles (recognizable lyrics, defined subject, clear
and defined sounds).
The pressure of the situation is described by the band as a sense of not being free to create
what they wanted to. Jonny Greenwood, when talking about the recording of The Bends (1995),
stated We were playing like paranoid little mice in cages. We were scared of our instruments,
scared of every note not being right.
4
Thom Yorke has declared repeatedly having suffered a two
year writing block after OK Computer (1997). He describes the period as a crisis caused by their
lack of control and rejection of the industrys impositions and forced construction of stars (the band
came close to breaking up and spent a long period without playing):
Even being called a rock band was a bit of a nightmare, because it sucks, fucking rock music sucks, I
hate it, Im just so fucking bored of it. Its not really the music [] what Im talking about is all the
mythology that goes with it, I have a real fucking problem with that, with the idea that you have to
toy yourself stupid, do certain things and talk to certain people and this is the way youI just totally
snapped, I had enough of it [...] Its like being trapped in one space, like one point [] youre
absolutely trapped [] I had felt that I had totally lost control over any element of my life
5

Why not retiring from the culture industry at this point, maybe to a more avant-garde sound
and a more restricted independent distribution? Just as for Horkheimer and Adorno the only two
alternatives seem to be a serious and elitist art or a light mass product (serious art has denied itself

2
M. Horkheimer and T. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Culture Industry: Enlightment as Mass Deception, p.
100.
3
Ibid., p. 104.
4
M. Tatom Letts, How to Disappear Completely: Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album, 2005, pp. 3-4.
5
Rob Hodselmans, Radiohead Reflections on Kid A (documentary), 2000.
to those for whom the hardship and oppression of life make a mockery of seriousness
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), for Yorke
the only way to escape the elitism of high art is popular music:
I dont have any desire to self-alienate deliberately [] I personally would rather be able to
communicate with the people [] So that means that I still want us to be part of what is essentially
the high stream of music, pop music industry. Ever since I came out of college Ive really had a
problem with doing a piece of work and then putting it in a huge empty white room so the posh
people can drink wine and think about buying it or not. That doesnt do anybody any fucking good,
really. And thats why Ive always thought pop music is a far more vibrant art form
7

Instead of retiring, after this crisis the band made more explicit the tension between their
commodification as products of mass culture and their desire for creative freedom. While still
distributing their albums through EMI, their productions became more and more difficult to be
consumed in the careless distracted manner typical of the culture industry. Their music drifted away
from the typical popular sound, diffusing and distorting Yorkes voice until making it very difficult
to understand the words, making purely instrumental tracks or tracks with a high percentage of
purely instrumental moments, losing the previous emphasis on guitars and drifting towards a more
electronic sound, and producing music that became harder to encapsulate in a particular genre. The
subject started to be almost absent (unlike most popular bands, which identify a clear subject or
visible figure through their music, normally the bands lead singer). The packaging of their albums
also became more cryptic, making a clear definite meaning or a fixed reading impossible, losing all
pictures of the band (which had been present in the previous album) and replacing them with
computer generated cryptic artwork. Kid A (2000), the bands fourth album, was probably the one
who pushed the boundaries of experimentation further, even though these different devices would
be found in one way or another in all of their following albums. Their lyrics sometimes became
more political, especially those in Hail to the thief (2003), which addressed the bands rejection of
the system in an explicit way, especially addressing the context of the War on Terror (its
interesting to see how several of their analysis in this album get close to Horkheimers and
Adornos: they portray the culture industry as vampires constantly searching for young blood, make
several references to Orwells 1984, the artwork, which shows the saturation of words projected by

"
M. Horkheimer and T. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Culture Industry: Enlightment as Mass Deception, p.
107.
#
Rob Hodselmans, Radiohead Reflections on Kid A (documentary), 2000.
advertisement, brings to mind Horkheimers and Adornos portrayal of the landscape [as] a mere
background for sign-boards and symbols
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).
Is the artist who wants to address the masses with authentic art doomed to collaborate with a
market-oriented industry? For Horkheimer and Adorno, the best an artist can do is express precisely
that contradiction, as we have shown Radiohead did from their fourth to sixth albums. In a way,
they embody the figure that Horkheimer and Adorno saw in Beethoven:
The mortally sick Beethoven [] while himself proving an extremely experienced and tenacious
businessman in commercializing these last quartets-works representing the most extreme repudiation
of the market offers the most grandiose example of the unity of the opposites of market and
bourgeois art. The artists who succumb to ideology are precisely those who conceal this
contradiction instead of assimilating it into the consciousness of their own production, as Beethoven
did.
9

