[ I N S I D E ] With Radiohead's <i>Kid A</i>, Capitol Busts Out of a Big-Time Slump. (Thanks, Napster.)
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With Radiohead's Kid A, Capitol Busts Out of a Big-Time Slump. (Thanks, Napster.)
The band that would not be promoted oddly finds itself at the top of the charts as a record company in the dumps tries harnessing the power of the Internet.
by Warren Cohen

Wednesday, October 11 07:11 P.M.

For at least one week, America is awash in Radioheadmania.

On the day of the English avant-rock band's sold-out concert at New York City's Roseland -- one of only three U.S. shows -- the group and its record label, Capitol, find themselves in the largely unexpected position of topping the album sales charts.

Wednesday, Soundscan confirmed that Radiohead's eagerly difficult Kid A will debut at No. 1 with 210,000 copies sold, beating out such big willies as Mystikal (No. 2; 187,000), Nelly (No. 3; 161,000) and Green Day (No. 4, 156,000). While the figure is modest by fourth-quarter blockbuster standards, and being a first-week No. 1 is by no means a guarantee of lasting chart success -- see Nine Inch Nails's eagerly difficult dud The Fragile for recent proof -- it nevertheless comes as a huge surprise to the industry, and a strong indication that Napster and other Internet viral marketing propositions can radically boost sales on the right kind of record.

The success of Kid A does more than just validate Napster et al., though; it also gives Capitol and its parent company, EMI Music, rare bragging rights. EMI has been mired with the smallest market share among the major labels, 7.4 percent, and until a last-minute snag with antitrust regulators last week, it looked as though the flagging music group would merge with Time Warner. The rumor mill had it that a hit-starved Capitol -- its last No. 1 record was the Beastie Boys's Hello Nasty in August 1998 -- would be merged into the Warner Music Group, and the near-certainty of staffing cuts loomed over the company as it was preparing for one of its biggest releases of the year. ''We couldn't do a business call without someone asking us about the merger,'' admits Capitol president Roy Lott. ''It was unavoidable. But we had to focus on the one thing we could control -- marketing our artists' records -- and not the European Commission.''

For the thrilled label, the good news comes only a few months after executives first listened to the moody album. In June, Radiohead's managers loaded 20 key Capitol executives, including Lott, into four vans, gave each person a set of headphones, pressed play and drove up the coast to Malibu until the album had concluded.

Post-journey, the Capitol marketing team knew two things. After a much-anticipated wait, the label had an ''ambitious'' follow-up to the 1.2-million-selling critical fave OK Computer. And to reach beyond the converted/devoted, executives would have to work hard at pitching the mostly guitar-less album to rap-rock-laden radio stations. With a press-weary band that wasn't planning to tour, release videos or give interviews, they had a tough task. ''It was an amazing piece of work, an atmospheric record that could be a soundtrack to life,'' said Rob Gordon, Capitol's vice president of marketing. ''But we had the business challenge of making everyone believe in the album.''

The excitement over the Radiohead album from that first listen not only galvanized staffers but also set the cornerstone for the album's marketing campaign: Capitol would stream the album in all its progressive-FM splendor over the Internet and convince select radio stations and cable outlets to play it in its entirety. ''People have to listen to the whole album, not a sampler and not one track,'' says Gordon. ''If they don't, they can't understand what the band was trying to do.''


CAPITOL'S MARKETING TOOL, ONE WORD: IBLIP

While the modern-rock radio play for Kid A's ''Optimistic'' has been solid, most observers, both inside and outside of Capitol, credit the company's aggressive Internet campaign for helping the band scale new heights. And of course, in silent, officially unwanted partnership with the record company's marketing efforts, there's Napster. Armed with leaked lists of the album tracks, Radiohead fans assembled a replica of the album from live tracks as they surfaced on Napster this past summer. And the swapping was in full gear once the actual album cuts showed up on Napster three weeks before the album's release.

On the industry-approved online marketing front, Capitol got roughly 1,000 fan sites and promotional partners like radio station Web sites to post ''iBlips,'' pop-up Java-based pages easy to incorporate into a Web page. The iBlip included band art and photos, postcards and links to electronic retailer Amazon, which was collecting preorders for the album. (Kid A reached No. 1 on Amazon's sales chart with more than 10,000 preorders.)

