F.O. Computer, By Ian Rankin: Why Radiohead Are Radiodead To Me
, June 8th, 2011 06:01
Music lover and bestselling author Ian Rankin seems to be just one of many Radiohead fans who have yet to receive their deluxe edition of King Of Limbs. Here he explains why a Kafkaesque palava has left him disillusioned with the band.
This is the story of two global corporations, one of which happens to be a rock band.
Back in February Radiohead seemed to catch the music industry - and their own fans - by surprise. They announced the imminent online release of their latest album The King of Limbs. I rushed to the band’s website and was offered various purchase choices, including a deluxe vinyl edition. Being a vinyl junkie, I opted for this, paying thirty pounds for the privilege - I’d done the same thing when their previous album In Rainbows was released. Very soon afterwards, the download became available and reviews began to be published. A few weeks later, a CD version appeared in the shops. Thom Yorke came out to play, dispensing copies of a promotional newspaper on the streets of London: all providing great PR for the band. Meantime, those of us waiting for our orders received an e-mail letting us know that the special edition of King Of Limbs would be shipped to us on or around April 28th. Good news. But by mid-May, I began to feel that something was amiss. Vinyl copies were in the shops, and secondhand copies of the deluxe edition were on sale on eBay. I knew from the online community that packages had been dropping into letterboxes around the world, but where was mine?
I went to the King of Limbs website to check. There were several options I could click, one being non-delivery. The automated response was that the item had shipped and must be lost in the post. Another copy would be sent. Two more weeks passed. I went back to the website, but there was no way to do anything other than click on that same box - no e-mail address; no phone line; no possibility of human contact. And when I clicked on the box to say my album hadn’t arrived, the only response from the machine was: ‘matter pending’. Pending what?
I began to use Twitter to ask if anyone else had experienced problems. Some people had received their copies on time. Others were still waiting. Some had experienced delivery problems but had prevailed. I still felt lost. There was just me, the non-delivery, and an automated website that was proving useless. I tried both the Radiohead and King of Limbs Twitter pages, leaving messages, but no-one got back to me. Frustrated, I joined the official Radiohead online ‘fan club’, meaning I could send an actual e-mail to someone voicing my complaint. Again, silence was all.
Fortunately, I know a few people in the music world. I asked The Quietus if they could shed any light. They managed to talk to an Actual Human Being somewhere in the Radiohead Corporate Universe. The album had been delivered, I was told. The courier had tried on April 28th, but with no success. They’d tried again on May 9th and someone had signed for the package.
Curiouser and curiouser. April 28th happens to be my birthday. I knew I’d been at home that day, mainly because my youngest son is disabled and had been off school. Someone was with him throughout the day and evening - me or his mum or his carer. I live in a detached house rather than a block of flats. Odd that we hadn’t heard or seen anyone trying to make a delivery. Odd that they hadn’t left a card. Odd also that they had then waited eleven days before trying again, when in my experience a reputable delivery company will wait no longer than forty-eight hours.
May 9th, as it happens, was another day I was stuck at home. I was feeling a bit under the weather, so was on the sofa, listening to music and reading. The package was signed for at 3.05pm. Well, not by me it wasn’t. Was this why I hadn’t been sent a replacement copy? As far as anyone at Radiohead International Holdings was concerned, I’d had my King of Limbs and was chancing it in the hope of securing a freebie, maybe to resell on eBay.
One of my contacts on Twitter told me DHL had been charged with delivering the albums. But the tracking number I had from the Radiohead website did not match any DHL tracking number. I found this out when I tried calling DHL. DHL are the other global player in this story. DHL are owned by Deutsche Post, and DHL themselves do not handle UK-to-UK deliveries, instead using third party firms. All of this I would eventually learn. The number in my phone directory for DHL was out of date. The new number referred only to international services. The third number met with a measure of success. By this time I had asked my contact at The Quietus to ask his contact at Radiohead Global Megabeast Inc if they could send me the actual DHL tracking number. This was what I brandished when I spoke to the human being at DHL. ‘You need to speak to Yodel,’ I was told.
