by Ian Newman on Feb.23, 2011
Up until the release of Hail to the Thief in 2003 Radiohead were under contract with EMI. At the end of the contract Thom Yorke was quoted as saying “I like the people at our record company, but the time is at hand when you have to ask why anyone needs one. And, yes, it probably would give us some perverse pleasure to say ‘Fuck you’ to this decaying business model.” Their next release, in 2007 was In Rainbows, which was initially released on the band’s website with no set price. Visitors were encouraged to pay whatever amount they thought was appropriate. Part of the explanation for this strategy was that each of the last four albums had been leaked before the official release date, so the band resolved to leak it themselves. The form of the album (to borrow Joyelle’s formulation) is the leak. Morning Mr Magpie, the second track on The King of Limbs, is a meditation on the art of reproduction in the digital age, a consideration of the value of music in the age of the leak.
Magpies are the subject of a number of superstitions, one of which is that it is a reputed thief – a bird that steals eggs from the nests of other birds, and that takes off with shiny objects. The song considers the property rights belonging to the artist, to the listener, and to record companies at a time when the familiar structures of possession established by corporate record companies have all but collapsed. Radiohead knows that the people attracted to their music are among the more technologically savvy members of the population, an audience they have cultivated through constant references to new media technologies in their music – the title of their third album, OK Computer, being only the most obvious example. They know that their albums must be among the most frequently pirated recordings (I doubt that there are any reliable statistics for such matters, but common sense suggests).
“You’ve got some nerve coming here,” Yorke sings above a skittering latin-inflected rhythm. “You stole it off. Give it back.” The thieving magpie, which is identified with the technologically-savvy, torrent-sharing listener, is accused directly. We, the listeners, are being accused of piracy and are associated with the theft of those who leaked the earlier albums, who paid 0p for In Rainbows. We have stolen something by listening to and taking possession of music, but in spite of our guilt we keep returning to the site of our theft (our computers) to claim more.
In English folklore the magpie is also a bringer of bad luck. If you see a magpie you should greet it politely to dispel the misfortune it might bring. Among the typical greetings are “Good morning Mr Magpie,” and “how are we today?” – the lyrics of the song’s chorus.
The dilemma for a band like Radiohead is that while they know they could have made more money if everyone who had a copy of their albums had paid full price for them, there really is no way of knowing whether their music would have been so well received had they not got the extra distribution through pirated media channels. Put another way, the channels that have been killing off the traditional business model of the music industry, might very well be the channels that have contributed to Radiohead’s own enormous success. The magpie might be a thief, but it’s a thief you’d better be polite to, in case they are responsible for your good fortune. The song makes the accusation of theft ever more explicit, “Now you’ve stolen all the magic / Took my melody.” The band’s melodies have been taken, and with them a little of the magic (echoed in the naïve simplicity of the track’s title) that once was part of being in a band , or being a listener eagerly waiting for the latest release of a favorite artist to hit the record shops. “You know you should, but you don’t” Thom Yorke laments, referring to the quick pang of guilt that accompanies digital piracy, but which is easily forgotten.
The trouble though is that artists’ property rights over their music are thorny moral and legal issues. What exactly is the value of a piece of music? Record companies had previously been responsible for establishing a purely arbitrary figure that they deemed the acceptable worth of a recording. The $12.99 that you paid for a CD would cover the cost of production, of advertising and promotion, it would provide some kind of remuneration for the artists, but a large percentage of the money would go into distribution. Best Buy, HMV, Walmart, or Woolworths would take their cut, as would the freight companies that shipped the physical media around the word, and a large chunk of the money would go to the record company itself, which would employ people to keep the whole complex bureaucratic system ticking over. In the end, out of your $12.99 you might pay a few pence for the music. Is that how much a piece of music is ultimately worth?
Not that everyone paid full price for their records, tapes, and CDs – even leaving aside illegal downloads, tapes or CD copies. You could legitimately buy used physical media, for which no money went to the record companies or artists. Records stores would have sales, encouraging in-store traffic by reducing the price of goods during traditionally quiet months. The CD you bought for $12.99 someone else got for $6. Is their music less valuable than yours? Then there’s the tricky problem of the quality of the music. Is a song that you listen to a hundred times, that you hum in the shower, or carry around in your head really worth the same as a tune you listen to once then throw onto a shelf of CDs? What about that Elton John song that you have never owned, but that you know every note of from repeated exposure to it in CVS? In some basic way you “possess” that song even though no money has changed hands. The logic of commodity, of assessing the value of a possession in terms of remuneration simply does not work when applied to music. Which is not to say that art is somehow “priceless” – how could it be under a capitalist mode of production? — but nor can its value be fixed by such standards as use value or exchange value. It was this that Radiohead were saying when they asked visitors to their website to pay whatever they thought appropriate for In Rainbows with the command “it’s up to you.”
These are ideas that Radiohead have been contemplating since Hail To The Thief, but which they take up again in “Morning Mr Magpie”. For all the lyrics’ accusations of theft, the words are undercut by the energetic latin rhythms within which they resonate. This is one of the more perky tracks on the album. The instrumentation here, at least until the chorus, eschews the electronic sounds for which Radiohead have become known. It consists largely of cleanly recorded instruments jamming an upbeat samba, as if the band is attempting to reinforce the naïve alliteration of the track’s title. Even Thom Yorke’s voice lacks the mordant quality of the album’s opening track. The band, we are made aware, are musical magpies themselves, stealing ideas and inspiration from a diverse range of sources. If the listener is being accused of thievery, it is a theft the band themselves are complicit in, not only have they grown immensely wealthy in spite of the ease of pirated reproduction, but they have also mined most genres of popular music for their own profit. It’s hard to take any accusation of musical theft seriously from a band whose craft itself depends on the reappropriation of other musical styles. The song registers instead as a belated ‘Fuck You’ to the out-dated business models of the recording industry. The band and their listeners, magpies all, are dancing a merry little samba on the corpses of a dying industry, whose voice the lyrics ventriloquize.
The dance, however, gets considerably darker as the song progresses. A repeated monotone like the sound of an alarm enters at 3:19, warning us of immediate danger. More electronic sounds and feedback combine with the instruments. Colin Greenwood’s bass guitar, which at times in the dance has been playing melodies high up the fret-board, turns suddenly dirtier, grungier, more distorted. The instruments fall away one by one until we are left at the end with Thom Yorke’s voice echoing starkly against a minimal background. It’s an ending reminiscent of OK Computer’s ‘Karma Police,’ which played out to its own deconstruction. But here we don’t transition to the automaton’s voice telling us that we need to be fitter, happier, more productive. Instead the song concludes with a 24 second whine of feedback that fades slowly out, accompanied by the chirrups of birdsong. At the song’s conclusion we return to a conflict that has begun to take the status of a structuring image for the album, the natural word confronting a world of electronic media. The thieving magpie that was supposed to be an omen of our own misfortune, but which transformed over the course of the song into an image of the band and listener in solidarity, has itself now been drowned out by a world dominated by the alarms and noise of the inorganic world. The record companies might be down, but they’re not yet out.