Despite their debut album Pablo Honey boasting a breakout hit in “Creep,” The Bends continuing their hot streak on alt radio and OK Computer being celebrated as one of the landmark releases of the ’90s, not one of Radiohead’s first three albums climbed higher than No. 21 on the Billboard 200 albums chart. So how did Kid A, a stylistic left turn that eschewed guitars for synths and sounded like little else on the radio, become Radiohead’s first No. 1 album in the United States?
It was all thanks to a little thing that — when Kid A dropped on Oct. 2, 2000 — was quaintly referred to as the World Wide Web. At least a full decade before teasing new music snippets online became Marketing 101, the U.K. band and its label Capitol’s ingenious web-heavy strategy propelled Kid A to the top spot, and demonstrated the untapped potential of the Internet for building pre-release buzz.
Following more than a year of fitful recording sessions from 1999-2000, Thom Yorke & co. delivered an album in the spring of 2000 that provided the Capitol marketing team with more than a few hurdles. After all, Kid A was a follow-up to the audience-expanding OK Computer that sounded worlds away from the music fans fell in love with in the first place.
“People who thought we were a guitar band, you’re going to have to rethink that,” guitarist Ed O’Brien told Billboard in one of the scant promotional interviews the band gave around Kid A‘s release, in the Sept. 16, 2000 issue. The closest thing on Kid A to the band’s ’90s output was “Optimistic,” which that issue of Billboard referred to as “the most riffy and melodically adhesive cut on the record, but still unlikely anything else on the airwaves” (sure enough, the comparatively safe “Optimistic” became Capitol’s choice for a promo single). Adding to the label’s pre-release jitters was the fact that the band declined to make any proper music videos for the album, despite having enjoyed previous critical and commercial success in the format.
All of this forced Capitol executives Jay Krugman (svp of marketing at the time) and Rob Gordon (vp of marketing at the time) to “rethink their usual marketing ideas,” according to a lengthy reported piece from Dylan Siegler in the Dec. 9, 2000 issue of Billboard. Part of that strategy was taking this instrumental-heavy album city-to-city for well-hyped listening sessions ahead of the release.
“We thought it was an amazing record, and when we played it for [fans and press in] different U.S. markets, the people listening [to it] told radio,” Gordon said at the time. According to Krugman, when “Optimistic” was finally serviced to indie programmers on Sept. 18, the buzz had created a “hunger” for it; programmers were quick to put it into rotation, pushing it to No. 10 on the Alternative Airplay chart (no proper singles were released from Kid A).
Although Radiohead declined to make traditional videos, they did something far more prescient: “the band contrived about 50 video ‘blips,’ or miniature, abstract, mostly animated visual pieces clocking less than a minute each,” wrote Siegler in the Dec. 9, 2000 issue. Most of these so-called blips existed entirely online, almost as proto-Instagram promo clips.
The under-one-minute videos were the band’s idea, but it gave the label something to work with — they serviced five as “exclusives” to MTV, helping give the band some TV presence despite no videos and no late-night appearances. Plus, the abstract quickies gelled with the band’s ironically marketable resistance to the mainstream: though the experimental shorts might confound or irk a TRL viewer, they helped play into the arty mystique that endeared Radiohead to its core audience.
“As young adults — and the press — become more and more conscious of targeted marketing strategies, campaigns like this one, which are either driven by the artist’s wishes (as in Radiohead’s case) or engineered to appear that way, have begun to prove their value,” Billboard reported at the time. In hindsight, this exception-to-the-rule campaign demonstrated a new set of rules that would eventually come to characterize album promo cycles: build buzz with IRL listening sessions, use the Internet to serve niche content to the fanbase, and remain wary of the artist coming across as inauthentic.
“When you fit the square peg in the round hole, that’s the victory,” Krugman told Billboard. Playing by their own rules and intuitively taking advantage of the untested possibilities of the Internet, Radiohead nabbed their first No. 1 with Kid A, a win that went a long way toward establishing them as heavy hitters in the business for the long run, despite pivoting to challenging, uncommercial fare even by alt standards. Kid A brought Radiohead its second of three Grammy Awards for best alternative music album (the band first won in that category with OK Computer and would win again with In Rainbows; all three albums were also nominated for album of the year).
Kid A‘s success assuredly gave the label reason to breathe easy, but it’s hard to imagine the band itself was fretting over the album’s commercial possibilities at any point. “The album’s quite schizophrenic in parts,” O’Brien told Billboard ahead of its release. “We haven’t got all the answers, but that’s partly because we don’t want all the answers.”