Promenade, a music & technology blog, penned by Eoghan O'Neill.

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Radiohead's Revolution to end in meltdown?

Oct 4

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Thursday, October 04, 2007  RssIcon

In April 2006 I saw Jane Siberry do a gig in Brussels. I won't labour you with the details but suffice to say she was – at least that night – away with the fairies. It was a terrible, toe-curling fest of an evening, certainly the worst gig of 2006 that I'd seen. But one thing about the night was very memorable. About half way into her set Jane (who was then, and still is, without a record contract) announced she'd be selling copies of her albums after the gig but – and this is where it got memorable - she had no pricelist as she was leaving it to us to decide what we wanted to pay for each CD. Now that was something I'd never heard of before, or since.

Radiohead In Rainbows Until this week that is.

This week saw Radiohead pull a Jane Siberry, with their announcement that their new album "In Rainbows" is coming out on October 10th and they too are letting fans decide what they want to pay for a download. It's one thing for a briefly acclaimed, bare-footed, earth-loving, new age Canadian chanteuse to do this, it is quite another thing for of the most established bands in the world to do so.

Radiohead have however gone one step further and also provided fans the alternative of buying a 'disc box' (containing the album on both CD and on 2 x vinyl records, lyric booklets and an extra CD containing new songs). The disc box is being sold for UK£40 (approx 58 euros). There's no record label in the loop, this is Radiohead offering the new album – download and disc box versions - direct to their fans with infrastructures they are putting in place themselves.

On many levels this is just the sort of major industry-shaking move I was previously expecting from Radiohead. On the surface they have really delivered – a major established act free of record label contractual chains choosing to allow access to downloads of their new music for whatever a fan is prepared to pay, and backing it up with a pricy deluxe "disc box" for those prepared to dip deeper into their pockets. There are a few important unknowns about the download offering that despite all the brou-hah this week still, as far as I know, need to be cleared up. I'm talking about:

  • Are the downloads DRM-free?
  • Are they in MP3 format?
  • What bit rate will the files be encoded with?

I could find no details on www.inrainbows.com on these points. Nonetheless, for the moment it is one-nil to Radiohead, something though I think could easily change…

See, I've been doing a bit of rummaging about the venture and the more I dig out the more doubts start to rise. Hear me out. The digital component of this release, while not a new idea, has just grown hugely in its potential because of the simple fact that - finally - an act with massive reach have embraced it. However it is not the embracing of an idea that needs to be judged but its execution. And I think there are grounds to fear that the execution of this idea will not go all swimmingly.

To make this happen the most vital thing Radiohead need to ensure is that the www.inrainbows.com website they have set up for fans to download the album / buy the disc box is hosted by a world class (I repeat: world class) hosting company, someone who has the experience and hardneck infrastructure required to run a high profile, intensely trafficked transactional website capable of dealing simultaneously with sudden traffic surges, thousands of visitors and the serving up of potentially tens of thousands of downloads in any given moment. And to do so without a hitch. Without such infrastructure behind it there could be a major meltdown of the website, especially on October 10th when people start downloading the album. And a server meltdown, if it were to happen, would quickly become the story, drowning out the 'shaking-the-music-industry-at-its-roots' line currently all over the blogosphere (and about to infiltrate Mondeo-man's world via this weekend's Sunday newspapers no doubt). If precautions are not taken place this could all backfire spectacularly for Radiohead (in a similar fashion, if not more so, to how in the past U2 got lambasted by fans for website oversights).

So in light of such risks Radiohead will have gone and roped in a world class web hosting company for this, right? Wrong. See, Radiohead have instead decided to give the job to a t-shirt shop.

Okay I'm being facetious. But just a bit.

The www.inrainbows.com website is being hosted by www.sandbag.uk.com, who are principally an online seller of t-shirts for various third parties. Reading between the lines of their 'About us' page Sandbag seems to be a spin off of W.A.S.T.E. (who have been selling Radiohead's merchandise for about 10 years).

