A head for figures?

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SHORTLY AFTER RADIOHEAD released their album In Rainbows online in October, the band misplaced their password for Max/MSP, a geeky music software package that guitarist Jonny Greenwood uses constantly. It wasn't the first time it had happened, Greenwood tells me over a cup of tea at the Randolph Hotel in New York. As usual Radiohead contacted Max/MSP's developers, Cycling '74, for another password. "They wrote back," Greenwood says, " 'Why don't you pay us what y

Well, Radiohead were asking for it. Those are the exact terms on which the band has been selling the downloadable version of In Rainbows: Buyers can pay zero or whatever they please up to 99.99 pounds for the album in MP3 form. Sixteen years and seven albums into the career that has made Radiohead the most widely pondered band in rock, they are taking chances with commerce as well as art. For the beleaguered recording business they have put in motion the most audacious experiment in years.

Radiohead are not the first act to try what one of their managers, Chris Hufford, calls "virtual busking". But they're the first one that can easily fill arenas. "It feels good," says Thom Yorke, the band's leader, over a pint of cider at his local Oxford pub, the Rose and Crown. "It was a way of letting everybody judge for themselves."

Radiohead's pay-what-you-choose gambit didn't just set off economic debates. It should also establish 2007 as two kinds of tipping point for recorded music. One is as the year of the free agent superstar. After fulfilling their contract in 2003 with their last album for EMI, Hail to the Thief, Radiohead turned down multimillion-dollar offers for a new major-label deal, preferring to stay independent.

"It was tough to do anything else," Yorke says, during one of Radiohead's first interviews since the release of the album. "The worst-case scenario would have been: Sign another deal, take a load of money, and then have the machinery waiting semi-patiently for you to deliver your product, which they can add to the list of products that make up the myth, la-la-la-la."

Signing a new major-label contract "would have killed us straight off," he adds. "Money makes you numb, as M.I.A. wrote. I mean, it's tempting to have someone say to you, 'You will never have to worry about money ever again', but no matter how much money someone gives you – what, you're not going to spend it? You're not going to find stupid ways to get rid of it? Of course you are. It's like building roads and expecting there to be less traffic."

The Eagles and Madonna, both with sales that dwarf Radiohead's, also abandoned major labels in 2007, as did songwriters such as Joni Mitchell and Paul McCartney, who moved to Hear Music, the independent label partly owned by Starbucks. Meanwhile Prince has followed his own wayward path, from one-album distribution deals through major labels to giving away CDs at concerts or free with the Mail on Sunday.

The second tipping point is the decisive migration of music to the internet. Of course, that has been anything but sudden. Music has been bouncing around online, sold or shared, since the days of dial-up, and bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Public Enemy gave away full albums online years ago. But the momentum of online music has been accelerating. Apple's iTunes became the third-largest music retailer in the US this year. Amazon added MP3 downloads alongside physical album sales. Hip-hop mix tapes, singled out for copyright prosecution by record labels, disappeared from stores and street corners only to thrive online, where the likes of Lil Wayne, Cam'ron and Kanye West release their latest innovations.

Radiohead were able to draw worldwide attention to In Rainbows with no more than a 24-word announcement on their website on 1 October. To the band's glee, they could release their music almost immediately, without the months of lead time necessary to manufacture discs. Hufford says In Rainbows has been downloaded in places as far-flung – and largely unwired – as North Korea and Afghanistan.

On 9 November, as a kind of workaholic lark, Radiohead staged a free, thoroughly informal webcast called Thumbs Down, with real-time performances of new songs and covers of Bjrk and the Smiths, from their cluttered studio in Oxford. (Many clips are on YouTube.) Yet Radiohead's online choices, band members say, were among the easier decisions made during the protracted recording process of In Rainbows. The band and their producer, Nigel Godrich, focused on 16 songs and worked them over in the studio, on the road and in the studio again, for well over two years of torturous rearranging and rewriting. "We kept on ripping the guts out of it all the time and starting again," drummer Phil Selway says in Oxford.

The band chose ten concise, tuneful songs for the album. Yorke sings about displacement, disorientation, memories and moving on. Weird Fishes/Arpeggi wonders "Why should I stay here?," and imagines decomposing underwater and being eaten by worms, before concluding: "Hit the bottom and escape."

Throughout In Rainbows Yorke's lyrics can be mapped onto personal relationships, the state of the world or the state of the band. Behind much of the album "was a sudden realisation of the day-to-day, tenuous nature of life," Yorke says. "Most of the time I was really, really trying not to judge anything that was happening. I was trying to just, not exactly knock it out, but not trying to be clever. That's all."

The internet had already witnessed the gestation of In Rainbows, as Radiohead tested songs in public, knowing they would be bootlegged immediately. "The first time we ever did All I Need, boom! It was up on YouTube," Yorke says. "I think it's fantastic. The instant you finish something, you're really excited about it, you're really proud of it, you hope someone's heard it, and then, by God, they have. It's OK because it's on a phone or a video recorder. It's a bogus recording, but the spirit of the song is there, and that's good. At that stage that's all you need to worry about."

The band worried over other things. After releasing Hail to the Thief and touring the world, Radiohead took a year off. The members, all in their thirties, turned to raising families as they mulled over the future. Early in 2005 they began rehearsing together tentatively; Selway says the word "album" was taboo for a year.

