Frank Ocean is, without dispute, one of the most fearless artists of our age.
Certainly there are no shortage of other artists pushing the boundaries of creativity to the breaking point. Members of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot were sentenced to two years in a penal colony for performing an anti-Putin song in a Moscow cathedral, and despite his staggering international renown, we still don’t know the true identity of Banksy.
Those are just two off-the-cuff examples among thousands of artists defying commercial, artistic and political limitations to a depth that even the almighty Ocean has yet to swim, but Ocean also sits in an extremely rare position.
Both the outsider and the GRAMMY-award winner, the recluse and the platinum seller, Ocean shoulders the unique burden of attempting to break convention while millions scream-tweet their demands for his art, and the weight of expectation and pressure had to feel suffocating at times. Perhaps all the time.
The easier, completely understandable response to that kind of pressure is to simply never release anything at all (see also, Detox, Andre 3000, etc.), and for years it appeared as if Ocean was heading down a similar path, but over the last three days he proved to be the rarest of exceptions; the recluse who willingly leaps back into the spotlight.
Not only did Ocean return, but he did so on his own terms. This wasn’t a surprise album release, and it wasn’t even a surprise album release paired with a visual film or Madison Square Garden runway show, a la Lemonade or The Life of Pablo. This was a cryptic, Endless visual album of Ocean building a staircase that, given the fervor for new music from the man, bordered on trolling, followed by an album release, Blond, that’s sure to go down as one the year’s best, paired with a magazine release, Boys Don’t Cry, that served as an extension of the album, or vice-versa.
Turns out the man had much more than just twooo versions.
Whether Ocean actually intended to teach the world a lesson about patience and respecting the artistic process or not, the effect was a powerful poke in the eye to both commercial and fan expectation, a multimedia experience that, without exaggeration, helps redefine not just what an “album release” can look like, but what it looks like the be an artist in 2016. Far more so than even the aforementioned Kanye West, Ocean is seemingly beholden to no one’s vision, demands or constraints but his own.
Except…for Apple Music.
Even though Ocean put out Blond as a joint venture with his own label, Boys Don’t Cry, even though he gave away the Boys Don’t Cry magazine for free, even though he spent years crafting a complex artistic work that was clearly unconcerned with any workings of the traditional music industry, when it came to distributing his visual and sonic work, he turned to the largest publicly traded corporation in the world.
We couldn’t have asked for anything more from Frank Ocean, it’s completely unfair to ask for more, but I still can't help but have hoped for more.
To paraphrase David Foster Wallace’s paraphrasing, two young goldfish are swimming in a tank when an older goldfish passes them and says, “Water’s warm today, huh boys?” In response, the two young goldfish turn to each other and ask, “What’s water?”
Distribution to artists is often water to goldfish, a fundamental necessity so pervasive, so all-encompassing that it often goes unthought about. And for all of Ocean’s fearless creativity, for all the wars he waged over artistic and commercial freedom, for all the countless hours (actually, if we do count there have been more than 3,600 hours between Channel Orange and Blond) spent gathering collaborators and meticulously tweaking mixes, releasing the project through Apple Music, or Spotify, or TIDAL, or any company fighting not for art but for market share, feels distinctly and jarringly like a business decision, a capitulation to the “new rules” that are really just the old rules under a new URL.
Releasing his album through Apple Music brings up more issues than the ones we've already heard in terms of exclusivity shutting out fans, although there’s certainly a case to be made there. On an artist-level, artists are also allowing giant corporations to control all their consumer data in a way they would never allow a record label to control their music.
Apple, or any streaming company, knows exactly who listens to Blond. They know their email address and their age and where they live and how much they make a year and much more, information that’s the true reason Apple has a music streaming platform at all. That’s enormously valuable information Frank Ocean could use to directly reach fans, furthering enabling him to make the kind of art his supporters love with even less corporate interference, but Frank Ocean has no idea who the millions of people who listed to his own album are.
Signing an exclusive deal with a streaming platform is money I would never deny an artist, but that’s short term money. Apple’s willing to pay for a release because it knows that over the long term the data they collect from that streaming will make them millions, not thousands, and artists deserve their own millions, not thousands, for supplying the art that generates that revenue.
Of course it’s part of BitTorrent’s mission to transform the way artists distribute their art to the world, and it’s worth saying that BitTorrent does transparently share data with artists, but I don’t want the larger point to become lost in a self-serving fog.
My larger point is that, while I’m aware that creating powerful, amazing art is hard enough without also having to think about, and potentially construct, distribution channels, this is the age we find ourselves enveloped in. Controlling their own art, as every artist should, without any control over how that art is experienced and consumed is like a master chef cooking for a restaurant they can never set foot in.
It’s no coincidence, then, that the two artists who epitomize control own your artistic destiny, Louis CK and Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino), have also created their own distribution channels. From Glover’s Pharos app to Louis’ Horace and Pete film, they’ve proven there’s a highly profitable market for art and experiences made outside corporate channels, and artists like Gambino understand that the programmers and designers who build and program their sites and apps are just as integral to their teams as their producers and cinematographers and the people making the art itself.
Ocean is far from alone. Breaking free from traditional distribution is the next evolutionary step for Chance the Rapper, Tech N9ne, Kendrick Lamar and many more artists who have already broken every other barrier once assumed to the insurmountable. Hopefully the next time around Frank Ocean will transform the way we experience his art as powerfully as he’s transformed the art we experience, and that's when we'll start to see, and hear, real change.
If history is any indication we’ve got about four years before that happens. I'll be waiting - patiently.
[By Nathan Slavik, @refinedhype]