Sandbag's main line of business today is setting up and managing similar online merchandise (including ticketing) services for other bands such as Keane, REM and Supergrass. They now also do bit of business on the side in providing basic web hosting services targeted at bands. Now, I've done plenty of research into web hosting companies over the years (with a view to finding the best home for this darned CLUAS site) and I can confidently say there is nothing special in their hosting services. What is clear is that Sandbag's core business is helping bands sell t-shirts and other merchandise online and overseeing the shipping of them to customers. Web hosting is NOT their core business (and not, by extension, their core competency).

Maybe I am wrong and Sandbag have what it takes in terms of infrastructure and employ a battle-hardened dream team of geeks to oversee it. But so far it's not looking good.

How about that Sandbag hosting infrastructure? Well within a day of Radiohead's announcement the www.inrainbows.com site had its first meltdown. And the traffic that caused the meltdown was people just looking for standard web pages with text and pictures and submitting credit card details, not people trying to download weighty MP3s, as they will try to do in their tens of thousands at a time on the site come Oct 10th. Had they done no stress-testing of the server before its launch? You can be sure that such a high profile web site, if it had been hosted with a world class outfit, would have stress-tested it before letting the world know about it.

How about the Sandbag geek team overseeing www.inrainbows.com? They must know what they're doing, even if the infrastructure is not the most robust? Here I also have my serious doubts. Try this for size: at the time of writing (and constantly over the last two days) inrainbows.com as a website does not exist. I repeat: it does not exist. I am serious. Try it out yourself. See what I mean?

In Rainbows Nameserver issueWhat is happening - as I run the risk of going all abstract - is that to access inrainbows.com you must put the "www." before the domain name to access the site. If you don't, you get an error because, as far as the internet is concerned, inrainbows.com quite literally does not exist. And why? Because whoever is in charge of hosting the website (that'll be sandbag) forgot to make the most elementary of configuration settings to what is called the 'NameServer' (a 'Nameserver' is responsible for directing all domain name requests typed into browsers to the right IP number of the domain, it's like the telephone directory of domain names). This is a very basic thing to do, one that any wannabee web geek will know. Nonetheless the sandbag guys forgot (or did not know?) to do it. Are they really ready for what is about come their way? Such an 'amateur hour' oversight does not raise my confidence.

What it boils down to is that Radiohead - by declining the option of getting a world class, experienced web hosting company to provide the vital infrastructure required for a venture as bold as this - are greatly increasing the risk of scuppering the whole thing.

Putting it another way, www.inrainbows.com is a dam at genuine risk of bursting on October 10th. Adequate preparation for such a possibility would mean Radiohead having more than a few loosely packed sandbags at their disposal. Excuse me as I stick with the whole dam theme, but - inverting the Dutch legend of Hans Brink who saved Haarlem from a leaking dam with a single digit - Radiohead would do well to get their finger out over the coming week.

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10 comment(s) so far...


Re: Radiohead's Revolution: will it end in meltdown?

Jaysus! This is fantastic! Ferocious activity out of the gaffer these days! More of this kind of stuff please!

By aidan on   Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Re: Radiohead's Revolution to end in meltdown?

Wow, damn fine piece of writing Sir. Some calm reasoning amidst the talk of 'revolution' and what not. Radiohead have always seemed one of the more intelligent, astute and tech-savvy bands out there so hopefully they can pull it off..I think what they are doing is incredibly exciting but I agree with the above article...the demand on Oct 10th is going to CRAZY and that web-host? hmmmm. WE'll see.

By Quint on   Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Re: Radiohead's Revolution to end in meltdown?

just tried your link inrainbows.com, and this now leads to the www.inrainbows.com website...this begs the question are they getting are the spotting their own mistakes/glitches in the system in preparation for the release of the album?
interesting to see what happens either way....a radiohead album or total meltdown!

By Stephen on   Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Re: Radiohead's Revolution to end in meltdown?

Stephen - the link is still throwing up the 'site not found error' for me here in Europe. I suspect on the basis of what you are saying that the Nameserver records have been updated today by the hosting company and are currently propagating around the various DNS servers of the world and it has made it down there in Australia, but not yet to my ISP's DNS server. My point still stands though - they went live with a major site without configuring an elementary part. True web hosting experts / site admins on top of their game would not have done that, especially with a site of this profile.

By eoghan on   Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Re: Radiohead's Revolution to end in meltdown?

