Frank Ocean pulls off heist of the year with Apple exclusives

Frank Ocean pulls off heist of the year with Endless and Blonde


Frank Ocean Blonde on Apple Music
Frank Ocean pulls a fast one with his Apple Music exclusives, Endless and Blonde.
Screenshot: Cult of Mac

By Brandon Shaw

I know, you’re tired of hearing, “Frank Ocean’s new album is amazing!!!” Me too. I’m interested less in the album itself, and more in what it means for the future of music.

With a pair of Apple Music exclusives, Frank Ocean pulled a fast one on his old record label — and shook up the the entire record industry. It’s the latest indicator that Apple sits at the center of a rapidly evolving music industry, where rules and strategies are changing by the minute. Now everyone from Spotify to Universal Music Group is frantically trying to figure out what to do.

A bit of Frank Ocean history

Here’s a recap if you aren’t familiar with the back story: Frank Ocean released Channel Orange in 2012 to much acclaim. Everyone went bananas for it. He won all kinds of awards. He also gave a weird and really terrible performance at the Grammys (we’re talking Nick Jonas guitar solo bad).

In the four years since his first album (and in the last year in particular), ‘ol Frank has been teasing his next album, supposedly titled Boys Don’t Cry. Teaser release dates came and went, and Frank started to seem a bit like the boy who cried wolf. (Side note: The name of the album should be Boys Don’t Cry Wolf amirite???)

What happened last week

Frank Ocean Endless
Frank Ocean’s Endless is a “visual album” — and an Apple Music exclusive.
Photo: Frank Ocean

Last week, Ocean pulled off something that I’m calling a “Double-Beyoncé” with a hint of a “Classic Prince Two-Step” (more on that in a moment). On Friday, with no prior announcement, Ocean released a 45-minute “visual album” titled Endless as an Apple Music exclusive.

It’s basically one giant music video. Endless features 45 minutes of new music that’s part R&B, part hip-hop, part suuuuper chill, and all Frank Ocean.

endless clip
Endless is also part staircase-building tutorial. Not a joke.
Photo: Frank Ocean

Oh but wait, there’s more. After releasing what many people (just me) are calling, “a much longer, much more relaxed Thriller video,” Ocean released an entirely different album the very next day.

Back-to-back releases without any promo ahead of time? Now that’s what I call a Double-Beyoncé!

His new “audio album” is called Blonde and is an iTunes and Apple Music exclusive. But here’s the really fascinating thing: While Endless was released under the Def Jam label, Blonde was released independently under Ocean’s own label, coincidentally named Boys Don’t Cry.

Why does this matter? Apparently, by releasing the visual album Endless, Ocean fulfilled his contract with Def Jam.

What did he do to celebrate? He released an entirely new “actual album” as an Apple Music and iTunes exclusive the very next day.

Apple Music exclusives matter

Apple Music has been making a name for itself, primarily through streaming exclusives. Apple has had a head start on releases by artists like Chance The Rapper, Drake, Adele (and the Stranger Things soundtrack) — and reportedly pays top dollar for the exclusives.

Increasingly, services like Apple Music and Tidal are setting themselves apart with these streaming exclusives and becoming more powerful than the labels themselves. Why take a record deal with Def Jam when you can get an exclusive streaming deal with Apple?

This isn’t to say that Endless is particularly bad, but a music video won’t climb the Billboard charts, and doesn’t deliver the same profitability of a regular audio album (you know, like the one Ocean had in his back pocket the whole time).

A recap of Frank Ocean’s last few years

Blonde Frank Ocean
Frank Ocean’s “audio album” is the real deal.
Image: Wikipedia/fair use

Let’s recap the Frank Ocean story:

2012: Signs to Def Jam. Releases Channel Orange. Everyone loves it.
2013: Chillin. “You guys wanna hear more?”
2014: Chillin. “My new album is coming guys!”
2015: Chillin. “Coming so soon! It’s gonna be amazing!”
2016: Chillin. “I swear! #boysdontcry”
Last Friday: “Check out my new visual album! Hey Def Jam, we good?”
Last Saturday: “Check out my actual album. Hey Apple Music, sup!”

#nochill. This dude basically just sidestepped his existing recording contract by pulling a pretty sneaky move; he technically fulfilled his contract, but then immediately released another album on the side. Now that’s what I call a Classic Prince Two-Step. (In order to get out a of a recording contract, Prince famously changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol, effectively two-stepping around a tricky legal battle).

Who wins? And who loses?

Here’s a list of winners and losers in this scenario, from most winningest to least.

Most winningest: Frank Ocean fans, for getting a double dose of new music after years of teasing.
Also winning: Frank Ocean, for being sneaky and releasing his new album independently as an Apple Music exclusive (and presumably making much more money).
Still winning: Apple Music, for locking down yet another exclusive. Two, in fact. People will sign up just to stream Blonde and Endless.
Losing: Spotify, for being a sore loser and claiming that exclusives are “bad for artists, bad for consumers, and bad for the whole industry.” Please.
Biggest loser: Def Jam, for missing out on Ocean’s real album, and instead getting what basically amounts to a really long Home Depot commercial (albeit with a dope soundtrack).

What does it all mean?

Is Apple Music the new record label? Will artists cut out the middle man and start leaving traditional labels for greener pastures? We’ll have to wait and see. All I know is, Frank Ocean managed to pull off the heist of the year.

Oh, by the way, have you heard about Frank Ocean’s new “movie album” coming out?

frank ocean's eleven
It’s the logical next step.
Original image: Warner Bros. Pictures

Brandon Shaw is a bearded, coffee-drinking, blogging, freelance musician in the Los Angeles area.