‘Yodel is the company we subcontract to.’
Cleverly, Yodel is short for Your Delivery. So I called another number, went through an almost-identical list of ‘press button now’ options as before, and found myself chatting to another human being. He was very pleasant but said there was nothing he could do. The package had been delivered and signed for.
‘Do you have a name?’ I asked, ‘of the person who signed for it?’
The answer came eventually: the mysterious Mr, Mrs or Ms Macrury.
No Macrurys or MacRurys in this house. No Macrurys or MacRurys in this street. When I sought Macrury, Macrury wasn’t there.
But at 3.05pm on May 9th, he or she had signed for my package and taken delivery of The King of Limbs. That was the story.
‘What can I do?’ I asked the nice man from Yodel or YoDel.
‘You need to contact the supplier and get them to initiate a search.’
‘I can’t. It’s just an automated system on a website.’
‘No e-mail or phone number?’
‘No postal address?’
‘Well, you need to contact them.’
‘That’s not proving possible. You seem to be almost the only human out there. Is there really nothing else you can do?’ He thought for a moment. Maybe he had decided to put aside his copy of Kafka for the day. ‘Give me your post code,’ he offered. ‘I’ll see who the local delivery courier would have been.’ Not DHL then. And not Yodel or YoDel, but someone else entirely.
‘All I have is a mobile number,’ he eventually told me.
‘I’ll take it.’
And I did, dear reader. I thanked the kindly soul and punched in that number. And listened to it ring.
And ring... without answer.
So as things stand, I’m a little further forward but not much. I may keep trying that number, or I might just sell the idea to Paul Auster for a novel. Another King of Limbs buyer (also resident in Edinburgh) tells me he encountered the self-same problem. Eventually he did get to speak to someone and his parcel - the one he had apparently signed for a few days before - suddenly turned up. Others are still waiting, unable to make any headway with the intransigent King of Limbs website. At least one, a respected music critic, is in the process of asking for a refund, while many are venting their frustration online.
Annoying, because Radiohead aren’t supposed to be like this. They are the band who chart feelings of alienation, but this is surely taking things a stage too far. We lovers of modern music don’t like to think of ourselves as mere consumers. When we buy washing-powder we don’t pore over the packaging, and discuss with each other the merits of this latest box and its contents, but we do with our Radiohead albums - we scrutinise the artwork, we listen with dedication to every track, we embark on debates (online; in each others’ homes; on the phone) about certain tracks, themes, lyrics. We are not consumers; we are fans - music fans. And when we are treated with indifference, it can start to hurt, and to colour our perception of a band, a brand, an album, an industry.
Radiohead have tried to subvert the traditional system, to set themselves up as a cottage industry paid for by the fans and in tune with those fans. However, at a point in history when it has never seemed so important for b(r)ands to stay on friendly terms with their fanbase (noticed how many of them will stay behind after gigs to sign stuff you’ve brought, or who’re happy to sell signed merch from their websites?) Radiohead have turned the other way, courtesy of their own website’s uncomprehending and faceless blankness.
A remix version of The King of Limbs will be appearing soon. Trust me, I’ll be last in the queue. Radiohead are Radiodead to me now, while the search for Macrury continues.
Oh, and guess what? Having told The Quietus (and my Twitter allies) that I would be writing about this whole episode today, I’ve just received an e-mail. It tells me a copy of The King of Limbs will be with me tomorrow.
Thanks, Radiohead. Feel free to close the stable door. And go fetch a lasso while you’re at it.
The Quietus would like to hear from anyone who has yet to receive their deluxe edition King Of Limbs We will pass on your details to the relevant parties, and perhaps, like Ian, you will be lucky enough to enjoy a swift change of fortune