Radiohead's 'newspaper album'

The King of Limbs shows the record industry's determination to sell music in every format, says Elisa Bray
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The Independent Culture

What do you do when people buy fewer albums on CD? Create a more extravagant and exclusive product and put up the price. It may not sound like the best business model but it is working for Radiohead. Their latest release, The King of Limbs, went into the chart at No 7.

Containing large sheets of newspaper and 625 tiny pieces of artwork, alongside the CD, vinyl and digital code for downloading, Radiohead's "newspaper album" is one of the most elaborate recent releases - and a £30 price tag does not seem to have put people off.

Across rock and pop, the use of elaborate packaging and content is growing. A plastic case costs only a few pence but with increasing numbers of fans eschewing physical albums for their digital equivalents, bands and record labels have figured out that people will spend money on music if they see it as a product of worth or a collector's item.

Companies which produce album packages – such as Clear Sound & Vision Ltd, the maker of The King of Limbs – have been receiving ever more intriguing demands from their clients.

"Today, fans demand more than just a bonus disc, poster, stickers or a badge with their box-set purchase", says Will Appleyard, CSV's sales director. "Labels and artists are competing with the digital world too: therefore real 'added value' must be achieved in order to do so successfully."

Items added to recent album packages include digital download vouchers, T-shirts, art prints, signed items – even belt buckles and coffee-table books. There is also a developing demand for more innovative packages, such as the compressed T-shirt album, in which a T-shirt is packed to the size of a CD and offered with a digital download.

Box sets, which used to be created in time for Christmas, have crept into the rest of the calendar. And record labels are no longer just offering special editions of albums, months after initial release, in a cynical bid to re-sell the same product. Special editions are now released as alternatives to the plastic-cased version of an album. Current releases include a special edition of Mogwai's Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will which is an elaborate three-LP box set complete with art prints and stencil. It costs £40. If you're looking to buy Jamie xx's remix album of Gil Scott Heron's We're New Here, a deluxe edition box set, containing two LPs, two CDs and prints, was released alongside the standard edition.

Not all bands expect their fans to shell out. Some, such as Explosions in the Sky, have maintained an ethos of giving something extra. Their new album, Take Care, Take Care, Take Care, comes with quadruple gate-fold packaging, a huge poster and a postcard, whether you buy it on CD or vinyl.

As part of a stance against the impersonal nature of releasing music, especially digital downloads, some artists have been creating their own artwork. Last September, recognising a lack of connection with his fans, DJ Shadow released two songs on limited 12" vinyl, featuring his own drawings, each one different. Going a step further, he delivered the discs to record shops in eastern Europe, where he was touring.

He explained: "I'd rather give away free vinyl than a download, because to me downloads are so impersonal and soulless. It has become akin to sending your Dad an e-card on his birthday – no personality, no class. And from an artistic point of view, I think it sends a negative message about the worth of the music."

The singer-songwriter Luke Haines made a similar point when he offered just 50 copies of Outsider Music on CD. Each included a hand-numbered canvas cover, signed by the artist, and cost £75.

Elaborate artwork and packaging injects a restored sense of worth into music. The connection between the artist and the fan remains the best way of competing with the digital market, and it will ensure the longevity of the CD.