Stuff; or, How Radiohead is Setting Us Free


Monday morning, The Greatest Band On Earth (official title given by the Pope), announced that they were releasing their newest album, The King of Limbs, less than a week from now, Saturday.

The King of Limbs

This has made me more than a little giddy.

What Radiohead has done, yet again, is set up a situation where almost everyone in the world (those with musical taste) will be able to download the new album at once, so that the first listening of the album is a true communal experience.  That is a remarkable feat, but I think their release method is ushering in a far more interesting trend:

The end of physical consumerism.

Radiohead as a band, and Thom Yorke specifically, have commented in the past on their preference for physical media and they famously were resistant to releasing their music on iTunes (their library of albums only became available after they left the major label that retained the rights).  Like In Rainbows before it, The King of Limbs will see a physical release with an expensive, collector’s edition version of the album that includes vinyl records.  So, obviously, Radiohead is not burying the physical medium.

Also, Radiohead was not the first band to release their music digitally, not by a long shot.

Those caveats aside, Radiohead is one of the first and biggest bands to absolutely embrace the new digital medium and find a way to not only utilize the technological shift, but make it profitable.

I will download the new album, and because I am a fanatic and can’t help myself, I will likely end up owning a physical copy of it when it releases in stores (as I have every one of their albums).  But, as far as physical albums go, it will be one of the last I will ever buy (excluding any future Radiohead albums).

When I first started this blog, I wrote a post about selling the majority of my CDs.  Since then, I haven’t bought one physical album, though I’ve bought my fair share of digital albums.  Selling the CDs served a two-fold financial purpose:  It brought in some immediate cash, and it has saved me money each time I have moved since, because it requires one less box of stuff for me to ship.

Which brings me to my point:  I don’t like having stuff.  Every year since I began this project, I have shed various amounts of detritus from my life, whether it be CDs or comic books, clothes or furniture.  When I left Philly, I left behind mounds of things that I had absurdly been moving with me for the previous two years.  I left behind even more upon leaving Costa Mesa, and San Francisco, and Chicago.

When I leave Nashville, I plan to lose one more box worth of stuff that I have been keeping with me all this time:  Books.

As a writer, it’s sacrilegious for me to suggest that owning physical books is anything short of life’s greatest gift.  And the truth is, I’m not getting rid of all my books.  I’m keeping my Fitzgeralds and my Kerouacs and my Dostoevskys and the other favorites.  Selling them off would be like selling off my liver, and frankly, my love of alcohol would never allow me to do either.

But, as gorgeous and spellbinding as To Kill A Mockingbird is, I don’t need to own a hardcover copy of it.  I’ve read it twice in my life, enjoyed it both times, will recommend it to anyone who asks, but having it sit in a box under my 25″ television isn’t serving any purpose, certainly not proving my worldliness.

Since my earliest years, I’ve wanted to own one of those breathtakingly immense libraries that fills shelves from floor to ceiling.  But why?  I don’t own a house and I hope I never will.  I’m not Jay Gatsby with strangers walking through my palatial mansion, checking to see if the pages of my books have been cut.

If, someday, I am well-off enough to have a nice penthouse apartment with room for a library of books, maybe I’ll go back and stock up on the classics (both old and modern).  Certainly, if I ever have a child, I’d like her to be raised in an environment that sets books on their proper altar.

Until then, though, my books are just one more albatross.

What do I need with physical things?

I am a human, I have emotional attachment to objects, and some of those attachments are too strong even for my soulless being to break.  Mostly, though, I hold onto things because it feels like I should own them, not because I need to own them.

When I move again, I’ll have my clothes, my laptop, (hopefully just) one box of books, a box of DVDs (until I can afford a laptop with enough storage to house my film and television collection, I’m holding onto my DVDs), a box of kitchen necessities and a box of my journals/notebooks/photo albums.  And ideally, that is it.

As we talk about being ‘greener’ and leaving less of a footprint on the earth, I can’t help but think that our consumerist need to own things is a step in the wrong direction.

I’m certainly not advocating for the end of books (flipping pages is the most edifying tactile experience one can have), and I don’t foresee them going away any time soon.

But physical albums (and movies for that matter) will be going the way of the T-Rex soon enough, and I’m relishing the evolution.  Yes, the technological shift will bring with it financial pains for most industries (we’ve been going through them for a decade, at least), but they are inevitable changes and only fools will set their feet down and refuse to go with the rushing waters of change.

