Just five years into his solo career, Frank Ocean has established himself as one of the great outliers of the modern music business. The 28-year-old singer set off a tsunami of media attention last week by releasing two albums in three days — the streaming-only Endless, followed by Blonde — with virtually none of the traditional marketing moves that accompany most album releases today. Powered by a decidedly un-traditional marketing campaign — both albums are exclusively available on Apple Music, but Blonde was also made available in pop-up stores along with an ambitious 360-page limited edition magazine called Boys Don’t Cry — Ocean has continued the powerful personal narratives of independence, artistic integrity and refusal to compromise that he began with 2012’s landmark Channel Orange.
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“He’s speaking from his heart,” says music marketing company Cornerstone co-CEO and Fader co-founder Jon Cohen, speaking of Ocean’s messages. “He is a rare breed. So many artists today are so contrived, paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong move and everything is based on industry [considerations] like, ‘Is radio going to like this? Is my label going to like this?’ The best artists in the world have one thing in common: they go with their instincts.” In Ocean’s case, those instincts helped chip away at long-entrenched barriers — both in a business sense with Blonde and in the case of Channel Orange, societal.
“Four summers ago, I met somebody. I was 19 years old. He was too,” Ocean wrote in a July 4, 2012 (not coincidentally Independence Day) Tumblr post and a week before his major-label debut Channel Orange dropped. “We spent that summer, and the summer after, together…. Most of the day I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him. By the time I realized I was in love, it was malignant. It was hopeless. There was no escaping, no negotiation with the feeling. No choice. It was my first love, it changed my life.”
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Ocean’s poetic posting was radical — no mainstream male artist so closely associated with hip-hop had ever come out. “For a young African American artist to say they were gay and associated with rap music was a big deal,” says Steve Stoute, CEO of brand development and marketing firm Translation and author of The Tanning of America: How Hip-Hop Created a Culture That Rewrote the Rules of the New Economy. “Doing that and saying that was an outlier, and it played a role in a lot of music that came afterwards.”
For Ocean to cut through circumscribed demographics and reach beyond hardcore fans, as marketers will tell you, depends entirely on that most hackneyed of marketing-speak terms liberally used but rarely quantified: “authenticity.” That Channel Orange went to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and sold 686,000 copies to date according to Nielsen Music, however, speaks volumes about the “authentic” connection Ocean was able to establish with fans despite what some considered his controversial message.
“There’s a new way artists connect with fans and it’s organic, authentic and direct,” says Tammy Brook, a brand strategist and market expert and owner of FYI Brand Communications whose clients include DJ Khaled, Desiigner, Tyga, and Anderson Paak, among others. “Fans are no longer waiting on corporations and traditional media and advertising formulas to move the needle. It’s more powerful to have a direct line of communication with an artist, which is facilitated by a wave of social media affording artists opportunities to tell their fans what they want directly in their own voice. It’s changed everything.”
Ironically, Ocean hasn’t posted on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook — the three most popular social platforms — in over three years, although he occasionally has been active on Tumblr.
But for all that, the biggest story around Endless / Blonde is actually the business angle–for which he has yet to utter a single word. While it did not become clear until a couple of days after the albums dropped, Ocean and his business team had managed to extract him from his contract with Def Jam, a label he had lambasted (along with many of his other former business associates) for lack of support. Exact details have yet to emerge, but sources tell Billboard that a benefactor bought Ocean out his contract, and that Endless fulfilled his legal obligations to Def Jam — which was apparently unaware that Ocean would release Blonde two days later, independently, through Apple Music. There’s little doubt that his move played a large role in Universal chairman Lucian Grainge’s edict banning the company’s artists from streaming exclusives.
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For the second album cycle in a row, Ocean’s story of struggle and liberation — albeit this time in more of a business than personal sense — became its own dramatic story perfectly timed to his album releases. His seemingly out-maneuvering a major label was covered extensively by national media and blogs alike and added a layer of intrigue that could only have helped in the marketing of Blonde and its first week climb to the top of the Billboard 200.
“I think that he plays the chaos card really well,” says Stoute. “I give a lot of credit to him as a business man and his manager Mark [Gillespie] at Three Six Zero and Larry Jackson at Apple — they obviously saw an opportunity a while back and prepared for it.”
In fact, Stoute says, Ocean’s move laid bare many long-simmering challenges the music industry has faced for decades. “There needs to be some radical change [in the business],” he continues. “Artists believe they’re making hits and they’re not getting paid; record companies are trying to figure out how streaming services can get deeper penetration so they can get revenues back they’ve lost; and the artists are looking at the labels who own the services and saying, ‘What’s my cut of that?’ There’s an overall level distrust and financial strain. What you’re seeing right now is a period of time where the business is going to undergo radical change.'”
Sure Ocean could have shifted more units if he’d played by traditional music-business rules. As Stoute notes, Ocean is critically acclaimed but has not quite yet moved superstar numbers: While Blonde racked up the third-biggest first-week numbers of 2016, its 276,000 album-equivalent units are far behind Drake‘s 1.04 million first-week sales of Views and less than half of Beyonce‘s 653,000 for Lemonade.
But in case anyone hasn’t figured it out, Ocean isn’t interested in that game. “If he’d had Spotify and the whole streaming world behind him and the label had been involved, I think it could have been bigger,” says Cohen, “but considering what it was, it’s a big success. He doesn’t have pop radio support and mass awareness the way Drake or Rihanna does, so they did an incredible job.”