Smile For The Camera: How Thom Yorke, Jonny Greenwood and Tom Skinner’s New Trio Is Innovating With Three In-Person Shows Broadcast Globally

Serious Business
Alex Lake
– Serious Business
The Smile, compromised of (from left) Sons Of Kemet’s Tom Skinner and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood and Thom Yorke, did a “soft launch” during a Glastonbury 2021 livestream and has an album on the way.

On Jan. 29 at 8 p.m. London time, Radiohead’s Thom Yorke and Jonny Greenwood and Sons Of Kemet’s Tom Skinner will make their way onto an in-the-round stage built just for them in a massive warehouse-like space at Magazine London, a state-of-the-art venue in the British capital adjacent to The O2. There, they’ll perform much of the material from their in-the-works studio debut as The Smile for a sold-out crowd of 1,250 – the new trio’s first time performing for an in-person audience. The gig will be beamed out live to dozens of independent cinemas and venues, and to droves of home viewers across the globe.

And, afterward, the band will repeat the entire process on Jan. 30 at 1 a.m., then again at 11 a.m.

“The band are brave, basically,” says Claire Mas, COO of Driift, the livestreaming promoter presenting The Smile’s three London shows.

Often, Driift’s livestreams are truly live once, and then rebroadcast three times over the course of a day for the convenience of viewers in different time zones, she explains.

“We think it’s silly to try to do a global thing and force people to wake up at 3 a.m., or whenever it is,” she says. “The band were just really adamant that they didn’t want to do a rebroadcast at all. They truly wanted it to be live – and so they were willing to play it three times, to make sure that it was genuinely live. Three different sets of audiences truly get to have a live performance.”

That decision is just one way The Smile’s London shows are reorienting the conventional wisdom about livestreaming and suggesting what a potential future for the format might look like as physical audiences return to concerts.

Driift, which launched in mid-2020, has deep ties to Radiohead. The company was co-founded by ATC Management’s Ric Salmon and Brian Message; Message is a partner in Courtyard Management, which manages Radiohead. Beggars Group, the label group that encompasses XL Recordings, home of Radiohead and now The Smile, is a minority shareholder in Driift. And ATC’s Message and Julie Calland co-manage The Smile.

While The Smile’s exact origins are shrouded in mystery, the band debuted, in one sense, with a set at Glastonbury’s Live at Worthy Farm streaming event in May 2021, a surprise appearance that was announced – along with The Smile’s existence itself – just hours before it took place.

“That was obviously pretty under the radar,” says Salmon, who serves as Driift’s CEO.

The band’s “soft launch” on the Driift-presented Glastonbury stream “was amazing and a brilliant success,” he says. Naturally, Driift wanted a second bite at the apple.

“This is the continuation of that, our relationship with them, and them really now officially launching the project and bringing The Smile to market, with the album coming later this year in a few months time,” Salmon says.

In early January, The Smile’s 2022 activity kicked off with a new single, the hard-charging “You Will Never Work In Television Again,” and the announcement of three late January shows in London. In-person tickets, priced at £79 ($105.85) and available via ticketing platform Dice, sold out within minutes, and livestreaming tickets, priced at $16.75 and available via streaming platform Dreamstage, which will also digitally broadcast the shows, were sold concurrently.

“This is obviously the first event that we have produced and promoted that is both a physical live show and a livestream,” Salmon says. “It was a big moment of realization for us, actually, because what – unwittingly, to a great extent – we realized is that Driift has evolved to be, we think, the first kind of specialist producer and promoter of live events that is focused on delivering live events truly tailored to the digital era.”

Driift, he explains, has become adept at promoting live events, even if they happen to be streams.

“There’s not a huge amount of difference for us to be able to then add an audience in the room and promote it physically as well,” he says. “That’s not a huge leap.”

Catching Driift
Gareth Gardner
– Catching Driift
Magazine London, a new event space in the British capital, opened in September 2019, and will host Driift’s presentation of The Smile.

A logical evolution, perhaps, but still one that required some ingenuity. For years before the pandemic, touring artists, particularly in the jam band space, simulcast performances for fans who couldn’t attend in the flesh. The streams were notoriously static, because camera crews didn’t want to impede the experiences of in-person crowds; one major advancement of pandemic-era livestreaming from empty venues was the creativity that directors were able to employ once they didn’t have to work around physical audiences.

