Aside: I have been working on a blogpost about the major label marketing machine during the 90s, and thought of this story. Since this anecdote didn't fit anywhere in my other post, here it is.
Radiohead is a band that first gained popularity in the early 1990s. They managed to break out and get heavy radio and MTV support for the single Creep. In a lot of ways they were a conventional early 90s band.
Their third album was called OK Computer. This album has been heralded as one of the best records of all time. Seemingly out of the blue, after a couple of conventional records, they came out with something critically and commercially fantastic.
I have heard that the opposite of “jumping the shark” is “growing the beard”. So yes, they grew the proverbial beard.
This is a story I heard from someone that worked at Radiohead's record label during this time. Given that this story was told to me as a casual anecdote, it should be treated as such.
Paraphrased from my imperfect memory:
We were having trouble with the band because they refused to let us listen to the album during production. The recording process was arduous and behind schedule and we wanted to know what the record sounded like so we could start planning label support.
Finally, after a lot of drama, they sent us over the final mix of “OK Computer”. We all got in a conference room, sat around the table and put it on.
We listened to it all the way through in one sitting. Some people took notes.
After the album finished playing, there was silence, and the people in the room looked despondent. Someone finally said: “what the f-ck did we just listen to… how are we supposed to market that?”
After he told me this, I went back and listened to that record, and tried to pretend that I had no context at all: no album artwork, no reviews, no testimonials to it's greatness. That made it much easier for me to imagine the emotions they felt in that conference room.
Making sense of something on the fly, without any context, is difficult.