By the end of the year they had a list of songs, but the band had still not regained its momentum. Yorke, a prolific songwriter, made his own album, The Eraser, working mostly alone with his computer and samples. Godrich was busy recording Beck, so the band tried some sessions with Spike Stent, who had worked with Bjrk, at the beginning of 2006. They were disappointed with the results. Then they decided that performing might put the songs into shape. They booked a summer tour in 2006, playing half a dozen new songs at every show. Soon, thanks to bootlegged recordings online, fans were clearly recognising each one. After the tour Radiohead returned to the studio, only to decide that the songs weren't ready yet.

"To be brutally honest," guitarist Ed O'Brien says over lunch at Shoreditch House in London, "the problem about playing these songs live is that we were bored with them. We played them 80 times live or so, and we'd rehearsed them to death. It just didn't happen when we got back into the studio initially."

Once again the band began tinkering. "We have a song and we've got lots of different ways we can try it, but we don't know what's going to work, and that's why it still sort of feels a bit weirdly amateur," Greenwood says. "You'd think by now we'd know what's going to work, and what's still frustrating, or kind of encouraging in a way, is that we don't know whether it's going to work on a laptop or whether it has to be a piano or..."

He half-smiles. "It's got so twisted. What we've learned is that you can't repeat a method that you've already used for a song when it did work."

The sound of In Rainbows often seems straightforward, almost like a live band; it is Radiohead's most gracefully melodic album in a decade. But they arrived at the music circuitously, and there's often more tucked into a track than is apparent at first. Videotape, with lyrics about recording a happy moment in a tape to be viewed posthumously, has a tolling piano and a beat so elusive that "we spent about a year in rehearsal on that song actually all trying to agree on where the one was," Selway says. "Each of us, over the course of a year, we'd all lose it."

The Reckoner that was part of the band's live sets sounds nothing like the Reckoner on the album. When the band returned from touring, they decided the song needed a second part, and then a third one; eventually they discarded the original. For All I Need, Greenwood says, he wanted to recapture the white noise made by a band playing loudly in a room, when "all this chaos kicks up". That sound never materialises in the more analytical confines of a studio. His solution was a string section, and his own overdubbed violas, sustaining every note of the scale, blanketing the frequencies.

Yorke worked on many of the songs in the Rose and Crown. "I sit there, on the way in, because it's a really nice little table," he says, pointing. "And then I get out my scraps of paper and I line them up. I need to put them into my book because they're just scraps of paper, and I'm going to lose them unless I do it. So am I writing here? Probably. I don't know yet. I'm just collating information. This is a nice, relaxing thing to do, and it also keeps your mind tuned in to the whole thing. And you see things you didn't know."

The band and their managers are not releasing the download's sales figures or average price. "It's our linen," Hufford says. "We don't want to wash it in public." A statement from the band rejected estimates by the online survey company ComScore that during October about three-fifths of downloaders took the album free, while the rest paid less than half of the usual cost of a CD.

Factoring in free downloads, ComScore said the average price per download was 1.10. But it did not specify a total number of downloads, saying only that a "significant percentage" of the 1.2 million people who visited the Radiohead website, inrainbows.com, in October downloaded the album. Under a typical recording contract, a band receives royalties of about 15 per cent of an album's wholesale price after expenses are recovered. Without middlemen, and with zero material costs for a download, $2.26 per album would work out to Radiohead's advantage – and then there was the worldwide publicity.

Both Hufford and the members of Radiohead say the strategy has been a success. "People made their choice to actually pay money," Hufford says. "It's people saying, 'We want to be part of this thing.' If it's good enough, people will put a penny in the pot. This was a solution to a series of issues. I doubt it would work the same way ever again."

Radiohead have not abandoned the physical disc. A mail-order deluxe version of In Rainbows – the album and a bonus CD, two vinyl albums, artwork and a fancy package for 40 – went on sale alongside the downloaded version on 10 October, directly from the band's own mail-order company, W.A.S.T.E.

Hufford says that he and Bryce Edge, Radiohead's other manager, came up with the pay-what-you-want plan during a stoned conversation about the value of music. They had initially proposed releasing only the download and the deluxe box, but the band overruled them. On Monday 31 December – a day when few albums are usually released – the single-disc In Rainbows is due as a retail CD and vinyl LP, in joint ventures with XL in most countries and the US independent label TBD (part of ATO Records) .

Will Botwin, president and chief executive of ATO, optimistically described the download as "the world's largest listening party", drawing attention to the album among Radiohead's core fans. The label plans to market to a broader audience with everything from television ads to in-store displays. Radio stations have already been sent the bruising rocker Bodysnatchers – a song, Yorke says, inspired by Victorian ghost stories, The Stepford Wives and his own feeling of "your physical consciousness trapped without being able to connect fully with anything else" – and the tense folk-rocker Jigsaw Falling Into Place.

The music business waits to see how downloads will affect sales. "The record company doesn't know," says a grinning Colin Greenwood, Radiohead's bassist. "They called and said, 'We've made this number of records, is it enough?' And our manager said, 'I don't know.' It's great, isn't it?" For Radiohead, uncertainty is home turf.

&#149 In Rainbows is out on 31 December, and the single, Jigsaw Falling Into Place, on 14 January. Radiohead play Glasgow Green on 27 June.

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