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Music

How Radiohead outsmarted their blackmailers

@josephtaysom

Releasing music should be an artist’s choice, and if there’s a reason why they don’t want to release their creations to the public, that is ultimately a decision that only the artist in question can decide. However, blackmailers once attempted to take that option away from Radiohead.

In 2019, Radiohead were left with an ultimatum when they discovered hackers had broken into singer Thom York’s archive. Setting their threats, the hackers wanted to be paid handsomely to relieve control of the music. It would have been easy for the Oxfordshire band to be held ransom by the anonymous individual and pay the affordable fee, but they couldn’t bring themselves to do it.

The music that the hackers had managed to steal existed from the sessions around the time of OK Computer. It featured alternate versions of tracks, which had remained unreleased for a reason. Rather than stumping up the $150,000 fee to keep the tracks out of the public eye, Radiohead decided to beat them to the punch and share the material with fans.

“We got hacked last week,” said guitarist Jonny Greenwood in a public statement. “Someone stole Thom’s minidisk archive from around the time of OK Computer and reportedly demanded $150,000 on threat of releasing it.”

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Greenwood continued: “So instead of complaining – much – or ignoring it, we’re releasing all 18 hours on Bandcamp in aid of Extinction Rebellion. Just for the next 18 days. So for £18 you can find out if we should have paid that ransom.”

He added: “Never intended for public consumption (though some clips did reach the cassette in the OK Computer reissue) it’s only tangentially interesting. And very, very long. Not a phone download. Rainy out, isn’t it though?”

As much as Radiohead wanted to keep the recordings private, if they paid the ransom fee once, they knew there was a strong possibility the blackmailer would come crawling back for more. Therefore, they decided to raise money for charity instead.

One of the takes featured on the collection was their lost track, ‘Lift’, initially planned as the lead single for the record. However, Radiohead felt the song’s success could be detrimental to their career in the long run and therefore chose to omit it. However, they did later share an alternative version.

“If that song had been on that album, it would have taken us to a different place,” Greenwood told BBC 6 Music in 2017 about ‘Lift’. “We’d probably have sold a lot more records… [But] I think we subconsciously killed it because if OK Computer had been like a Jagged Little Pill, like Alanis Morisette, it would have killed us.”

Radiohead’s reaction to the unwanted situation was noble and epitomised their uncompromising attitude to a tee. While £150,000 is pocket change to the band, their integrity is priceless and not something they were prepared to sacrifice.