Future Tense

Remember MiniDiscs? Neither Did We Until Radiohead’s Old Recordings Were Hacked.

Musician Thom Yorke of Radiohead performs on the Coachella Stage
Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke performs on the Coachella Stage in April 2017. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Serious Radiohead fans just got a gift—one that they never expected and that the band never meant to give them. Eighteen hours of previously unreleased Radiohead tracks began circulating on the web last week—only because someone stole a treasure trove of music that Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke kept on 1990s-era MiniDiscs.

Whoever stole the recordings from Yorke first demanded a $150,000 ransom in exchange for returning the music and not releasing it online. On Tuesday, the band went ahead and officially released all 18 MiniDisc recordings on Bandcamp, where fans can stream the music for free or pay about $22 for digital copies. The proceeds will benefit a U.K.-based climate advocacy group, Extinction Rebellion. The tracks will only be up for 18 days.

“We got hacked last week—someone stole Thom’s minidisk archive from around the time of OK Computer,” Radiohead guitarist Jonny Greenwood said in a statement on Twitter. “Never intended for public consumption (though some clips did reach the cassette in the OK Computer reissue) it’s only tangentially interesting.”

How exactly the MiniDiscs were “hacked” isn’t totally clear. As Wired noted, someone would have likely had to access the physical discs to get the files unless Yorke had already uploaded them online somewhere or stored the extracted files on a computer with an internet connection. When exactly it happened, who did it, and where the music was originally released is still an unanswered question. But the music has been circulating online for nearly a week—fans on Reddit even had time to create a 57-page time-stamped, color-coded annotation.

In addition to the happy ending for obsessive fans (and the cause of fighting climate change), the saga offers a brief reminder of the technological advances in music during the 1990s, when MiniDiscs experienced a brief flash of interest before being supplanted by MP3 players, iPods, and later smartphones.

Sony first introduced the MiniDisc in 1992 as a portable, ostensibly stylish, and durable alternative to CD players. With its writeable disc and plastic shell, it looked like a combination of a cassette and a standard CD. Like the former, it was impervious to skipping and easy to record to using a Sony MiniDisc player. Like the latter, the sound quality was high. In one memorable commercial, the MiniDisc was even portrayed as … sexy?

MiniDiscs were less than half the size of a CD with the same capacity, which was about 74 minutes. Later iterations of the device used to listen and record on MiniDiscs even allowed users to record music directly from an audio jack on a computer. Eventually, the capacity was upped to about 80 minutes of audio.

The technology never truly caught on in the United States because few labels released music in the format, and the hardware required for playback and recording was much more expensive than CDs, which they were meant to replace. The first MiniDisc player—the Sony Mz-1, released along with the MiniDisc in 1992—cost upwards of $700. Even in 1998, when Sony dropped the price to $250 and declared a “Year of the MiniDisc” along with a $30 million marketing campaign, 75 percent of Americans hadn’t even heard of it.

But radio stations, studios, amateur recording artists, and even some big names like Radiohead used MiniDisc recording equipment to tape demos and store audio. It was inexpensive compared with other rigs, the quality was relatively high, and it was portable enough to record live shows.

As a mass-market consumer product, the MiniDisc may have been ahead of its time, but it was too expensive, particularly once CD-Rs became affordable several years after the introduction of the MiniDisc. By the early 2000s, what remained of the MiniDisc’s use case dissipated with the advent of portable MP3 players. Sony kept selling the things for until 2011, when it began to discontinue its MiniDisc Walkman.

The MiniDisc might have remained in obscurity—as would have a number of Radiohead gems, like an 11-minute version of “Paranoid Android” that was in the stash. Instead we have a small history lesson, a large number of happy Radiohead fans, cash for a good cause, and some empty-pocketed hackers. No need to call the Karma Police.