How Radiohead's Thom Yorke Kept His New Album a Surprise

Thom Yorke - H 2014
AP Images/Invision

Thom Yorke - H 2014

The singer shocked fans by releasing the album on BitTorrent, once the preferred vessel of Internet pirates, which is now making a play for legitimacy

A version of this story first appeared in the Oct. 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Thom Yorke jolted fans Sept. 26 with a new album. Even more startling, however, was how the Radiohead frontman chose to release Tomorrow's Modern Boxes: via peer-to-peer file-sharing service BitTorrent.

Once the preferred vessel of Internet pirates, BitTorrent -- actually a privately held company based in San Francisco -- has made a play for legitimacy, teaming with established artists like Moby to offer legal content in the form of "bundles."

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What changes with the Yorke release, however, is the introduction of monetary transactions. The more than 400,000 fans who downloaded the album in its first three days were first asked to cross a $6 pay gate (Yorke receives 90 percent of the pay; BitTorrent gets 10 percent), then were prompted to download the BitTorrent app before they could access the album.

It's a partnership that began last Christmas, when BitTorrent chief content officer Matt Mason shared a cup of tea with Yorke and collaborator Nigel Godrich at their London studio. Having pioneered the artist-controlled online distribution model with Radiohead's 2007 LP In Rainbows, which was sold at a "pay what you want price," the musicians were looking for a rock-solid platform that could be of use to other acts, too.

"It's rare that you work with artists thinking about the entire artistic community first," says the London-born Mason. The talk early on was about a three-song EP. But at South by Southwest in March, Mason met with longtime Radiohead managers Brian Message and Chris Hufford, who said Yorke was hard at work on a full-length album -- and that he wanted to release it exclusively via a BitTorrent bundle.

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More than 170 employees kept the secret, allowing the album to reach Yorke's pleasantly surprised fans without a hitch. Says Mason, "Obviously, this was music to our ears.

The entire hiccup-free endeavor stands in stark contrast to other high-profile digital releases like Jay-Z's Magna Carta Holy Grail, which was marred by a malfunctioning Samsung app, and more recently Apple's "gifting" of U2's Songs of Innocence to every iTunes user. 

"The music industry should not be where privileged rock bands get to force feed their material on a billion handsets," says Mason of the U2 stunt. "I think what we’ve done is exactly the opposite of that."