Okkervil River Bucks the Traditional Album Cycle With Fan-Focused Live Album Subscription Series

Hubert Vestil/Getty Images for SXSW
Will Sheff of Okkervil River performs onstage at NPR during SXSW at Stubb's Bar-B-Q on March 14, 2018 in Austin.

“The band is part of a continuum that’s existing with the fans and if we all work together we can create stuff that they’re going to like and they can provide us with the money to make it," says Will Sheff.

Okkervil River's sound can shift more between two projects than many entire bands' career. Bandleader Will Sheff is constantly changing his style and surrounding players, and that experimentation -- coupled with his smart, soulful, and sardonic lyrics -- has helped Okkervil River retain relevance for two decades. Now, as a celebration of the Austin-based outfit's growth and devoted fanbase, Sheff is in the midst of releasing a dozen digital live albums -- one per month -- as part of a new subscription series titled A Dream in the Dark. Last month he shared Orchestral in 2007 and on Wednesday (June 12) released A Room in Austin, 2000

“For better or worse, I’m always a pretty ambitious person. I try to do conceptually big things,” Sheff tells Billboard. “I like to do things that are neither fish nor fowl, that have a foot in several different conceptual worlds and mediums.”

The initiative, which has nearly 700 subscribers, is the latest innovative move from Sheff, who has released a videogame based on Okkervil River's 2013 album, The Silver Gymnasium, and several free live records as part of his Golden Opportunities series. The Dream in the Dark albums can be purchased individually or through one of two subscription packages: Golden Dreams at $125 and Silver Ship at $75. Both come with a T-shirt of artist William Schaff's A Dream in the Dark cover design, three Schaff prints and an embroidered patch of the earliest Okkervil River logo from 1998; the higher-priced tier also includes handwritten and personally mailed song lyrics by Sheff, and pre-sale access to a summer 2019 "Requests & Rarities" show, plus a song request. 

The albums are not being released in chronological order: The first is an orchestra-backed set from 2007, while the second is one of the band’s earliest shows, recorded with a single mic in its hometown of Austin. Sheff says he deliberately decided to not have the release schedule sync up with the years of the records in order to really emphasize how many different iterations of Okkervil River have existed.

“[A chronological release] is interesting because you can watch us grow and change in real time, but that doesn’t really capture how dramatic some of the changes were,” he says. “It’s like boiling a frog: when it’s slowly getting warmer and warmer, you can’t really tell.”

A Dream in the Dark is the latest auteur-driven subscription project, more like a modern-day version of Columbia Records' mail-order records club, Columbia House, than the subscription services currently offered by giants like Apple Music and Spotify (where, coincidentally, these albums are not available). Other examples include Twin PeaksSweet ‘17 Singles release, Americana artist Drew Holcomb’s Magnolia Record Club, and reissue luminaries the Numero Group’s 2018 vinyl project The Original Formula. These moves are in part inspired by the way that music has changed in the streaming era, making the traditional album release cycle feel increasingly less relevant.

“For a really long time we had the single and then the album, which was just a way to squeeze more money out of the single. And then those things kind of became codified as forms that we were always going to use, but they were pretty arbitrary,” Sheff explains. “I love albums, but when people get sad about [them going away] you are mourning a slightly arbitrary form.”

Okkervil River formed in 1998 and released its first album, Don’t Fall in Love with Everyone You See, in 2002. It has seen several permutations since then, with Sheff the only consistent member. A Dream in the Dark captures the band at various points throughout its career and Sheff says the climate around some of the shows is easily detectable in the music.

“The 2016 one is going to, by default, have a lot of the anxious, scary qualities of 2016 encoded into it,” he says.

Songs repeat over the course of the releases, some as many as five times, according to Sheff. He stresses the importance of having different iterations that range from technically precise takes to stripped-down, deconstructed versions.

“You look at how Bob Dylan frequently changes up the way he performs things," he says. "You look at how every Nina Simone performance was like she was reliving the song and reimagining it from the inside out, or you look at the Grateful Dead and the way the recorded material is almost like a template and then the live material is an expansion on that. That’s an attitude I’ve always had about performance.”

As a songwriter, Sheff says he was eager to deviate from the traditional style of releasing just one “canonically accepted version” of a track: that which appears on a studio album. “You write a song and record it and the song only has one existence, which is as a recording, but it’s also a piece of writing. It’s nice to think of a song as having a life as a piece of writing where it could be presented in multiple ways.”

Sheff notes the sustained success of Okkervil River is an anomaly and he says that his career “straddles the death of a certain version of the music business.” He is acutely aware that the band’s continued relevance comes from its committed fans, whom he plans to give special tributes to as A Dream in the Dark progresses. The artist explains he and many of his peers are seeking to strengthen and pay homage to their dedicated supporters, the people who continue to show up to tours in mid-sized rooms around the country and make the dream of being a professional musician attainable.

“We lost sight of that and so there’s definitely a hunger that I perceive from people to take back this sense of, ‘We’re going to have a pact with the fans,’” he said. “The band is part of a continuum that’s existing with the fans and if we all work together we can create stuff that they’re going to like and they can provide us with the money to make it. We don’t need to take over the world."