The other week Frank Ocean released his visual album ‘Endless’ on Apple Music and fans were perplexed. Twenty-four hours later, the New Orleans rapper announced the locations of a string of pop up shops containing his zine ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ and people became excited. Then, upon scuffling for their own copies of the ultimate hipster mag, they noticed Ocean’s second album attached, and lost their shit. ‘Blond’ on the album artwork, or ‘Blonde’ as it’s named on Apple Music, another needlessly confusing move, has just become the latest deviation off the conventional track to releasing an album.
Too many names, too much content if you ask me, but at a time when people opt for instant gratification and something ‘edgy’ from their favourite artists, it seems we’ve already forgotten about the twelve track CDs stocked up in our glove compartments. Ocean hasn’t just yet, using the medium of zine to spread a few 17-track CDS, but it was all about the hype that led up to the release.
Whilst it might be the most excruciatingly long-winded album campaign I’ve ever witnessed, albeit meticulously done, it’s not the first time a record release has shifted the way we listen to, think about and in this case watch music. It’s perhaps most apt to start with Bob Dylan’s 1966 double album, hailed by Rolling Stone magazine as “rock’s first great double album”, stretching to fourteen songs long. Its title: ‘Blonde on Blonde’. Exactly fifty years on, Ocean may well be making a nod towards one of the first pioneers to flip the album on its head.
There are few artists these days who can reach the plateau of greats simply by setting a release date, releasing fifty percent of tracks beforehand, and telling the media what to expect from the other half, leaving nothing to the imagination. Earlier this year, Kanye West ran riot with his album ‘The Life of Pablo’, stalling the release date due to creative flaws and providing disastrous self-promotion on Twitter. He went from granting exclusivity to his pal, Jay-Z’s, TIDAL, to going back on his word, giving the album to rival streamers Spotify and iTunes, but still no CD. Like Ocean though, West didn’t stop there. Following the release of TLOP, he unleashed two cinematic videos for ‘Wolves’ and ‘Famous’, the latter, an elaborate post-orgy scene of West’s friends and foes in Madame Tussauds form, lasting three times longer than a standard music video.
For those yet to use up their free TIDAL subscription, because paying for it seemed dumb at the time, another surprise was around the corner when fellow elite-musician Beyonce convinced fans to sit and watch her thirst-quenching hour long epic visual album, ‘Lemonade’. Jay-Z caved and passed the album to other platforms, similar happening with Rihanna’s ‘Anti’, which only stayed on the site for a week. But above all, the biggest coup for TIDAL however, is being the only home to Prince’s back catalogue.
So how do Apple Music combat the exclusivity ruining music? Well, they had this year’s releases from Drake and Radiohead before anyone else but delve deeper into their music library and you’ll begin to realise that 2016 isn’t the first year streaming sites have used these tactics. In 2004 Apple released an iPod loaded with U2’s full back catalogue, and ten years later conducted a similar trick, pumping the Irish rockers thirteenth studio album ‘Songs of Innocence’ into the iTunes libraries of over 500 million customers, for free. It was the biggest album release in history, and one of the most memorable for all the wrong reasons.
The use of technology is what’s making album releases more unique. Atlanta rapper Raury knows how to get millennials excited about new music; by making it free and fun. The 20-year-old released his first mix tape ‘Indigo Child’ for zilch. The catch: reach a certain score on his glitchy online video game. Less in touch with the modern world was Paul McCartney, who having seen the record, tape and soon to be CD all decline, released his first digital album in 2007. The unique selling point; fans would have to come together over a brew to purchase the record which was shelved in Starbucks.
It’s probably only a matter of time before visual albums are homed on Snapchat, with ten second snippets at a time but then after visual music is outdated, will our other senses become exploited? Imagine if Arctic Monkeys ‘Suck It and See’ had actually been a tasty treat, or Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ had whiffed of lager and B.O. So, whilst Frank Ocean’s methods are pretty neat, they’re just the latest examples of changing the way we digest new music. Expect more complex album releases to come, and make sure to save up those free streaming trials.
Words by Josh Shreeve