OK then, computer, you sell the records

Radiohead have a new album. They also have their own ideas about promoting it, says Nicholas Barber
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Tomorrow, Radiohead release their new album, Kid A. Admittedly, this is not what you might call a scoop. As befits the year's most eagerly awaited record, Kid A has been heralded by a rainforest of newspaper articles and adverts for the band's UK tour.

Tomorrow, Radiohead release their new album, Kid A. Admittedly, this is not what you might call a scoop. As befits the year's most eagerly awaited record, Kid A has been heralded by a rainforest of newspaper articles and adverts for the band's UK tour.

A casual observer might see the album as the latest heavily promoted product to hit the racks of their local Woolworth's, but Radiohead have treated the birth of Kid A as a family secret. There have been no singles released to announce its arrival, and there aren't going to be: no singles, no videos and next to no interviews. Even photo shoots are out.

The band have decided they have better things to do than stand around looking troubled in front of cameras, and they've created instead some digitally altered portraits for the use of any magazine that should require them. And this is just the beginning. Disillusioned with the cycle of big album release, big tour, big recording session, the group are planning to upload songs on to the internet every few months from now on. If there's a record marketing convention to be up-ended, Radiohead have set about up-ending it.

Not everyone is happy. Despite being granted an exclusive interview, and getting first dibs on the doctored portraits, Q magazine took Radiohead's refusal to pose for photos as a personal affront. "Are you taking the piss?" asked their reporter. "Out of us? Out of the fans? Is it unreasonable for them to want to see you as you are?" Singer Thom Yorke mumbled something about being creative. But if you ask a silly question, you'll get a silly answer.

The fact is that if Radiohead's fans have forgotten what their heroes look like, they can simply log on to the group's website and flick through the extensive photo album posted there. The Q interrogation has less to do with how "unreasonable" Radiohead are being and more to do with the magazine's own sense of panic. If a band is communicating directly with its audience, what need do they have of the intermediary media?

The music industry faces a revolution as dramatic as any since the first stylus crackled its way around a gramophone record. Formats have come and gone since then, but the principle has remained: to hear a piece of music whenever you want to, you buy an object that has that music locked away inside it. You buy it from a shop and you hear about it on the radio or in the press. But that structure is suddenly just one of the alternatives. We've often been told that the internet might affect the music industry. It's only now that we can see it happening.

As well as Radiohead's web-friendly behaviour, there are other signs of change. Warner Music Group is developing internet distribution methods with the RealNetworks company. Another firm, NetBeat, announced this week that it may offer music for free downloading, but still pay royalties to the artists, thanks to the resultant advertising revenue.

Meanwhile, the first albums on Alan McGee's Poptones label have also just been released. The former Creation boss has long been a committed advocate of the new technology. "We will be selling from our website as well as in the shops," says James Kyllo, Poptones' business affairs manager. "And we'll be trying to take advantage of the technology as it progresses. Initially, we'll be selling the records mail order, but within a year we should be selling by download."

For record buyers, the idea of obtaining music in MP3 files can be unsettling. Indeed, Eminem sulks at the thought. "It's not just about the money, it's the thrill of going to the store," he says. "You can't wait till that artists' release date, taking the wrapper off the CD and putting the CD in to see what it sounds like. The internet is taking the whole f---ing thrill away from that."

Considering that the thrill of buying a CD overtook the thrill of buying a vinyl album only in the past decade, Eminem's sentimental attachment to it shows just how shortsighted he is. There was no such thing as a phonograph before 1877, no such thing as electric recording before 1925 and no such thing as a "long-playing microgroove" before 1948. In living memory, enjoying popular songs at home meant buying the sheet music. The habit of buying albums is not one that can't be broken.

Besides, Eminem's outburst was partly a response to his music being bootlegged. The Napster website facilitates the swapping of MP3 files, and at the last count 28 million people had used it - in most cases to swap illegal recordings. Madonna's last single, "Music", was available on the internet three months before it was in the shops. And Radiohead and Mansun have reported with some glee that fans at their recent concerts knew every word of songs that had yet to be released. Didn't these artists' fans find it at all thrilling to have music appear out of nowhere on their computers? Of course they did. Once you have a reasonable stock of MP3s on your hard disc, your CD collection starts to look like a waste of space.

"We'd like to have more regular communications with people," Radiohead's Colin Greenwood told Q, "as opposed to just having this massive dump every two-and-a-half years, and fanfares and clarion calls." The internet has made this possible, opening up channels of communication between bands and fans who pass by shops, read newspapers and magazines or listen to radios. It calls into question the whole convention of releasing songs in bunches of 10 or 14. I'd finish by quoting Bob Dylan's "The Times They are a-Changin'", but it would be more appropriate to cite the title of his new single instead: "Things Have Changed".

'Kid A' (Parlophone) is out tomorrow. See review on page 9