Artistic integrity breathed a sigh of relief last Thursday. The NME reports that rumors of Radiohead’s possible signing with Hear Music are not true. In the world of almost-deals and broken contracts that is the music industry, this isn’t particularly noteworthy. But for everyone who has been dismayed by how shallow the business can be, this is particularly worth mentioning.
Radiohead are one of the most innovative groups in modern music, a band whose profound musical evolution was dictated not by what the "market" demanded from them, but what they demanded from themselves.
Hear Music, on the other hand, is owned by Starbucks.
To be clear, there is no such thing as a major record label without blood on its hands. But on a sheer aesthetic basis, the idea of Starbucks forming a record label is sickening, not to mention the idea that Radiohead might sign with them.
Walk outside and you’ll see one practically every block; an empire built on coffee, comfy chairs and a hip atmosphere. As proof of how cool they really are, they sell CDs by the Doors and Django Reinhardt at their registers, and have recently ventured into the realm of music production and retail. The first act they signed was Paul McCartney. They even offer a health plan for their employees and provide the well-known line of Fair Trade Coffee. For those who sing the merits of this system, Starbucks is a stellar example showing that globalization works, and is, above all else, cool.
Except for the union busting. And the exploitation of Ethiopian growers (despite the Fair Trade label). Not to mention the hundreds, if not thousands, of neighborhood coffee shops driven out of business and replaced by another corporate cookie cutter establishment wrapped in a thin veil of "cool."
In short, Starbucks represents the "kicking screaming Gucci little piggy" that Radiohead have spent the past fifteen years lambasting. From their inception, this group has represented the absolute best of alternative music. They have gone from a straightforward post-grunge band to an always changing and evolving musical entity. They have mixed in elements of melancholic electronica, haunting and menacing string sections, mind-bending avant-jazz. In short, no one ever knows what to expect from their next album; an excitement that no other band is able to deliver.
Their unexpected sound and enigmatic, ominous lyrics have made for a body of work that has spoken to the scariest and most alienating elements of modern society. Though cloaked in a creepy, post-modern kind of poetics, their message has still come across like the one faulty microchip in the massive Orwellian super-computer: the system is failing. These sentiments have been echoed by Radiohead’s own actions in recent years: from frontman Thom Yorke’s increasingly vocal anti-capitalism to the group’s decision to tour without corporate sponsorship (inspired by Naomi Klein’s No Logo). So it is no wonder that record companies are skittish when dealing with the group, and no wonder that the band itself (currently without a label) won’t put a spot of ink on the dotted line until they’ve finished their long awaited seventh album just the way they want it.
So when the rumors surfaced that this band might sign with a label owned by the bloated green face of 21st century globalization, it is most likely that a great number of Radiohead fans felt their hearts jump into their throats.
But, thankfully, the group’s management squashed the buzz last Thursday: "Radiohead are currently in the studio working on their next record. They are not negotiating a new record deal with anyone, and will not even consider how to release their new music until the album is finishedÃ¢€Â¦ The rumor that they are about to sign with Starbucks is totally untrue."
And thankfully so. The idea of a group that has spoken to our own dissatisfaction with entities like Starbucks actually signing with them would have been disheartening, not to mention contradictory. Yorke and Radiohead probably sympathize more with the Wobblies trying to unionize the baristas than the ones who use their slick image to squeeze as much as they can out of band and barista alike.
If the buzz would have proven true, then Radiohead would have delivered something that no caramel macchiato could have brought to the coffee giant, an image of artistic cred and ultimate hip-ness. But a band with such integrity realizes that beneath the veneer, Hear Music and Starbucks abide by the same ruthless principles that guide this system. For now, we can rest assured. Radiohead will continue to speak to that instinct that rears its head inside every one of us whenever we look at a Starbucks: "this isn’t right."
Alexander Billet is a music journalist, activist and avid Radiohead fan living in Washington DC. He is a regular contributor to Znet, and has also been published in CounterPunch, Socialist Worker (US), Dissident Voice, MRzine, and UK Watch. He is working on his first book, The Kids Are Shouting Loud: The Music and Politics of the Clash.
His blog, Rebel Frequencies, can be viewed at http://rebelfrequencies.blogspot.com He can be reached at [email protected]