U2 and Thom Yorke are the latest to prove that stunt is the new normal in album rollouts

By Kyle Anderson
Updated October 10, 2014 at 04:00 AM EDT

Thom Yorke did it again. On Sept. 26, nearly seven years after his band Radiohead offered their album In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-like download, the 46-year-old unveiled his new solo record, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, exclusively via peer-to-peer file-transfer platform BitTorrent for just $6. If the gambit succeeds, he and producer Nigel Godrich said in a statement announcing the album, ”it could be an effective way of handing some control of Internet commerce back to people who are creating the work.” Indeed: Boxes clocked 1.8 million downloads in a little over a week (including a song and video made available for free).

Yorke’s surprise move came less than a month after U2 gave away their latest, Songs of Innocence, to more than 500 million iTunes users, to much less enthusiasm. (Many expressed anger that the album, free or not, showed up unsolicited in their libraries.)

It’s hardly a new trick, of course; Beyoncé, Jay Z, Nine Inch Nails, and Prince have all taken alternative release routes. And it’s no coincidence that the model mostly applies to marquee acts with loyal fan bases. Big names are also what draw in distributors: ”These [releases] are well funded by organizations that want to establish themselves [in the music world],” says Mark Mulligan, a music industry analyst for the U.K.-based Midia Research. At the same time, ”releasing an album creates a whole bunch of marketing avenues for an artist…. U2 got money from Apple and a bunch of exposure — though maybe it wasn’t the type they wanted.”

It’s unlikely we’ve seen the last of these left-field deliveries. Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, and Madonna could very well choose to deliver their scheduled upcoming albums in a similar — or still unexplored — fashion. ”We’d love to collaborate with Madonna,” says Matt Mason, BitTorrent’s chief content officer, who worked with her on a previous project and is one of the architects behind the Yorke release. ”But,” he adds coyly, ”that’s a question for Madonna.”

For The Record
A look at five of the most notable albums released via nontraditional mediums — and whether the gambles paid off.

Radiohead, In Rainbows
Yorke’s Boxes is a continuation of the model that Radiohead begat with 2007’s In Rainbows, which they released digitally with only 10 days’ notice. Though no other high-profile artists have copied the album’s pay-what-you-like approach, the fervor surrounding Rainbows inspired plenty of followers.

Nine Inch Nails, The Slip
In 2008, band mastermind Trent Reznor gave away two separate releases: the instrumental Ghosts I-IV, whose songs were untitled, and the more traditional The Slip. He encouraged fans to share, remix, and otherwise reappropriate both albums; thousands happily obliged.

Jay Z, Magna Carta…Holy Grail
The rap mogul’s 12th release got mixed reviews — for its content as well as its self-important ad campaign and the wonky Samsung-only app that introduced it. But Magna Carta still moved more than half a million copies its first week out, making it one of 2013’s biggest commercial successes.

Beyoncé, Beyoncé
In December 2013, Beyoncé dropped her self-titled fifth album overnight on iTunes without warning — complete with a fully realized music video for each track. It won wide critical acclaim and has gone on to become the second-best-selling album of 2014 so far, outsold only by the unstoppable Frozen soundtrack.

U2, Songs of Innocence
Some fans found the already-in-your-iTunes model so invasive that Apple had to create a Web page explaining how to delete Innocence. But it hardly cost the band out of pocket: Apple also gave the album a marketing campaign reportedly worth up to $100 million.