Less stuff in our lives means less anchors to arbitrarily tie us down.  For the first time in history, traveling around the world does not require a lifetime commitment with the risk of death or financial ruin.  Yet most of us will still stay in place our entire lives, fastened to our bookshelves and our entertainment systems and our recliners and we will be satisfied, because our things will all be there when we get home from work.

It’s been said, you can’t take it with you.

I’m asking, why would you want to?

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6 thoughts on “Stuff; or, How Radiohead is Setting Us Free

  1. Dope picture.

    I look forward to visiting you penthouse in the sky.
    If you’re getting rid of MVP, if you haven’t already can you mail that back to me, I’ll spring for postage. Can’t find that here in HI.

  2. Beautiful. I truly wish I could trim down, now looking out to yet another move in a few months. I love to keep momentos. I have so many paintings and cards and trinkets from friends and family. It scares me to think how bad it could be 20 years from now if I keep at this pace. It also makes me reconsider how I gift others. It is hard to break the stuff shuffle indeed.

  3. I’m working on an article about this very subject. The reason I think books are worth collecting (and lugging around) is that despite the growing popularity of e-readers, presentation still counts for something, and a book’s presentation is far more important to the overall reading experience then the artwork in a CD is to the listening experience. A CD case and disc really have nothing to do with the experience of listening to music. A book, on the other hand, has (as you mentioned) tactile pages, a font, line-spacing and margins set by the publisher, and a variable size and material (hardcover, trade paperback, etc). Also, books are art objects, more akin to record covers, though even more so with books, since they aren’t all the same size and made of the same material.

    Would you want entire libraries to be replace by a bank of servers? That seems to be the logical future for books. But then again, why have art or posters on your wall, when they can be viewed online? I think at the end of the day, people do enjoy presentation and beautiful things, and yes, stuff. So I think physical books will be around for a long time…but, I agree, they are a pain to lug around!

  4. Thanks for reading everyone. Generally, I agree with you Jon, I think if there is one thing worth holding onto, it’s books. But, my books are just sitting in boxes, not being touched right now, so there really is no reason to hold onto them. I actually do go back and reread some of my books or use them for research (mostly my science books), so for me, there is a purpose to holding on to them. Just not the whole lot of them.

    I read this somewhere else years ago, so it isn’t my original thought, but I agree with it: I think books will stick around a lot longer than CDs/DVDs because they’ve been around a lot longer. They are ingrained into our very being in a way other physical formats of entertainment are not. We’ve been flipping pages for hundreds of years, we’ve only been spinning records for a few decades.

    Ultimately, though, whether it be 50 years from now or 200 years, I do think all literature will be digitized and books will be relics like old Grecian urns.

    Ivy, I’ll look for the book and send it your way when I get around to it.

    Casey, my natural instinct is to be a pack rat (especially when it comes to anything I once created, be it a poem on a scrap of paper or an old photograph), but there is so much freedom in just indiscriminately tossing things. You think you’ll miss it, but once it’s out of your life, you’ll never think of it again.

  5. One question though: How is Radiohead breaking any new ground by releasing their album digitally…?? Bands have been doing that for many years now, haven’t they? What is it that’s unique about the way they’re releasing the album that makes it an event that signifies the end of physical media? Can’t everyone download an album “at once”(assuming the site can handle the traffic)? I’m not picking that up. I think the “pay what you want” system they had before is more indicative of that trend.

    • The difference is they announced it Monday and are releasing it Saturday. There is no time for leaked copies, no room for critics to have their say first. When we all download it on Saturday (and if In Rainbows is any sign, millions of us will), we will all be experiencing it as one event (and it is an event, as it’s what everyone will be talking about).

      Plus, they are releasing it as a digital release a full month before it’s available in a physical medium (the opposite tactic from what a lot of movie retailers are doing). This means, if you want to hear the album, you’re gonna have to go digital. And the sheer force of Radiohead’s influence and popularity (and skill) will insure that people will want to hear it the first day.

      When Lady Gaga releases an album, people consume it one single at a time and eventually (maybe) buy the album.
      When The Decemberists release an album, a hearty crowd of loyal fans buy it physically or digitally within a weeks period and – this time, for the first time – send it to #1 on the Billboard charts.

      When Radiohead releases this album, millions of people will download it in a 24 hour period (some of those will be from torrents that will go up immediately after it releases) and will listen to it right there, right then.

      That is unique.

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