Radiohead's "In Rainbows," a Prehistory

Artists giving away their music for free, a chronology.

1906, Brant Rock, Massachusetts. Sailors off the coast of the Atlantic hear an eerie, otherworldly sound emanate from a box given to them by inventor Reginald Fessenden. On shore, Fessenden stands in front of a microphone attached to a synchronous rotary-spark transmitter, sings a hymn, "O Holy Night," and accompanies himself on violin. “Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we,” croons Fessenden as the sailors listen, awestruck. “Let all within us praise His holy name.” As the signal fades and then vanishes, one particular seaman, Thomas Charles Webster, immediately fetches his violin and continues the song. The sailors rejoice. For free.

1921, Sugarland, Texas. Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, incarcerated for killing his cousin during a fight, pleads his case for early release to Governor Pat Morris Neff. During the proceedings, Leadbelly performs -- for no money -- a clemency song that he penned especially for the occasion. Soon thereafter, Neff frees Leadbelly. Thirty years later, the governor, on his deathbed, reminisces about his life. Between images of his first love and his final election, Leadbelly’s little melody drifts through Neff’s head, even though he didn’t pay a dime for it. Priceless.

1943, Paris, France. His beloved city under Nazi control and his people being rounded up and sent to concentration camps, Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt continues in secret to play jazz, which Hitler forbids. Lucky for Reinhardt, jazz trumps Aryan power when a Luftwaffe official named Deitrich Schulz-Koln (“Doktor Jazz”) falls in love with the guitarist's sound. In appreciation of the Nazi's kind regard, Reinhardt teaches Schulz-Koln the melody to a song he's working on. Later that night, the Luftwaffe officer serenades his lover by replaying DJango's ditty. The officer gets some nookie out of the deal – and therefore doesn't need to resort to his back-up plan, which is to hire a hooker. Money saved is money earned. Reinhardt doesn't see – nor ask for -- a goddamn franc of this money.

1952, Woodstock, New York. Pianist David Tudor premieres a new, nameless John Cage composition, later to be referred to as “ 4′33.″” Seated at the piano, Tudor takes a deep breath, then closes the keyboard and looks at a stopwatch. Silence. He opens the lid, shuts it to mark the end of a movement, repeats this a minute later, and the piece is over. Although the audience paid for the recital, the composition is released into the Earth's consciousness, where it takes on a life of its own. The song becomes a hit all over the world, from mountain to valley, in libraries, funeral homes and men's rooms. Over the next 40-odd years, Cage never once requests royalties.

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1959, New York, New York. "The Viking of Sixth Avenue," avant-garde composer Moondog, sets a stool at the corner of 53rd Street and Sixth Avenue, takes out one of his musical inventions, a “trimba,” and sets a basket on the ground. The street musician begins playing and reading poetry, at one point exclaiming, "Machines were mice and men were lions once upon a time. But now that it's the opposite it's twice upon a time." He charges no one to listen to the music, instead enacting a revolutionary policy of payment: “It's up to you. No really, it's up to you.”

1962, Trinidad and Tobago. Folklorist Alan Lomax, on a mission to record the indigenous music of the West Indies, sets up his microphone and recorder in a dirt-floored room. A singer, Raghoonath Ramdass, along with his chowtal group, belts out a heavenly chant which fills the hearts of all in the room. Smiles on their faces, the singers tell the story of the legend of Rama. When they're finished, everyone's souls have been lifted and Lomax packs his machine. Ramdass smiles, bows and bids farewell, never once considering that money, or anything other than goodwill, might be exchanged. What a maroon.

1975, Los Angeles. The Runaways – Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Sandy West, Cherie Curie and Micki Steele – hire Kim Fowley as their manager. Enough said.

1980, London, England. The Clash release the double-LP, London Calling. Initially slated as single album, the band asks their record company whether they might include a bonus 12” with the package. The company agrees, and the band turns in eight extra songs. Despite the fact that there are now 18 songs on two albums, the Clash insists on only charging for a single LP, therefore GIVING AWAY EIGHT WHOLE SONGS FOR FREE! But wait, there's more! An extra secret bonus track, “Train is Vain,” is tacked on to the end of side four. For free! That's nine whole songs! Historic!

1984, Austin, Texas. McDonald's employee and budding songwriter Daniel Johnston begins keeping copies of his handmade cassette, Songs of Pain, in his pocket while on duty. He then starts giving them away – for free! -- to anyone he thinks might like his songs. Sound familiar? For free! He gave them away for free!

1992, New York, New York. Sassy Magazine includes in their October, 1992 issue a free single on green vinyl which includes for free four songs by four bands: Beat Happening, Velocity Girl, Sebadoh and Codeine. Despite the fact that this is free, the bands get good publicity from the offer. Hmm.

June, 2007, London. Prince releases his new CD, Planet Earth, via the London Observer newspaper, at absolutely no cost other than the price of the paper. Record stores are livid, as is the British-based Entertainment Retailers Association (ERA), telling the Guardian UK that the giveaway "beggars belief". Really? Beggars belief??

October, 2007, Worldwide. Radiohead gives away some of their music. Bully for them.


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