Radiohead prepares for physical release of CD

LONDON (Billboard) - London-based indie label XL Recordings is living up to its name by playing an extra-large role in one of 2007’s biggest music industry stories after snagging the physical release of Radiohead’s “In Rainbows.”

Thom Yorke, lead singer of Radiohead, performs in a file photo. Indie label XL Recordings is living up to its name by playing an extra-large role in one of 2007's biggest music industry stories after snagging the physical release of Radiohead's "In Rainbows." REUTERS/Toby Melville

The left-field rock band effectively threw the recording industry rule book out the window when it released the studio set through its own Web site October 10, allowing downloaders to set their own price.

Speculation over who would issue the album physically spiraled until October 31, when XL announced it would release the CD on New Year’s Eve worldwide -- excluding the United States, where it lands the following day through Dave Matthews’ ATO Records, and Japan, which sees a December 26 release through Hostess.

XL now faces several unknown factors -- not the least of which is finding out how a new album performs after being available digitally for three months.

Radiohead “have done the radical,” XL co-founder/CEO Richard Russell said. “Now we’re doing the traditional, with singles and videos. But I don’t know how it’s going to perform; we will evaluate and re-evaluate as it goes on and see how the record develops.”

That “traditional” approach sees lead single “Jigsaw Falling Into Place” landing January 14 in the United Kingdom, while the first European dates of a world tour, beginning next June and including key festival shows, have just been announced.

The album’s digital release “might cannibalize sales,” Russell said. “But people love the record, people are talking about the record. And (that’s) the base on which we sell hits. I’ll always take a great record where some sales might have been cannibalized rather than a weak one that’s been locked in a vault.”

British music retailer HMV was optimistic about the album’s prospects. “We expect quite a lot of traffic around it,” said London-based rock/pop manager John Hirst, “and with a lack of new releases in that week, I can’t see why it wouldn’t sell well throughout our stores.”

Others, however, were more skeptical. “I understand why the band have gone along this route,” said Paul Quirk, co-owner of independent store Quirks Records in Ormskirk, Lancashire. “But that doesn’t mean that, as a retailer, I’m happy about it -- and our in-store support will reflect that.”

Russell said he “can completely understand if physical retailers have concerns. But we’ve got to try it.”

XL beat Radiohead’s historic label home EMI Music to secure the one-off album deal. Russell put that down to the indie’s flexibility and policy of working in “partnership” with artists, as well as its successful handling of Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s debut 2006 solo album, “The Eraser.”

XL began life in 1989 as a specialist dance and electronic music label, finding global success with the Prodigy in the mid-‘90s. The Prodigy exited after four albums, but XL now boasts an eclectic roster, including London rapper Dizzee Rascal, neo-folk singer/songwriter Devendra Banhart, and electro-hip-hop singer M.I.A.