The possibility of an independent distribution was just not possible in Adornos and
Horkheimers view, especially because of the success of advertisement as a blocking device that
those who are already part of the system can use to keep everyone else out. However, todays
conditions are different. New technologies have made possible to produce and distribute outside of
the major record labels. Internet, especially, seems to be challenging the industrys monopoly on
distribution. That is precisely what Radiohead saw when thinking of ways to distribute In Rainbows
(2007), their seventh album. Having finished their contracted obligations with EMI with the
delivery of Hail to the thief, the bands managers saw the opportunity to self-release In Rainbows
through the internet without having to sign with any industry label.
Even though the idea was thought of as a way to acquire a larger percentage of their sales
product, the move to self-release quickly presented itself as a liberation from the industrys constant
impositions and as a way to stop collaborating with practices that the band members rejected. Not
only did they release it by themselves but they also decided to let the buyers decide the price during
the first 8 weeks (they could obtain the album for free if they decided to). In this way, the band
members felt they were doing something different from the industry. In band member Ed OBriens
words:
we had been talking about this, what we were doing compared to the industry. The industry has
become all about money, it's maximizing income, that's why they like the old economic model cause

$
M. Horkheimer and T. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Culture Industry: Enlightment as Mass Deception, p.
132.
9
Ibid., p. 127.
they sold loads of CDs, everybody's happy. The great thing about this was, and the reason why
people have sort of slagged us off in the industry, they don't like it because this wasn't about the
money. This was about the spirit of thing and that's why it was so exciting, it was about the spirit of
the thing. And, obviously, we were hoping to make money out of it, but it's not about being greedy.
And it's getting that the whole thing about what's exciting about music is the spirit.
10

This rejection of the production of music as subordinated to the production of capital (which
describes the culture industry in terms really similar to those of Horkheimer and Adorno) is echoed
by Thom Yorke in the same interview: Now EMI is run by some bench capitalist or whatever, its
a very rationalized sort ofthis is a product. No one is thinking oh were gonna change the
world with this were gonna affect peoples emotions
11

The distribution was a success. The album went to the number 1 position in the US and the
UK. The band received more money for this album than for all of the previous ones together. The
album was sold without the usual promotion and marketing strategies (Thom Yorke describes
astonished how he witnessed how their previous labels tried to target the album to potential
consumers, in a very similar way to the way Horkheimer and Adorno had talked about it), creating a
different way of distribution and a more active way of consumption. In fact, both this success and
the fact that after their drifting away from a popular and undemanding music style Radiohead kept
and expanded its fan base puts Horkheimers and Adornos view of the consumer in a tight spot,
suggesting that an active and more conscious consumption of cultural products is possible.
Internet made possible Radioheads successful liberation from the mandate of the music
industry and its labels. Radiohead is now free to produce authentic music while still being able to
deliver it to the masses. However, should we celebrate this as an indication of Internet as the end of
the monopoly of capitalist interests over the culture industry? It is impossible to imagine
Radioheads successful move without their incredibly numerous fan base, of which a great
percentage had been active in the Internet since the band extensive Internet campaign for Kid A. Its
also impossible to this fan base without the years of hit singles and promotion as a major record
label band (with all the marketing strategies and apparatus that come with it). Internet may be an
option for self-distribution, but the success of such distribution will most likely depend on the level
of advertisement and exposure that has been gained through the conventional channels of the
culture industry.

10
RTE 2, Interview with Thom & Ed, 2008.
11
RTE 2, Interview with Thom & Ed, 2008.
A look through Radioheads career illustrates how Horkheimer and Adornos portrayal of
the culture industry seems to still fit the music industry of the last decades. Radiohead embodies the
internal conflict of the artist who wants to escape elitist isolation while conserving creative
authenticity. Their successful self-release of their last two albums seem to prove that something that
Adorno and Horkheimer viewed as impossible, a mass distribution of the product of an independent
and authentic artist, not affiliated with the music industry, is actually possible in an Internet era.
However, as we have mentioned, Radioheads successful liberation is a product of years of
exposure through the industrys major channels. Internet may be a liberation tool only for those that
the culture industry has selected.


Bibliography

M. Horkheimer and T. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, The Culture Industry: Enlightment as
Mass Deception, p. 132.
M. Tatom Letts, How to Disappear Completely: Radiohead and the Resistant Concept Album,
2005.
Rob Hodselmans, Radiohead Reflections on Kid A (documentary), 2000.
RTE 2, Interview with Thom & Ed, 2008.
Selena Michelle Lawson, "Radiohead: The Guitar Weilding, Dancing, Singing Commodity" (2009).
Communication Theses.Paper 47.