The promotion was ''viral'' in the sense that it could easily spread when people mailed the iBlip to one another. And since the tool was traceable, Capitol could watch its progress. Capitol reports that the iBlips had a 153 percent click-through rate, which means that, on average, more than two people clicked on elements in each iBlip. Most Internet campaigns generate no greater than a 5 percent click-through rate. The tool also allowed Capitol to update the content of all the iBlips from central headquarters, thus enabling the company to add things like a stream of the whole record, which began three weeks before the release date and stayed live for a week. Listeners played more than 400,000 streams of the record, which could only be heard in sequence.

The album stream was also posted on a few choice sites, including MTV.com, Amazon and Heavy.com. Finally, Capitol upped the ante by using sites that skirted the edge of acceptable music trading. For three days, the company ran a promo with Aimster, a peer-to-peer swap service that trades files via AOL's buddy lists. Aimster didn't have any songs but allowed users to swap iBlips and share Radiohead-branded ''skins'' designed to customize the look of the software. ''The band experiments and takes risk and as far as Aimster, we operated in that spirit,'' says Robin Bechtel, head of new media at Capitol.


AN UNLIKELY ASSAULT ON THE TOP 10

Amid such risk-taking, Capitol's marketers didn't neglect to cover more traditional bases. Though Radiohead made no videos for Kid A, MTV frequently played 30-second video shorts provided by the band. And the album that wasn't supposed to be embraced by radio programmers has had a kind reception over the airwaves. Los Angeles's KROQ and New York's WXRK both played the album start to finish. According to trade magazine Radio & Records, 67 out of 78 alternative stations have added songs from Kid A, and ''Optimistic'' is No. 16 in the modern rock charts. ''It's common wisdom that the record was radio-unfriendly, but since 'Creep,' Radiohead has never had a top 10 single on modern rock,'' says Lott. ''But since 'Optimistic' is heading toward the top 10, does this mean that the album is the most radio-friendly thing they?ve ever done?''

But despite all the old-guard marketing and new-media innovation, Napster may have had the key role in whetting the fans' appetite. The iBlip appeared on Angry Coffee, which until last week had a search engine that linked to Napster and other peer-to-peer exchanges. CEO Adam Powell says that he could see from his site's traffic that people went to download tracks from Napster rather than stream the album through the iBlip once it became available. ''It's not what Capitol wanted us to do but it all comes out to the exact same effect,'' says Powell. ''The top pirated artists are also the top sellers, and Napster is key in building buzz.'' Jonathan Moore, webmaster for the Lift, a Radiohead fan site says: ''I listened to the stream once, but I got the tracks on Napster quicker.''

When asked whether Napster boosted or harmed Radiohead sales, Lott was cautious. ''On my left hand, I'm working with the RIAA to get a just result in the Napster litigation,'' he said. ''But in my corporate EMI right hand, I'm trying to sell as many Radiohead albums as possible. If I worried about what Napster would do, I wouldn't sell as many albums.'' Lott compared the situation to worrying about home taping in its heyday, when every college dorm had students with dual cassette decks.

Building in extra value to the albums is the only way Lott thinks that record companies can thrive in the face of file-sharing. Unlike the condensed, sonically challenged MP3 format, the Radiohead record demands a high-fidelity listen, preferably through headphones. And letting fans know that the packaging contained such extras as a secret booklet in the CD case also helped promote sales. ''Record companies need to provide a reason to not steal music on Napster,'' says Lott. ''That's by making sure it's a great album and that packaging is really something special so consumers feel the need to buy the album.''

But even in a historic week for Lott's Capitol, old habits die hard. In addition to Radiohead, the label had also pinned its fourth-quarter hopes on cheeky worldwide pop star Robbie Williams, whose new album, Sing When You're Winning, was released here on the same day as Kid A. The results: Sing was virtually ignored, selling a gravely disappointing 14,000 copies. Where's the iBlip for Robbie Williams?