'It's the most over the top thing that I've ever done'
ALL the talk in the music business in recent days has been of Radiohead's "honesty box" policy for Wednesday's release of their In Rainbows album, and the question of how much you should choose to pay to download new music by one of the world's most important bands.
But perhaps that's missing the point. The group's spokesman reports that, so far, not only are fans choosing to fork out a reasonable sum for the download, but the majority are choosing instead to order the "Discbox" - a £40 version not released until 3 December, which features the album as a download, CD and two 12-inch vinyl records, with eight extra tracks and a lovingly compiled lyrics book full of new artwork by Stanley Donwood.
If the download could be a steal, this is a serious financial commitment. So is it worth it?
"It depends how rich you are!" I'm told by Donwood, who has designed every Radiohead release since their 1994 single My Iron Lung. "If you're on the dole, of course it's a hell of a lot of money. But it costs about that much to go to a Premier League football match, and this project has taken an incredible amount of work. It's been a long journey over ten months, with the artwork evolving as the music has evolved. And it weighs about half a kilo."
The artist has become a "sixth member" of the band, hearing new songs as they are created and adapting his visuals accordingly.
For In Rainbows he's been trying a photographic etching technique, putting prints into acid baths with random results. He keeps the finer details close to his chest, and the band refuse to show off the box properly until the release date, but a small picture at www.inrainbows.com has multicoloured blocky text contrasting with scratchy grey abstractions. "The finished product is quite a lush thing. It's the most over-the-top project I've done with [Radiohead]."
It's an odd position for a major band to be in, where their music could be perceived to be of little monetary value while the artwork costs a bundle. But for Radiohead, Donwood's apocalyptic visuals have long formed a vital part of a complete package. They perfectly complement the songs, from the weeping cartoon minotaur of their Amnesiac album to the grim painted street plans of Hail to the Thief, plastered with words such as "snakes", "poor souls" and "venture capitalism". An impressive new book of his Radiohead-related work, Dead Children Playing shows his progression from the pharmaceutical logos of their greatest album, OK Computer, to the linocut cityscapes of The Eraser, last year's solo album by frontman Thom Yorke.
He studied fine art with Yorke at Exeter, and says they share a similar bleak worldview: "We shout at the same bits of the news."
His close involvement is paying off. Unlike bands such as Hard-Fi, who have claimed that artwork is irrelevant in this iPod age, Radiohead and Donwood's success with their latest innovation shows that, if it looks great as well as sounding great, music can still be very valuable indeed.
• Dead Children Playing is published by Verso on 22 October. In Rainbows can be downloaded from www.radiohead.com from 10 October.