Radiohead release their new album, In Rainbows, at the end of next week. As usual, the artwork (above) was created by long-term collaborator Stanley Donwood. Radiohead have always placed enormous value on Donwood’s contributions but with this release, that value has been made explicit: the album will be made available as a pay-whatever-you-like-download, but if you want the version with Donwood’s artwork, it’ll cost you £40.
When downloading took off, the conventional wisdom held that it would herald the end of the record sleeve, and with it the end of an enormously vibrant and influential period of graphic design history. But, albeit at a niche end of the market, some record labels have attempted to combat the threat of people downloading music for free by issuing special edition packaging: making the physical product that much more covetable in order to entice people into owning it. Making the most of its physicality rather than abandoning it.
The release of In Rainbows would seem to take this to the next level. Radiohead are effectively placing no value on the audio file of their new album. The value is not in the music but in the packaging and the physical objects within – the £40 “disc box” includes the new album on CD and vinyl, plus a second CD with more new songs, all placed inside a hardback book. It’s about owning something more than zeroes and ones – having something in your hands that has meaning and that can be displayed as a statement in every fan’s home. And it’s about graphic design.