Aidan - don't expect articles this long too often! Quint - I too hope they pull it off, it's just too cool a route the band are taking for it to get all lost in the fog of a media circus zoning in on an (unnecessary) meltdown, as there no doubt will be should it all go pear-shaped. If all does manage to go without a major hitch on Oct 10th it'll be time for major tipping of hats in the direction of Sandbag!

By eoghan on   Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Re: Radiohead's Revolution to end in meltdown?

Fabulous article!

A great view on what is a fascinating development. Down here in Oz, this story made the front page of the newspapers. (and inrainbows.com doesn't work here).

From my perspective, I'm disappointed that I need to pay 40 quid for a CD quality copy of Radiohead's songs. I WANT to be able to go out there and buy a quality (rather than digital snapshot) version of these songs.

Secondly, the value proposition of this is worth exploring. In my business, placing a free resource on a client site rarely results in a positive result for customer and vendor - the customer gets used to free services and the vendor doesn't get to own an outcome (excuse my business speak).

I question how much I will value an inferior digital copy of these songs, regardless of what I've paid. It's been debated on these pages before - has the proliferation of music actually decreased our enjoyment of music? Is there answer that I must PAY in order to enjoy and appreciate?

Whilst I laud Radiohead's ambition, the more I mull on this, the less comfortable I feel. Music as a disposable commodity is where we are headed.

By Stephen on   Thursday, October 04, 2007

Re: Radiohead's Revolution to end in meltdown?

Thanks for the article. I too would be shocked (in a pleasant way of course) if on the 10th October I visit inrainbows.com with my download code and receive my copy of the album sans-hassle. (Indeed, will I even receive my download code? Fingers crossed!) Radiohead are my favourite band, but for the last couple of years I’ve been particularly annoyed by the incompetence of their web-programming staff. It seems that every major surge of web traffic at significant times like these results in a great deal of fans having to chew their disappointment over a humble apology from a band member explaining that 'Max K and Mel are working on it' or some other feeble excuse. I think that, in a noble effort to stray as far from the faceless corporate infrastructure it would be so easy for a band of their stature to surround themselves with, Radiohead have sacrificed a certain degree of professionalism in areas where it is sorely needed, and it just might bite them on the ass come October 10th. Of course everyone will hear the album in the long run, but it would severely undermine the apparent industry-circumventing nature of In Rainbows’ release if fans have to resort to p2p networks to get a hassle-free download on the day of release. I very much hope I’m wrong and that when the eyes & ears of the entire music industry are focused on inrainbows.com on Oct10th, Sandbag’s web-heads will do the band, and the fans proud.

By Martin on   Thursday, October 04, 2007

Re: Radiohead's Revolution to end in meltdown?

Good article. But are you sure that WASTE/Sandbag are hosting the actual download? Or merely the retail part of it?
From what I have heard, a third party is operating the actual downloading (rumoured to be 7digital, given the recent deal for the rest of Radiohead's catalogue), with multiple servers.
Furthermore, apparently the codes will be sent out in the order in which they were ordered, which will at least stagger the demand over a few hours.
I am still pessimistic that the whole thing will pass without a hitch, but I don't think it will be as much of a disaster as it appears from your article.

By Carl on   Monday, October 08, 2007

Re: Radiohead's Revolution to end in meltdown?

Carl, I have heard nothing of a 3rd party looking after the downloading, but that certainly doesn't mean it won't be the case. It would be the sensible route. Sending the codes out in the order in which they were ordered? An excellent idea. If that's the case I am curious to see then when I get my code (I ordered the download on Oct 5, four days after they started taking orders). If they have farmed the downloading out I am sure it will go (relatively) fine, if it remains in-house I fear the worst.

By eoghan on   Tuesday, October 09, 2007
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Re: Radiohead's Revolution to end in meltdown?

I really enjoyed the way radiohead brought out there last album, it shows they are more of an artist while still making money. I find the record labels are willing to produce crap just to make money, while true artists see the need for producing there art but not to overly concerned about the profit. Don't get me wrong of coarse radiohead is a band and makes a hefty profit, but they are willing to work with there fans to produce great music without selling out. I paid 10 dollars for in Rainbows.

By Bhavna Rana on   Wednesday, December 16, 2009

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