The agonising lead-up to Frank Ocean’s double-whammy album release was a well-worked exercise in exploiting fanbase intrigue to generate massive social chatter from the slightest twinge of activity.
Surprise album releases have gone from exciting and fresh to tacky and maddening in an equally surprising space of time. Since Radiohead and Beyonce popularised the idea of dropping albums with little to no warning, many other artists including David Bowie, Drake and My Bloody Valentine have adopted the out-of-the-blue approach.
For fans, this musical carrot-dangling is the ultimate frustration, knowing that their favourite artists are close to finishing new material but being completely in the dark about when they'll actually hear it.
Musicians love it though; it cuts out the potential for troublesome leaks, gains the edge on pesky critics who only hear the music when their fans do, all the while enjoying a sudden spike in online mentions and the high likelihood of gaining a valuable spot in those much sought-after 'trending' sections.
However, one guy has stretched their fans' patience so thin with persistent teasing that some threatened to boycott any new album, should one ever emerge. That man is Frank Ocean (born Christopher Edwin Breaux) who has just released two new albums after an agonising four-year wait, and - be it intentional or not - demonstrated masterful skills in teaser marketing.
[Image credit: billboard.com]
Thinkin’ ‘bout Frank
Ocean's debut studio album 'channel ORANGE' topped many 'album of the year' lists at the end of 2012 but since then, fans grew increasingly desperate for new music from Frank.
Their thirst was temporarily quenched yet immediately fuelled by sporadic - sometimes minimal - guest spots on records from Kanye West, Beyonce, James Blake, John Mayer and Earl Sweatshirt, and to all extents, Frank was a ghost, sidestepping the limelight, only appearing in public for a modest scattering of live dates.
In April 2014 - almost two years after the release of ‘channel ORANGE’ - Mr Ocean revealed that a follow-up was nearly ready, sending fans into a whirl. But twelve months later, there was no sign of it.
Was Frank suffering from ‘difficult second album syndrome’? Despite failing to explain the year-long delay, Frank suggested not, this time specifying a release month - July - and uploading a stripped-back track. It didn’t hit the same mesmeric heights as his debut full-length but it did hint at what direction Frank’s music was heading and proved he hadn’t just been playing video games the whole time.
July came and went and still, no new album, all the while Frank had become so elusive that some weren't even convinced that he was alive anymore.
Dazed Magazine even dubbed his disappearance ‘an act of pure genius’ and yet again, merely dangling a few flimsy details and half-promises before completely vanishing was enough to send music websites into a frenzy and spark another flurry of online chatter.
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Too many white lies
Frank’s Tumblr featured brief and infrequent posts, mostly nothing to do with the new album until July 2016 when he issued an image of a library card, headed 'DATE DUE' and stamped with various dates.
It seemed logical to assume that the 17 date stamps represented previously scheduled release dates for the album, which had now been unofficially named 'Boys Don't Cry', in honour of a magazine that would be released to accompany the album.
One of the future dates on the card suggested that album would see the light of day on Friday 29 July 2016. This was never confirmed by Frank's camp but that didn't stop #WhereIsFrank trending on Twitter while Frank Ocean became one of the most googled terms on the planet that day.
The lack of confirmation also didn’t stop the music media and fans cranking up the hype and treating the 29 July release date like gospel truth. Unsurprisingly, the date passed without new music.
Frustration had mounted so much that even Snapchat was sick of waiting, adding two Ocean-themed filters to vent its disgruntlement.
One of the more bizarre marketing moves came in early August when Apple Music hosted a monochrome livestream from inside a bare workshop. To cut a long story short, Ocean was building a spiral staircase - “a stairway to heaven in real time” as artist Tom Sachs explained that “things made by hand take time”.
Footage from this stream would be used for a 40-minute 18-track visual album called ‘Endless’, released on Friday 19 September exclusively through Apple’s music streaming service and effectively ending Ocean’s musical drought. With the relief came more anticipation as Apple Music told fans to expect more from Frank over the weekend.
Just 24 hours later, another album emerged. The 17-track ‘Blonde’ was considered the proper follow-up to ‘channel ORANGE’, and came backed with a video for opener ‘Nikes’. The Sunday saw pop-up shops in London, New York, and Chicago sell an alternate version of ‘Blonde’ with the image-led Boys Don’t Cry magazine, which contained a bonkers poem penned by Kanye West about McDonald’s food forming a band. Quite.
Just a guy, not a god
Very little about the albums’ release was conventional and once people heard them, the scrappy roll-out made sense with the albums’ scrapbook feel and seemingly half-baked ideas.
However, supporters of the albums pointed to Frank’s reputation for being a perfectionist, arguing that he would never release something that fell short of his vision, especially considering how much time it had devoured. It’d certainly explain the numerous delays.
So what can content marketers learn from Ocean’s convoluted album roll-out? It’s cliche to say but two over-used mantras are central here: ‘less is more’ and ‘follow your vision’.
Especially in the world of social media, it’s easy to get carried away and push your content too hard. However, if you’re really as good as you believe, then well-timed, well-judged messages are the sign of a confident and well-informed organisation.
Take the time to fine-tune your content, obviously not four years on a single tweet, but investing a worthy amount of time to streamline your message speaks volumes.
Also, if you’re good enough, people will wait. When Snapchat recently had its thunder stolen by the launch of Instagram Stories, it proved yet again that being the first doesn’t mean you’re the best. Nor does it mean that you can’t catch up and steal the show. Just do what you do and worry about your rivals later.