They said it would never work. When Radiohead revealed that they would be releasing their new album online and asking fans to pay whatever they thought reasonable to download it, music industry executives scoffed at the economic naivety. But the idealistic rock stars have been vindicated. The five-piece band from Oxfordshire, who have had the drop on most of their peers artistically since they broke through some 15 years ago, have now proved themselves ahead of the game commercially too. The album, In Rainbows, has proved a stunning success and the manner of its release an inspired slice of marketing.
When In Rainbows was released online in October, many fans confounded the expectations of the cynics by volunteering to pay for the record, rather than simply downloading it for free. No official figures have been released, but the band claims that profits from the digital download of In Rainbows has already outstripped the combined take from downloads of all Radiohead's previous albums.
The move created an avalanche of publicity, ensuring that even before anyone had heard the opening chord it was one of the most talked-about releases in years. Even people not normally interested in Radiohead's output were intrigued by the implications for the music industry. It sparked endless debate about the power of artists and the supposed death of the recording industry.
That publicity has paid dividends. Last week, In Rainbows was released in conventional vinyl and CD format and soared straight to the top of the UK charts. Clearly, Radiohead's singer, Thom Yorke, was right in his prediction that, in spite of the musical revolution set in train by downloading technology, music fans still crave an "artefact" from their favourite bands.
One of the brickbats aimed at Radiohead was that they were "champagne socialists" who could afford to take risks because of the cushion provided by past success and the hard work of their former label, EMI, in promoting them. This criticism now looks rather foolish given that the album is performing as well as Radiohead's previous release under EMI. Moreover, Radiohead will now keep most of the profits, rather than having to pay a hefty percentage to their former label. Champagne socialism? This looks more like hard-headed business.
Of course, this model will not work for everyone. Hype is not enough: the music has to be good enough too. And not all performers are blessed with fans as devoted as Radiohead's. But what the band has shown is that creativity can lead to inspired marketing, as well as inspired music. Radiohead have sounded a note of optimism that should resonate through a troubled and fragmented market.