In fact, when Salmon connected in Driift’s early days with Paul Dugdale, who has directed concert films and broadcasts for numerous high-profile artists, including Adele’s recent TV special from L.A.’s Griffith Observatory and Coldplay’s Amazon-streamed opening night performance at Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena, the esteemed filmmaker called audience-less shoots “the holy grail,” because they have no restrictions for camera placements. A paying audience, for instance, would be irate if a director set up shop in front of a lead singer’s face for the entirety of a performance, solely for the benefit of remote viewers.

Dugdale is on board for The Smile’s shows at Magazine, and helped conceptualize a production that will seem tailored to both in-person attendees and streaming fans. (A film is also being planned that will feature highlights from the three shows and behind-the-scenes footage.)

Magazine opened in September 2019, and The Smile will play the facility’s largest room, an 18,740-square-foot warehouse-like space with a general admission capacity of 3,000. Only 1,250 people will be admitted for each performance, where they’ll occupy seating banks erected around the small circular stage where the band will perform. Nine cameras “placed in quite discreet areas,” per Salmon, will capture the performance without distracting the audience in the room.

Driift needed a venue that was “a blank canvas,” Salmon says, because “every single aspect of this show has been built bespoke by us.”

The stream will broadcast to homes via Dreamstage, but some remote fans will also have the opportunity to experience the performances at independent cinemas and venues thanks to Driift’s partnership with Rippla, a company that curates and distributes live and on-demand content to physical venues. More than 80 locations, about half in Europe and half in U.S. cities ranging from Omaha, Neb., to Akron, Ohio, will air the shows for fans looking for that extra oomph that’s tough to get from a laptop or a TV.

(In The) Round Midnight
Gareth Gardner
– (In The) Round Midnight
Magazine’s primary room, pictured empty, will be transformed into a seated, in-the-round performance space for The Smile, which will stage three shows there on the evening of Jan. 29 and the morning of Jan. 30, at 8 p.m., 1 a.m. and 11 a.m. local time.

“Some people prefer a physical experience, but you can’t tour the whole world,” Mas says.

Essentially, Rippla allows fans in more far-flung locations – the types of markets where tours don’t always stop, especially higher-profile ones – to still enjoy concerts with a professional-grade audio-visual experience. Or, in The Smile’s case, any fan who wasn’t among the lucky 3,750 to score in-person tickets to one of the band’s three concerts.

Driift’s partnerships with Dice, Dreamstage and Rippla indicate the company’s business strategy, which differs from some of its competitors.

“We are the promoter, marketer, producer; we’re really the central people who are organizing it,” Mas says. “But we’ve always partnered as much as we can with experts in their field, because we’re not tech people as such. We’re mostly curators and promoters and really come at it from a management and an artistic mindset first. … It’s not the tech that’s making people excited, it’s really the creative. That gave us the flexibility to understand the benefits of working with everybody.”

The “fiendishly complicated” Smile shows, as Salmon describes them, are the culmination of nearly two years of work by Driift to reimagine streaming events and their role in the live sector, and he and Mas hope that The Smile’s approach might be a model for others.

“A mix of these concepts working in tandem, working in parallel, somewhere in that lies the future,” Salmon says. “Look at what we’re doing with The Smile. What would be the alternative? Launching a band, OK, they put a couple singles out, they put an album out, then they go on tour. We’ve been doing that for 40 years in the music industry. We’ve got to start thinking outside the box a bit more.”

It makes sense that The Smile embraced an unconventional model, given Yorke and Greenwood’s extensive history of experimentation – with both music and business – in Radiohead.

“There are just some of those artists that are truly just always going to be creative and will be accepting to change and be looking for change,” Mas says. “It doesn’t surprise me that they were like, ‘Fuck it, we’re going to do three shows live, and we’re going to do it this way.’ Because it’s so true to who they are and their identity and how they’re evolving and how they continue to evolve.”

As for the band’s third performance, which will take place at 11 a.m. in London so it can air live in Asian cities like Tokyo and Seoul at 8 p.m.?

“I would’ve never said to a band, ‘Would you like to play three times in 24 hours, and play at 1 a.m. and then wake up and play at 11?’” Mas says with a laugh. “I think that’s going to be the best one, because they’re going to be delirious – and people always play their best stuff when they’re delirious.”