When Radiohead announced last week that they would be releasing their seventh album, In Rainbows, via their official Web site, there was much fanfare and some honest-to-goodness debate about the future of the music industry, the validity of major labels and just how people consume music.
But in the days since that announcement, a whole lot of that fanfare has curdled, thanks to moves by the band and its management that some see as dishonest, distasteful and, well, downright un-Radiohead.
The first bone of contention arose October 9 — the day before Rainbows became available for download — when fans who ordered the album (either in its download-only form or as a deluxe, $81 "discbox" version) received an e-mail from Radiohead's official online store, announcing that "the album [would] come as a 48.4 MB ZIP file containing 10 x 160 [kilobits per second], DRM-free MP3s."
"Most promo MP3s come at a higher bit rate," wrote the author of U.K. blog Kids Pushing Kids. "Worst pound and pence I've ever spent."
"Radiohead has such delicate music that requires detail and depth of sound. ... I for one CAN tell the difference between 160 and 192," responded one commenter. "[With] 160 you can't hear the finer details that make Radiohead so great. I have lost a bit of respect for Radiohead for this. I would never make people pay for 160. They may as well just stream stuff off MySpace."
On one hand, the main reason so many are upset (the 160 kbps thing) seems rather inconsequential, especially given the fact that most people downloading Rainbows are going to be listening to it on their computers or a portable MP3 player. But there is a slightly noticeable difference between a 160 kbps-encoded song and, say, one encoded at 320 (it's heard most easily when played on a stereo). And Radiohead have yet to really offer up any plausible explanation for why they even chose to go the 160 route, especially since their entire catalog is already available at 320.
What a load of crap. Let me explain.
Most of the music I own I either downloaded off the internet via iTunes or Emusic, or uploaded from CDs I already own or that I buy. I store it all at somewhere between 148-192 kbps. That's because it either comes that way whether I want it to or not, or-in the case of CDs-because if I store it at a higher bit rate, a song file can take up as much as twice as much memory, if not more. And unless you're one of these people who enjoys devoting half or more of your hard drive to your music, or enjoys having to buy a 120 MB iPod so you can fit 5,000 songs on there at 320kbps, that's what you're going to do too.
Secondly, no you can't tell the difference between 160 and 192 (which is what it would come as via most online download services, or what most people would upload the CD at via iTunes automatic settings.) At least not on most audio equipment, and using my little portable CD player I can't tell the difference between a physical CD or the uploaded copies of the music that I listen to via my laptop or iPod. Now if you happen to own $2000 worth of stereo equipment and like to listen to Radiohead loudly in a quiet room, then yes, perhaps you can tell the difference. But "low quality" to describe a 160 kbps rate? That's absolutely ridiculous. I purchased the album, burned to a CD, and I can hear everything I need to hear. If I can't pick up Thom Yorke's slight nasal inhalation between syllables halfway through track 5, well I'm okay with that. Most people don't listen to their music on high quality digital audio equipment; they listen to it on their computer, or on their iPod or other Mp3 player, or on a old-fashioned CD player, and they're not going to notice the difference or think to complain about a different bit rate, unlike the knucklehead above who thinks that Radiohead should just stream their stuff through Myspace.
Secondly, Radiohead would have pretty good reasons for not making the files too large; if they were, you'd have people bitching about download problems as they jammed up the servers trying to download the 1.2 million copies of the album that people downloaded in just the first 48 hours.
Lastly, what makes Radiohead music so great is the music. You don't need to be able to hear the faint echo of the high hat running the background of a Radiohead song to appreciate their music. Radiohead doesn't hide subliminal messages in the music that you can only hear at 320 kbps. If you can hear Thom Yorke singing, if you can hear the guitar, if you can hear the drums, if you can hear the synthesized music, then you can hear the music.
I love Radiohead. If they wanted to record their music to Vinyl and give me a crappy personal record player to listen to it on, I would, and I'd be glad for it. Any Radiohead "fan" who thinks they are entitled to the equivalent of a virtual CD of the music after being a jerk and paying $3 for it...well, more power to you. But that makes you a nut, and an ingrate at that.
UPDATE: Another take on the "controversy."